The War of the Buttons

La Guerre des boutons

Yves Robert, France, 1961


Although filmed in 1962 this film is set in the post war period. The two groups of children belong to neighbouring villages, whose conflicts they embody. The game here is played by all of the group on the logical place for such a game, in the space between the two villages, where there are no adults. The game is conceived as a mix of all sort of things, and much influenced by cinema – we see medieval sword fights from swashbuckling epics, rustic slingshots, but elements of Westerns also creep in with the children hiding in place behind trees for an attack. On the other hand, the realities of war are likely to be in their minds because of the 39-45 conflict, which is highlighted by the presence of the poster ordering general mobilisation. It is directly brought to life as they march together singing the ‘Song of Departure’ which every French army since 1794 has sang.
The punishment imagined by the children for their prisoner recalls military dressing down ceremonies, where soldiers are stripped of their medals and insignia for an act of betrayal.

This imaginary ‘play’ is part of the world of western and war films, but also recalls the degradation of Dreyfus at Invalides, where he was stripped of his medals and insignia, which looms large in the French national conscience.

The game of torture and degradation is meant to be amusing for the spectator, but it is also humiliating for the prisoner, who must flee home in a dishevelled state, where we imagine that he’ll have to face further punishment and be told of by his parents for the ruined state of his clothes.
The most uncomfortable moment in this scene comes as the group’s play recalls even more pressing recent history. One of the children involved in administering the punishment whispers “If we each farted in turn we could make gas chambers”. At that point the game loses all sense of lightness.