Written and directed by Abel Gance, a poet is in love with his neighbor’s wife, and the two men go off to war.
In France three men are going on a journey. People are smiling and dancing. Jean Diaz (Romualde Joubé) is a poet and lives with his mother (Mancini), who tells him that Edith Laurin (Marise Dauvray) is married now. They see an owl on a summer night and think it means calamity. François Laurin (Séverin Mars) has killed a deer and tries to get his dog to drink the blood and laughs. Edith’s father, Maria Lazare (Maxime Desjardins), is a veteran of the war in 1870 and received a medal which brings back memories.
In his house Jean is writing a poem about peaceful scenes, and he reads it to his mother. Next door François is drunk and terrifies Edith. Jean kisses his sleeping mother goodnight and goes back to writing.
By a river Jean sees Edith and sees the gash on her neck. François with his rifle shoots a bird near them. He tells Edith to run along and leaves with her.
On August 2, 1914 a bell rings as people run in the street. A child asks what war is. People read the order of mobilization and shout for France. Lazare thinks of death. François is happy, but Jean is sad. People dance in the street. Jean’s mother reads the order that Jean is to report on the 40th day of mobilization. François tells Edith he is leaving tomorrow. He embraces Lazare. A boy tells François that Jean does not report for a month. François says goodbye to Edith and glares at Jean before he goes. Jean plays the cello, and Edith comes over to see him. They imagine a skeleton in the window.
François is on a train. He gets permission to stop in Orneval, and in uniform he visits Edith. He writes a letter to his parents, saying that Edith is coming to stay with them until he comes back. Edith sees it and cries.
In his garden Jean sees pictures of the war’s destruction. In battle François is not afraid. At home Lazare and other veterans are winning the war on a table. He gets a message that his daughter was abducted and taken to Germany. He collapses. Jean hears the news and goes to see Lazare. Jean asks if he can avenge her. Jean writes a request for active service and shows it to Lazare. Jean tells his mother he is going.
In a foxhole François gets a message that Edith was taken. He leads an attack on the Germans.
Jean’s mother helps him pack, and he kisses her goodbye and shakes Lazare’s hand before leaving. Jean’s mother cries. Lazare takes his map and shows it to her.
Jealous François writes to his father that Edith must have gone to be with Jean. Soldiers warn him to keep his head down, or he will be killed. His parents get his letter, and his mother says that Jean has been off being trained for two months.
François sees a soldier crying and tells him his wife ran off with a shirker. The officer Jean arrives, and François lays down on the ground.
At home Jean’s mother happily shows Lazare that Jean has become an officer. François writes to his father to find out about Edith. He hides his letter from Jean.
Lazare gets the letter.
Jean is ordered to send brave François out on a dangerous mission. He sees how François remembers Edith by worshipping her cap and gloves. Jean goes out on the mission himself, crawling through the barbed wire to the enemy lines. He finds the ammunition dump and lights a candle. While leaving he fights and beats a German soldier. Jean crawls back under the wire, and they see the explosion of the ammunition. His superior says he deserves the Legion of Honor, and François shakes his hand.
The soldiers enjoy drinking coffee, and François asks Jean about Edith. Jean says no and asks François, who takes his hand. Jean asks him to forgive him for having loved her as much as he has. Jean hopes they will talk about her often.
Lazare proudly frames Lt. Jean’s Legion of Honor certifcate and medal.
During a battle they run out of ammunition, and François asks Jean to recall Edith picking grapes and teaching children. Jean talks while a soldier is killed.
Four years later the war has increased in intensity. Soldiers are in a trench with water up to their knees. François finds Jean sleeping and wakes him. Jean says he has blacked out five times in a week. François writes to his father to tell Jean’s mother to ask him to report to the discharge review board because his health is in danger. Jean says he thought he saw an owl.
Lazare writes to his son that Jean’s mother is gravely ill but does not want Jean to have to return.
Jean is discharged and returns home on a train. His mother tells Lazare to go to bed, and he leaves. Jean walks home and embraces his mother. She asks if he is sick too, and he gives her a rose. She asks him to read one of his poems. Again he reads “The Ode to the Sun.” He realizes that she died at the point she had previously fallen asleep. He feels the sadness of Edith’s spirit. He realizes that the war kills the mothers as well as the sons.
Lazare gets a note from Edith to go to Jean’s tonight because she will be there. He gets up and goes next door. He finds Jean and learns that his mother died. He shows Jean the note from Edith. She is running in the rain and comes in wet with a sleeping child under her coat. She tells how enemy soldiers found her hiding in a barn. Jean covers her mouth. Lazare asks if François would kill her. She thought that Jean’s mother would protect her child. Jean caresses her. She is frightened by her father’s sudden departure and says she must go home.
At home Lazare seals a letter and goes out as his wife cries. She gives Edith a note from Lazare that he went to avenge what happened to her. Edith asks Jean not to leave so that he can protect her daughter because if François finds out, he will kill her. Edith calls her daughter, and Jean takes her on his knee. He says he will teach her how to be French so that she can punish her father in her own way. Edith sees that Jean’s mother has died. She realizes how much Jean loves her. Jean teaches the child how to write, “J’accuse.”
François in a gas mask reads a note from Edith that she is home. He celebrates the return of his wife. In town they dance. A man gets two bottles of wine, but he is killed by a shell.
