When it opened in Paris there were only two or three people in the theater,” Jean-Luc Godard once said of his anti-war satire, Les Carabiniers . “The day after there was no one.”i
Ugly and unsentimental, lacking any discernable hero or remotely heroic action, Les Carabiniers is likely Godard’s least popular New Wave film. Critics and audiences cringed at its washed-out reels when it opened in 1963. Godard, however, said he intended to make an ugly film. “In dealing with war, I followed a very simple rule,” he later noted. “I assumed I had to explain to children not only what war is, but what all wars have been from the barbarian invasions to Korea and Algeria.”
He succeeded -- on his own terms -- but his audience wasn’t sure. “If Les Carabiniers had no success in Paris,” he said, “it’s because people are worms. You show them worms on the screen, they get angry. What they like is a beautiful war à la [Darryl] Zanuck.” He likely meant Zanuck’s The Longest Day from 1962. “For three hours they kill lots of Germans. Then they go home happy, heroic. Real war, they don’t want. It isn’t war that is disgusting, it’s ourselves. People are cowards.”ii
In recreating his uncompromising vision of war, Godard duped the reels “two or three times, always to their highest contrast, to make them match the newsreel shots, which had themselves been duped more than usual.”iii He said that the detached, unemotional phrases found on the postcards throughout the film were direct quotes from soldiers writing from actual battlefields, spanning from the Napoleonic era to World War II. His characters are moronic and driven solely by greed. Told that they can steal whatever they want and do whatever they please in war, the movie’s leads happily take up arms. “Can we break a kid’s arm?” Michelangelo asks his recruiter. “Both arms?” Oui, oui, says the military officer. “That’s war.”
Les Carabiniers faced derision in every incarnation leading up to Godard’s film. Originally written as a play titled I Carabinieri by the anti-fascist Italian playwright, Beniamino Joppolo, it was banned in Italy after being performed in Paris and Vienna. Roberto Rossellini defied the ban, directing his own production of it at Spoleto’s Festival of the Two Worlds. But when it opened in 1962, the audience jeered with whistles and condemned it for its Marxist leanings. After the country’s real-life carabinieri (soldiers) complained, it wasn’t staged again.
Godard, however, was intrigued by the play after learning about it from one of Rossellini’s collaborators, Jean Gruault. Through Gruault, Godard got his hands on a tape-recording of Rossellini recounting the play’s plot---a typed transcript of which became the basic script of Godard’s film. After rearranging the script and adding his own thoughts -- largely deviating from the original Joppolo play -- Godard’s early draft didn’t survive past a precensorship board. So Godard revised, leaning harder on its fantastical nature. “The several characters are situated neither psychologically, nor morally, and even less so sociologically,” he said. “It all takes place at the level of the animal, and, moreover, this animal is filmed from a point of view that is vegetal, unless it is mineral, which is to say, Brechtian.”iv He landed on the film that you see today, but as Godard said, it wasn’t viewed by many people at the time. Fighting back against criticism, he resorted to footnoting the film in numerous interviews, explaining that they were watching a deliberately repulsive movie.
Which poses a lot of interesting questions. Namely, if Godard aimed to highlight war’s evils, did he really succeed when many viewers walked away simply saying that it was a bad film before agreeing that war is bad? If I hadn’t researched the movie after viewing it, I would have said, Well, yes, Jean-Luc, war is a ridiculous way to say, I disagree with you. But I would have also likely passed the film off as being overly simplistic---which, yes, Godard makes that intention fairly clear from the very beginning of the movie when he quotes Borges: “More and more I strive for simplicity. I use worn metaphors. It’s what’s basically eternal…” But I still needed Godard to footnote the film for me, nudging me toward things that I didn’t even realize were present. Is that success?
Perhaps not in the way of selling movie tickets. Though if all war movies depicted battle so unheroicly, the world may lose some of its enthusiasm for bloodied battlefields, which would be a tangible success in itself. Either way, it’s fascinating to watch a director hold so steadfastly to his morals. It would be difficult to imagine a Hollywood director remaking a War of the Worlds where Tom Cruise not only dies at the end, but deserves to die with the rest of humanity. Or anything that didn’t put big dollars over big ideas, really. Perhaps Godard did ask too much of his audience.
Months after the film’s dismal premiere, he began questioning whether he succeeded as well. “I was taking more and more distance with respect to my characters,” he said in late 1963. “After Vivre Sa Vie and Les Carabiniers, I could not go any further in that direction. I had to reduce the distance. I finally got to the point of despising the cinema, of saying to myself: it hardly matters how it’s filmed, as long as it’s true. I had lost my cinephile attitude. I was rejoining Rossellini, but what is right for Rossellini is not necessarily right for me because I was denying the cinephilia that led me to the cinema.”v
Les Carabiniers might not be the most enjoyable film to watch, but it is intensely interesting to observe such a pure truth be stretched to its outer-most limits. And perhaps viewers just need to feel as sick of war as Godard felt in order to see its true success. When it finally opened in the United States five years later in the Vietnam-mired year of 1968, Roger Ebert praised it, even calling it “marvelously funny.” vi With the U.S. now a decade into never-ending war, it’s an apt time to try understanding how the film succeeds.
Eric Magnuson is a freelance writer. His journalism has appeared in numerous publications, including Rolling Stone, The Nation, and Spin.com. His fiction has appeared in The Los Angeles Review.