Uomini Contro (1970) is a singularly uncompromising war picture directed by the great Italian film maker Francesco Rosi. In the third film in his oeuvre released in 1971, Salvatore Giuliani, Rosi demonstrated his gift for staging scenes involving realistic and appalling violence -- the attack on the May Day celebration in the high mountains of Sicily is a highlight in that film and, indeed, so dramatic that it threatens to overwhelm the legal and procedural concerns of the rest of the movie. Uomini Contro released in this country as Many Wars Ago is a documentary-like essay on the effects of protracted trench warfare on its combatants. For many people, the film has proved to be essentially unwatchable -- the picture documents a nightmarish stalemate in which a psychotic general continually orders his men into suicidal attacks on entrenched enemy machine guns. Two officers leading the Italian soldiers become increasingly disenchanted with the General's homicidal strategy -- each of the two protagonists rebels and ends up dying for his convictions. Accordingly, the movie is an unrelenting portrait of horrific injustice and cruelty and, at its end, those who have had the temerity to oppose this brutal system are executed -- the film is ideologically pure: it represents warfare as entirely futile, tactically pointless, and absurd. But the film's great cruelty is that those who speak out about this futility are, themselves, destroyed and the war, presumably, simply continues unabated. After about 15 minutes, the viewer longs for the soldiers to rise up and kill their officers and this desire only increases throughout the rest of the picture. But all efforts at rebellion are ruthlessly quashed and so the hapless audience is left enraged at the injustice portrayed in the film.
The movie concerns warfare in the Asiago altiplano, a battle for a place called Monte Fiore. (Rosi's father was a photographer who covered the Asiago front and he took a photograph that triggered the director's interest in the subject -- the picture showed enlisted men handcuffed to trees in No-Man's-Land, a form of execution by enemy bullet used to crush dissent in the ranks.) General Leone, played by Alain Cuny, and his men have been driven off Monte Fiore -- they mount a futile counterattack with cavalry against machine guns and the field ends up strewn with dead men and dying, mangled horses. At one point, a scout suspects an enemy ambush and cries out that the retreating column should stop. Leone is appalled that a scout has issued an order and requires that the man be shot. Ottolenghi, the commanding officer objects that the scout did nothing wrong. Nonsense, General Leone declares, the man must be shot, even if innocent, to demonstrate military discipline. (Ottolenghi uses a subterfuge to save the man.) The Italians retreat into a huge network of trenches from which they launch repeated attacks -- all of them totally unsuccessful. When one group of soldiers balks at a pointless assault, Leone has the brigade decimated -- shooting a group of wailing men tied to tall posts: as is characteristic for this movie, one of the men escapes and flees a long distance -- we are rooting for him to get away -- but he is shot down, wounded, and, then, dragged back to be tied up to his post again, and, although dying from a gunshot wound, shot by the firing squad. Ottolenghi, a socialist, suggests that his, all farm laborers, men should rebel. For this comment, he sent on a suicide mission to cut through barbed wire and killed. Leone outfits a platoon of soldiers in medieval armor and sends them into the fray -- the machine bullets perforate the men's ridiculous looking armor (they are like animate garbage cans) with ease and they are all killed in about 15 seconds. Leone, a silver-haired man of great personal valor, suggests that his soldiers attack carrying knives in their teeth to gut the Austrians in hand-to-hand combat. But, of course, no one can get within two-hundred yards of the Austrian machine-gun emplacements. Finally, artillery is hauled through the Alpine mud up to the front and a huge cannonade ensues. But the gunners have the range wrong and rain shells down on the Italian troops. Ordered to attack, the troops refuse to leave their shelters -- after all, they are being shelled by their own artillery -- and Leone's lieutenants order yet another decimation of the troops: one out of every ten men is dragged into the shellfire and gunned down by a firing squad. This is too much for Ottolenghi's successor. He promotes an uprising that fails and is executed in a monumental quarry -- a vast stone-walled pit in the side of the mountain that seems to represent the implacable cruelty of the war and its leaders. The movie is a bit like Kubrick's Paths of Glory but without that films' somewhat forced humanism -- Paths of Glory ultimately was a forensic movie, a document of a trial about justice and injustice in war-time. In this film, there are no real trials. Military tribunals sentence men to death in a hospital for self-inflicted wounds, an assembly line of murder that results in a conviction every thirty seconds. On the battlefield, the situation is so terrible that, at one point, the Austrian machine-gunners stop firing and shout "Italian soldiers don't make us kill you any more. We've had enough. Go back to your trenches." The attackers return to their squalid pits where many of them are executed for treason. In Renoir's The Grand Illusion, two soldiers escape across the Swiss border, wading through deep snow -- a German soldier aims his gun at them, draws a bead, but, then, refuses to fire since he thinks it pointless to kill fellow human beings who are merely escaping an intolerable plight. In this film, a man flees across the snowy plateau, running for the Austrian lines crying out "Kamerad! Kamerad!" He almost makes it, but at the last minute an Italian sniper, one of his comrades, guns him down. This is a radical, disturbing film, more like the works Peter Watkins (for instance, The Battle of Culloden) than any of the other movies contemporary to it.