Francesco Rosi’s hot-blooded Many Wars Ago (Uomino contro, “Men Against,” 1970) is probably forever destined to be compared to Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957). The similarities aren’t superficial — by underlining the inhumanity and sheer absurdity of World War I trench warfare through a variety of carefully attuned formal techniques, both films arrive at a passionate, persuasive condemnation of war. With Paths of Glory, it feels like Kubrick is taking a less clinically detached approach to his material than in later works, but it never reaches the levels of overt, blistering anger that Rosi’s film does.
Many Wars Ago is a film where the fury of war is viscerally felt in scene after scene of pulsing movement and blasting sound. Rosi doesn’t shy away from launching a series of kinetic assaults on the senses, his close-up framing emphasizing chaos over any distinguishable moving parts. The approach is reminiscent of his earlier bullfighting drama The Moment of Truth (Il momento della verità, 1965), where movement becomes polemic by virtue of its visual forcefulness. In Many Wars Ago, Rosi does take time to focus in on individual characters, but many scenes deemphasize the humanity of the soldiers completely. In this world, you’re just a mass of flesh and metal. Attempts by soldiers to assert themselves as anything more than that generally result in a visit from the firing squad.
Source novel Un anno sull’altipiano (“A Year on the High Plateau,” 1938) was written by Italian soldier Emilio Lussu, based on his experiences in the Sassari Infantry Brigade in World War I. The film takes place during a series of skirmishes between the Italian army and Austro-Hungarian forces in mountainous terrain, and the Austrians seem to have the upper hand in almost every regard, their higher-ground positions and powerful machine guns cutting down any Italian plan before it has a chance of accomplishing anything.
The repeated futility is lost on Gen. Leone (Alain Cuny), a monstrously imperious leader, whose capricious leading style is more responsible for thinning out his own forces than anything the Austrians have planned. In matters of army motivation, he rules with an iron fist, demanding respect by having his own soldiers shot for the most minor of slip-ups. In matters of strategy, he’s something of a crazed lunatic, sending troops out on impossible missions to try to capture the enemy’s higher ground position. One of the film’s most strikingly absurd scenes has Leone outfit a group of soldiers in medieval-style armor and order them to re-attempt a failed gambit, as if this anachronistic tactic would render the hailing machine gun fire ineffective.
In Rosi’s horrific vision of war, there is very little agency apart from Leone’s and the bureaucratic forces that underpin him. In one of Rosi’s shots of a teeming, anonymous mass of ground troops, Leone strides among the bodies, the only face in clear view. The film’s two de facto protagonists never stand a chance of overcoming this institutional behemoth; Lt. Sassu (Mark Frechette, in one of only two other roles after Zabriskie Point ) seems to understand this, his world-weary, resigned demeanor contrasting sharply with his youthful features. Sassu is the stand-in for author Lussu, an upper-class young man whose support for the war drained away once he saw the horrors on the front line.
For Lt. Ottolenghi (Gian Maria Volonté), the possibility of mutiny keeps some hope alive, but his craftiness is ultimately useless. He tricks Leone into looking out through a pinhole viewing point that Austrian snipers have consistently fired on, but luck is not on his side. Leone walks away unscathed, while moments later, a bullet rips through a branch Ottolenghi places in the same spot. Moral order or even just a little ironic justice is absent here.
Many Wars Ago is a wearying, frustrating experience in both content and form. One is tempted to become numb to the repeated decimations of the Italian army, but Rosi’s nightmarishly constructed scenes of sound and fury on the battlefield prevent inurement. As a villain, Gen. Leone is hardly the subtlest of characters, but Leone is also not the object of Rosi’s venom; he’s merely the personification of a dehumanizing institution. This is one of the great, challenging, stomach-turning war films.
Raro Video gives Many Wars Ago its Region 1/A debut with its Blu-ray release (also available separately on DVD), and while there’s plenty to admire about the transfer, it’s been frustratingly framed in the non-theatrical 1.33:1 aspect ratio. It appears this is an open matte transfer, and the disc was approved by Rosi himself. Are we to assume the director prefers this framing? As far as I can tell, Raro’s old Region 2 DVD release of the film was presented in 1.66:1. As the film progressed, I wasn’t overly distracted by the framing, but some might find this a dealbreaker.
The 1080p high definition transfer was sourced from a reversal print belonging to the Italian National Film Archive, as the original negative has been lost. Taking this into consideration, it’s a pretty good-looking digital transfer, with a very clean image and reasonably high amounts of fine detail. Color consistency is another matter — fluctuation between tones is pretty common, sometimes so much so that the muddy browns and greens of one shot look almost like grayscale in the next. Flesh tones tend to look rather unnatural, and most of the time, the image has a faded appearance. Fortunately damage is mostly nonexistent and there doesn’t appear to be any of the excessive digital filtering that has affected some Raro Blu-rays.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono soundtrack does a nice job handling the wide range of volume. The piercing battle sound effects that Rosi pumps up can sound a little harsh, but that’s to be expected and kind of the point. English subtitles are optional.
Raro’s disc includes the following special features:
- Interview with director Francesco Rosi (28 minutes) Rosi, now 91, is exceptionally sharp and engaging, recalling all sorts of specific details about the production of the film. He talks about wanting to make a film with a message after the fairy tale of More Than a Miracle (C’era una volta, “Once Upon a Time,” 1967), and discusses the contrasting reactions Many Wars Ago provoked, along with bits of production trivia.
- Before and after restoration demonstration (2 minutes) Side-by-side comparison of select shots.
- PDF of the original screenplay, only accessible on a computer with a Blu-ray disc drive.
- 20-page booklet with an essay by Lorenzo Codelli, notes from Rosi, excerpts from positive and negative critical reviews and biographical information.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Raro Video’s Many Wars Ago Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): ***1/2
Film Elements Sourced: **1/2
Video Transfer: **
New Extra Features: **
Extra Features Overall: **
1970 / Color / 1:33:1 / 101 min / $34.95
Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based writer and editor who splits his critical ambitions between writing Blu-ray & DVD reviews and theater criticism. He’s a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.