“Once is left with the horrible feeling now that war settles nothing; that to win a war is as disastrous as to lose one.”
— Agatha Christie, An Autobiography
François Dupeyron’s very personal and haunting 2002 film The Officers’ Ward1 addresses the horrors of war and the damages that are inflicted on the human spirit. And, on many levels, it more than succeeds. A stunning reminder that war is more often about the men who fight it than the politicians who wage it, this French period drama uses the First World War as an oblique setting in which to examine the issues of identity and self-image that define us all. The war, however, is more than merely the back-story: it is one of the main protagonists.
In our collective, historical memory, we are approaching the 100th anniversary of what we once called The Great War, the name bestowed on that world war before humanity had the audacity and the hubris to create another and start numbering them. It has been the hallmark of modern science to use new technology to kill before eventually finding a more pragmatic peacetime use for any scientific advancement. What set the First World War apart from previous conflicts was the huge chasm between the warfare technology of that time and the relatively ineffectual state of medicine during that same period. The metamorphosis from simple guns and men on horseback that were the norms in the 19th century to mustard gas and long-range artillery transformed the First World War from merely another conflict into a bloodbath.
German soldiers were killed at the rate of one every 45 seconds, and French death rates were even higher. In the five months during which the battles of Verdun and the Somme were waged in 1916, nearly a million men died – an average of 6,600 every day, more than 277 every minute, nearly five every second. The 20,000 British soldiers killed on the first day of the Somme are often recalled with horror, yet on average a similar number of soldiers died during every four-day period of the entire war.2 French casualties from the First World War were greater than American casualties from every war that the United States had ever taken part in to that point in history. Russia and Germany each suffered even greater casualties. Those who survived often returned home as shells of their former selves, unable to be healed more than superficially. The Officers’ Ward is a film about one such man and his voyage to find his humanity once again.
In his first few days as a soldier in the First World War, French officer Adrien (Eric Caravaca) is critically wounded when a German shell explodes in his face. Barely alive and horrifically injured, he’s taken off the front lines without having ever fired a single shot. For both Adrien and director Dupeyron, the First World War effectively ends there, as The Officers’ Ward isn’t about the battlefield but about Adrien’s five-year regeneration and recuperation in a special army hospital.
In a masterstroke of film tension, Dupeyron makes sure that for the first 35 minutes of the film we don’t get to see Adrien’s face. Unable to speak and too weak to move, Adrien lies immobile in his hospital bed, racked with pain and afraid to be confronted with the consequences of his injuries. It is a private hell that Dupeyron beautifully captures through point-of-view shots from Adrien’s perspective combined with scenes of his injured body. All of which is made even more harrowing by the sound of Adrien’s rasping breathing and the horrified faces of those who come to tend his wounds.
As the film progresses, Tetsuo Nagata’s masterful cinematography captures the essence of Adrien’s situation. The film is bathed in washed-out hues and set against a consistently yellow tinge, reminding us of the jaundiced nature of warfare and the bleak and dismal future that Adrien and his cohorts at the hospital face. It is when Dupeyron addresses the private battles raging inside Adrien’s head that the film really soars. For Adrien, the battlefield has been left behind, but the war to find himself and the remains of his humanity is what The Officers’ Ward is really about.
The basis of Adrien’s wounds are medically accurate and reflect the horrors that millions of soldiers faced when wounded. In his book Before My Helpless Sight: Suffering, Dying and Military Medicine on the Western Front, 1914–1918,3 Leo van Bergen wrote about the true-life injuries that the character of Adrien is based on – on wounds so ghastly that one nurse wondered if the patients that she tended to would not have been better off dead:
Bagnold wrote of having to nurse a man called Ryan at the hospital where she worked in England. He lay on five or six pillows, tied down with bandages that ran under his arms and were secured to the bars of the bed. “He lay with his profile to me – only he has no profile, as we know a man’s. Like an ape, he has only his bumpy forehead and his protruding lips – the nose, the left eye, gone.” Then there was a man without nostrils, struggling to breathe through two rubber tubes inserted into what was once his nose. “It gave him a more horrible look to his face than I have ever seen.” Bagnold believed the medical orderly was convinced he would not survive and she asked herself whether the soldier in question might actually prefer that to the prospect of living.
It is when Adrien starts to understand that his injuries will define the remainder of his life that Dupeyron fully fleshes out the underlying theme of the film, the power of the human condition. The scenes that focus on Adrien’s life in the hospital are emotionally agonizing as well as ripe with fresh humour and tender compassion. Across the boundaries of each man’s unique injury, The Officers’ Ward shows the commonality of the soldiers’ experiences of sickness, wounding and death.
Slowly, however, with help from medical staff and similarly disfigured patients, Adrien’s face, faith and sense of identity and personal worth are rebuilt. The casualties emerge not as mere consequences of battle, but as the essential agents of warfare. It’s a remarkable mix that works perfectly, with Dupeyron forcing us to look at the cost of bravery, the value of sacrifice and, most of all, the way that we see ourselves. Dupeyron eloquently exercises sensitivity in the film, creating an aura of incremental bravery and recovery that transpires almost entirely in the hospital. The Officers’ Ward consistently sidesteps the potential for melodrama as it navigates between instances of compassion and cruelty. When Adrien is released after four and a half years, the struggle to make a life as a disfigured man in postwar Paris begins with surprising results.
In the century since the First World War, there have been a plethora of books and movies about the subject. Since Lewis Milestone’s 1930 classic All Quiet on the Western Front won the Academy Award for best picture and best director, the First World War has continued to have a grip on humanity’s imagination – and horror. Few film treatments of the subject, though, have been as poignant as The Officers’ Ward, a marvellously assured film, beautifully acted throughout, unexpectedly funny in places, and profoundly moving. The film serves as a powerful reminder of the terrible human suffering endured both during and after the war by those who bore the physical, mental and emotional scars of the conflict, as well as the immense power of the human spirit to find meaning in life. Haunting and emotive, The Officers’ Ward brilliantly captures the insanity of an era when science had perfected modern warfare but had yet to discover how to rebuild the ripped and shredded bodies, and souls, of the men sent out to fight.
1 The original French title is La chambre des officiers.
2 Martin Gilbert, The First World War: A Complete History (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1994).
3 London: Ashgate, 2009.