Other people have written a synopsis of this film. So this is not a recitation of the film's story. I liked the film, it rang true to me. My daughter Geneviève saw this film in 2006 in Angers while attending university there (UCO). She recommended it to me then and it only took 5 years for me to watch it. I reality she never recommneded a stinker.
Let me begin with some back ground of the period that the film surrounds itself.
By 1917 the armies of both the Allies and the Central Powers had suffered dearly. Among the allies the French Army defending once again their homeland had been bled white. This battle of attrition was based on the general assumption of the German General Staff was promoted with the reasoning that while the German forces would suffer, the cream French manpower would in fact suffer more. During 1917 there occured in French Army a mutiny in the ranks. this mutiny (really more than one) started just after the conclusion of the disastrous Second Battle of the Aisne, the main action in the Nivelle Offensive, and involved, to various degrees, nearly half of the French infantry divisions stationed on the western front. These mutinies so embarrassed France that they have remained unknown until 1967 and 1983. the full and complete archive will not be opened until 2017 fully 100 years after the event. So secret were the mutinies that neither the Germans or the Allies ever knew. However for the remainder of 1917 there were no further French offensives on the western front. The great loss of the flower of French manhood would have a dire effect in the next war.
Into this back drop we find out that 5 men have been sentenced to death for inflicting upon themselves non-deadly wounds. They are transported to the most dangerous part of the lines and cast into no-mans-land to be shelled by their own artillery. These hachés(1)are entirely anecdotal(2) and the true story will be discovered and told only in 2017. Their guilt, which is never in doubt, is the product of by what would now be termed PTSD(3) but then was merely declared cowardice or shell shock. (Do not watch this youtube if you have a weak constitution.)
The rest of the film centers around Mathilde Donnay (Audrey Tautou) searching for her lost loved one Manech (Gaspard Ulliel). Her touching portrayal of a heartsick young woman accurately shows the emotion which is felt by any wife, or sweetheart who has faced this situation and is remarkably well played. She never gave up hope.(4) It is a story of indomitable courage and relentless search.
This is a good movie, and I would recommend it. It is absolutely not for children. The scenes of battle are just too graphic for children. War is a terrible thing, and in this film the hopelessness of it is palatable. One can not portray the First World War in a light which does not make a profound statement on the utter foolishness of war. The film incorporates many true instances, and some apocryphal instances, for example the explosion at the balloon hanger being used as an hospital is a supposedly true yet I can not find a reference for it. The uniforms and period clothes are correct. The cast and director and crew developed a very realistic film. One thing which is notably absent however is prayer. Perhaps, I live in a different time and place, but I know that my family and friends prayed for me ceaselessly. One would expect that in a Catholic France some mention would be made of the Grace of God. If there is one thing I do know it is that no one is an atheist in a trench. or in the home of a waiting wife, mother or sweetheart.
(1)Cut to pieces
(2)Horne, Alastair, The Price of Glory, page 324 St. Martin's Press, London, 1963; (reissue) Paperback ed. Penguin, 1994
(3) Post Traumatic Shock Disorder for a discription of the symptoms go here to PubMed Health.
(4) During the late War in the Gulf 1990-1991 my ship the USS Iwo Jima was involved in a major explosion in Bahrain. My wife, A Navy Hospital Corpsman, (HM2) at the time was driving to the Marine Corps Air Station in Cherry Point, NC, heard about the explosion on the news. 10 men were killed and the thoughts that raced through her mind could only be imagined. The photo in the link is the USS Iwo Jima with my squadron embarked. It was several hours before I reached her on the phone for her to hear my voice. During the First World War a phone call would never had happened.