My original plan had been to watch and review Neecha Nagar, and follow it up by watching and reviewing Kurosawa’s Donzoko (also based on The Lower Depths). By the time I’d read Gorky’s play and seen Neecha Nagar, that plan had changed a bit—because I was feeling sorely in need of a funny film.
La Grande Guerra was what I chose, because it had come highly recommended by friends whose judgment I trust.
La Grande Guerra (‘The Great War’) is about the Great War—World War I.
The film begins in 1916. Europe is caught in the grip of the war, and Italy is calling up men to join. Long lines of men snake across the streets and into the offices where the military are enlisting men. At one of these offices, Giovanni Busacca (Vittorio Gassman) stands arrogantly in line, and looks about for a means of getting himself out of having to enlist.
His eye falls on an orderly, busy trimming his nails, standing on the other side of the room. Busacca saunters across to him.
This man (Alberto Sordi) is a Roman named Oreste Iacovacci. Busacca, who’s from Milan, is instantly disdainful: “The Italian in the infantry, the Roman in the orderly room.” Iacovacci looks least bothered, probably because he knows what’s coming.
“30 liras,” says Iacovacci, and Busacca, after some haggling, agrees—but the money will be handed over only after Busacca’s work has been done. Iacovacci instructs him to get back in line, while he, Iacovacci, goes to the officer sitting at the desk at the head of the queue.
Busacca watches as Iacovacci bends over, talking earnestly to the officer, pointing towards Busacca. The officer looks up too, then nods vigorously. Work done.
And Busacca waits in line, blissfully unaware that Iacovacci had actually gone to the officer and asked if he might close that window over there—next to that tall man—and that the officer, looking towards Busacca, towards whom Iacovacci had pointed, had nodded. With the result, of course, that a most unwilling (and furious) Busacca ends up in the army.
He cribs through the mandatory training, spending most of his time trying to hoodwink the sergeant or making fun of him. Eventually, the time comes for Busacca and his colleagues to board the train to the border…
…and who should our hero find sitting just behind him but the crooked Iacovacci, now also headed for the front? Busacca leaps at him, and there’s a mad rush as the two of them race—Iacovacci just a few steps ahead—through the train, and then on top of it. They eventually come to an exhausted stop, collapsing and still cursing each other, but holding a brief (almost genial) conversation as they eventually sit down on the roof of the stationary train.
They’re still sitting there when another train draws in, from the opposite direction. The train Busacca and Iacovacci are in is packed with soldiers: men standing at the doors, hanging out of windows, watching the other train steam in.
The other train is very different. It’s painted white, with big crosses (which I’m guessing would have been red, had the film being in colour) down the sides and painted on each of the whited-out windows. It’s silent, with not one human being visible. A reminder of where Busacca and Iacovacci and the others are headed—and how some of them might return.
That, basically, is what La Grande Guerra is about. On the one hand, there are our two protagonists, who are almost totally without scruple, have no wish to fight for country or honour or any other high ideals, and whose only aim in life right now is to save their skins. (And possibly make some money when and where they can while they’re about it).
On the other hand, there is the harsh reality of war. As they head closer and closer to where the battles are actually being fought, the cocooned existence of Busacca, Iacovacci and their ‘new recruit’ friends takes a beating. On the march, they see a small group of soldiers suddenly summoned to form a firing squad to dispose of an Austrian spy. They see battered, wounded, dirty men arrive—back from the front, for a brief rest before they go back.
And they come to know some of the people around them. There is Rosario (Tiberio Murgia), for example, who is completely besotted with the film actress Francesca Bertini, and has gone so far as to write her adoring letters.
There is their lieutenant, Gallina (Romolo Valli), an experienced soldier—but not hardened enough to be always only an officer for his men. He even acts as the letter-writer and letter-reader for an illiterate young soldier, who corresponds with his sweetheart back in the village. The young man dictates the letters, which Gallina writes. And when the replies arrive—written by the village priest back home, dictated by the girl—Gallina reads them out.
Then, there’s the seasoned old soldier Bordin (Folco Lulli), who has a wife and five children back home to support. To supplement his pay, he takes on tasks nobody else wants to do. Whenever volunteers are required for a particularly hazardous mission, Bordin guesses whom the officers will pick if there are no volunteers. And he always makes sure that he makes a deal with the most likely ‘volunteer’ beforehand, asking for a measly 10 liras in exchange.
10 liras for a life. The expected ‘volunteers’ are more than ready to accept the offer, and Bordin puts the money into his little cache, to be sent off to his wife. Then he heads off—to lay mines or whatever. He has years of experience, and he’s an especially astute man. But will his luck hold? And for how long?
The opposite of him is their second lieutenant, the young and very green Lorenzi (Mario Valdemarin), who has yet a lot to learn about battle.
[A very poignant episode illustrates the difference between the lieutenant and Bordin. It is winter, and the men are holed up in trenches, amidst the snow, with the Austrians entrenched just across. A messenger arrives, racing from one meagre bit of shelter to another, and is forced to stop in the lee of a broken wall, because the Austrians turn their machine gun on him and open fire. When the messenger tries to emerge from his shelter, Bordin yells: “Wait! Let them finish the magazine!”
The lieutenant immediately countermands Bordin’s order, saying that the message may be an important one. “Jump!” he calls out, and the messenger obeys—only to be ripped up by Austrian bullets.
