Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
The 1959 “The Great War” is appropriately titled: it may be one of the great war films. Certainly it’s a thoroughly Italian one: a war film in which no one is sure who’s in charge or what’s being fought for, in which everyone wants to take off their uniforms, go home, and eat. (There’s a funny moment when the Italians are captured by stern-looking Austrians. They look at each other as if to ask, “Are these guys really serious about this war stuff?”)
The sardonic storyline, in which a pair of shirkers — they’re played by Alberto Soldi and Vittorio Gassman — repeatedly try to distance themselves from the fighting, anticipates “M*A*S*H,” and there are a couple of scenes that are as graceful as anything in “Grand Illusion.” (Well, okay, almost as graceful as anything in “Grand Illusion.”) Director Mario Monicelli has a painter’s eye for space and composition, yet nothing in his work feels static or posed. Many of the movie’s big events play out on the periphery of your awareness; they’re finished almost before you can admire them.
I particularly enjoyed Monicelli’s take on that sine qua non of WWI filmmaking, the over-the-barricades charge through No Man’s Land. After a series of stunning tracking shots showing Italian troops flooding the battlefield, Monicelli sabotages his big scene by diverting its action into a comedic bit involving the stringing of a phone line. By the time that’s resolved the attack has accomplished its goal of blowing a bridge — yet no one is sure how. Monicelli doesn’t even give you the sound of the explosion, just a miraculous shot of the smoldering structure and the soldiers’ astonished looks of relief. There’s a sort of heroism here, but it’s not expressed through violence or feats of great derring-do; it’s the simple, all-too-human heroism of perseverance, self-preservation, and good luck.
Like may war films, “The Great War” is a picaresque — one assembled around the unique personalities of Soldi and Gassman. The two men stand for the variegated character of Italian society. Soldi, the quintessential Roman, specialized in playing weaklings and cowards. Here he’s a low-to-the-ground milksop with the instincts of a sharpie. Gassman, from Genoa, is tall, matinee-handsome, with an aristocratic carriage that makes his buffoonery all the funnier. In tandem they suggest Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. (The resemblance wasn’t lost on Monicelli: he later cast Gassman as a Quixotic knight in his memorable “For Love and Gold.”) These two clowns, both icons of the Italian popular cinema, deserve to be considered among the great movie actors of the middle of the twentieth century.