François comes home and asks women where Edith is. He calls her father, but his wife says he left the night Edith came home. At home Jean is teaching the child as Edith watches. He sees François at the door and has them hide. He tells François that Edith is not there. François sees the child Angele (Angele Guys), and Jean says a distant relative left her there. Edith listens and is frightened. She runs out the back and goes home. François finds her there and holds out his arms and embraces and kisses her.
François with his rifle is going out when he sees Jean with Angele and Edith, who calls her a distant relative also. He asks why Edith goes to kiss her every day. He walks with Edith down the road.
One day François unlocks a cabinet and finds a puppet. He reads the newspaper, and Edith brings in flowers. François says there has been a tragedy, and Angele fell in a pond and drowned. Edith is upset, and he says she must be her child. He grabs her and says she is dead. Edith runs down the street and goes to the pond looking for Angele. By the river she sees Jean and Angele and goes to them and embraces Angele. She warns Jean that François knows she is the mother. They run back into the house. François locks the door and accuses Edith of sinning with Jean while he was on leave. He asks Jean if his silence is also proof. Jean and François fight. She restrains François and admits that Angele is her daughter; but tells him not to kill Jean. She tells about the Germans in the barn, and François asks if she can prove it. She shows him a birth certificate that says the father is unknown. François picks up Angele, and Jean restrains him. François says he will leave to kill others. Angele hands the rifle to him, and François goes out.
François is in uniform, and his leave is ending. He asks Jean how he can live with this anxiety. Jean writes a request to return to active duty in his old company as a private under Sergeant François, and they embrace. François says goodbye to Edith, who sees Jean come in with his bag and in uniform. He shakes her hand, and François tells them to kiss. They embrace, and Jean leaves with François.
Jean and François are in the mud as men are dying and suffering. Jean speaks to the men with visionary images. They remember the Gauls. Jean accuses those who are asleep. He says the Gaul told him that victory is here. They can charge forward.
At home Angele plays with other children. Boys put a German helmet on her head and a toy rifle in her hand. She runs home to her mother, and she throws the helmet in the fire. Edith suffered as François’s wife, Jean’s lover, Lazare’s daughter, and Angele’s mother.
In the morning the soldiers are ready for a battle. The soldiers write letters about the war. Jean has written a series of letters to Edith and pre-dated them. François tells Jean if he is killed, to take care of Edith and the child. Jean has nothing to say if he is killed. François knows he loves her too. Jean gives his letters to Edith to a friend and asks him to send one each month. A bomb hits, and Jeans laguhs madly. François comes to him, and Jean talks to him as if he were the man who was killed, telling him not to tell François. François calls for stretcher bearers to take away Jean because he is mad. They carry him off. François puts the letters in his pocket and goes forward with the French soldiers. The Allies advance. At night Jean looks out the window at the war.
After the battle François is laying in a bed dying and thinking about how he loved Edith without her knowing it. He asks the officer to post the letters, one each month. Jean is in the next bed, and François takes his hand, sits up, and then falls back dead. The officer is unable to unclench their hands.
Edith reads a letter from Jean to Angele. Crazed Jean comes home, and Edith embraces him. He says he is on a difficult mission to determine the morale of the country. He asks about Pierre the blacksmith and Jenny the laundress.
That evening Jean distributes notes in the town. Edith tries to understand Jean’s strange behavior, and she asks about François. Jean says he does not know anymore because of the war. People begin arriving, and Edith sees a note telling them to come there tonight to hear news of their dead. To the gathered people Jean says on the battlefield he saw all their dead. Then he says a miracle happened. A dead man slowly gets up and says they must go home to see if their sacrifice has done any good. Jean says they obeyed. All the dead bodies slowly stand up and follow the man. In Paris soldiers are marching to music under the Arch d’Triumph. Above them the dead are walking. Jean says he fled and came to warn them that they are coming to see if their sacrifice has served a purpose. The dead are walking on the road behind Jean. He goes to the door to stop people from leaving. He says they must hear him out. He asks Amelie how she acted in her husband’s absence. He sees her cavorting with other men. He asks Pierre how he ran his father’s business, and he accuses him. He refers to three women who profited from their husband’s deaths. He accuses three men of profiting also. Outside the dead arrive, and they look in the windows. Lazare is there. Fate striking down the good is not unjust because the bad who survive will be better for it. François looks in and says that those who die in this way never die. Jean tells the people to let them go; they are begging them to preserve their courage. He says they are going back to peaceful sleep, knowing that all have been worthy of their death. The dead are backing up down the road. The living people slowly go out of the house and watch them carrying their crosses. Jean watches Angele get out of bed and kiss him. Edith asks if it was all a dream. The child teaches the poet to write again the words, “J’accuse.” Edith grabs Jean, who laughs. She fears he is mad.
The next day Jean comes in and finds his cello and his poetry. He laughs at the lunatic who wrote about peaceful things. He sees a shaft of sunlight and walks to the window. He speaks to the sun in poetry about his wish to die. The son sets.
This powerful drama depicts a love triangle and the effect of the Great War on the two men and the woman. Patriotism motivates men to fight in the army, but they learn how awful war can be. Yet even those who died hope that their sacrifice will make others better people.