And that all-important message? Headquarters, wishing the men a merry Christmas. With instructions to the officers to distribute chocolate and grappa to the men. A man dead, for chocolate and grappa and Christmas wishes.]
In the midst of all of this—before he reaches the front, and during those brief interludes when he comes ‘back’ for rest—Busacca meets a woman. Costantina (Silvana Mangano) is a prostitute in a seedy little town along the way to the front. Busacca first sees her when she’s trying to chase away the dozens of soldiers under her window (she’s the only whore in town)…
…and he decides to try for a more innovative approach, which consists of accosting her while she’s walking home at night. He follows it up with some flirtation (at which Busacca is especially adept) and some teasing (he asks her if she’s the local school teacher, or the colonel’s daughter)—and ends up being invited to have dinner with her in her room—boiled potatoes sprinkled with some salt; that’s all there is.
By the time he leaves the next morning, Busacca rather likes this woman, and she seems to feel the same way. It isn’t infatuation, it is definitely not love—but it’s something more than the indifference of a professional interaction. Friendship, perhaps.
It’s a friendship that grows, because Busacca and Costantina meet again, when he returns to the town, and later still.
All the while, too, Busacca and Iacovacci are trying their best to survive. They’re both basically similar in their approach to life: don’t lose it. So, even if it means picking lice out of a camp bed, or some equally everyday (and unpleasant) task, they’re ready to volunteer for it. As long as it means staying out of the line of fire.
This, of course, leads to some very funny episodes.
…and, while the war is raging all around them, the regiment itself ends up in some hilarious situations. For example, they reach a point where they’ve been stagnating in the trenches, subsisting on either canned food or the watery stew and hard bread they’re served up. One fine day, someone spots a fat hen wandering about in front of the trenches. A hen!
Unfortunately, the hen is pecking about right in the middle, between the Italian trenches and the Austrian. And the Austrians spot the hen as soon as the Italians do. Both sides know that it would be suicidal to get out of the trench to go catch the hen; the only way is to attract the hen—make noises like a rooster, for instance—into their own trench. So we have a crazy concert, with the Italians crowing like mad from their trench, while the Austrians cluck and crow and do their best rooster imitations from theirs. Who will get the hen?
And more. There are other such incidents, as Busacca, Iacovacci, Bordin, their officers, and the rest of the men try somehow to keep their spirits up, and—most importantly—stay alive, even when they’re running up a hill, part of a charging regiment, straight towards the Austrian troops.
When I finished watching La Grande Guerra, I was reminded of a long-ago ‘conversation’, by letter, with an Australian friend. I had just watched the 1997 film Life is Beautiful, and had mentioned it to my friend. In his reply, he wrote that yes, he had heard much praise for the film, but was wary of seeing it. A comedy about the holocaust? There was something distasteful about the very thought.
I have seen funny films and TV series set during war, though—and all of them were total farces. That was what I’d been expecting from La Grande Guerra: the story of two no-good soldiers and how they try to shirk their way through the war. No resemblance to reality.
What I got, instead, was a beautifully crafted film that is funny in the main, but is also a touching look at the harsh, bloody reality of war, seen up close. This isn’t a war film in the style of Where Eagles Dare, which is smart, fast-paced, total adventure—and almost certainly pretty unrealistic. This is a war film from the trenches, where the men sit day after day, watching the rain pour down, wondering if they’re ever going to get reinforcements—and rejoicing over trifles like a hen, or a letter from Francesca Bertini herself.
The direction (by Mario Monicelli) is brilliant, the acting is excellent (Vittorio Gassman and Alberto Sordi, two of my favourite Italian actors, have especially good chemistry), and the depiction of wartime Italy is very believable.
What I didn’t like:
I had my misgivings when the farcical start to La Grande Guerra came to a screeching halt with that appearance of the hospital train. I thought then, like my friend had wondered about Life is Beautiful, if it would be an insensitive, upsetting experiment.
But it worked, because La Grande Guerra is, to my mind, not merely about war, but about people in crises, and the resilience of the human mind. Even stuck in impossibly desperate situations, the men of the 7th regiment (Busacca and Iacovacci’s regiment) do what people across the world do: they try to find happiness in the most mundane of things.
A handful of chestnuts, for instance, becomes a matter of discussion: they must be roasted, on a skillet with holes in the bottom. How will they punch holes in a skillet? Easy: brandish it above the trench and yell obscenities at the Austrians in the facing trenches—and they’ll respond, of course, with well-placed bullets.
This film is a fine example of a well thought-out, sensitive work which maintains its comic element, but manages also to portray the humanity of people. There are moments of poignancy, scenes where we realise that Busacca and Iacovacci, no matter how unprincipled, are still capable of being human. Human enough to look down from a cliff at an Austrian down below, and not shoot him, because he’s busy whistling as he drinks his coffee. Or human enough to be kind to a widow who doesn’t know her husband’s dead.
A sweet, touching, sad and funny film. Maybe I’ll write to my friend and let him know I’ve discovered another wartime comedy worth watching.
Little bit of trivia:
La Grande Guerra got an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film in 1959. Coincidentally, another Mario Monicelli-Vittorio Gassman comedy, the fantastic I Soliti Ignoti, had been nominated for the same award the previous year.