To describe the first 70 minutes of this love story between Diane, a prostitute, and Chico, a sewer cleaner, I truly can only use superlatives. It lives entirely to its reputation as a masterpiece, and probably doesn't do it justice. You can feel (rather than just see) these two beings falling in love with each other, complete with the little things, from absolute despair (they meet when he saves her from an abusing sister and later prevents her from committing suicide) to absolute faith in each other. The story is set just before and during WWI, and the long sequence that ends that first 70 minutes is of such intensity and intimacy even if a hardcore cynic like me was touched by it.
This part of the film is full of little gems: the pace of the story, told with great economy and not stopping at irrelevant moments; the beauty of the sets, in particular the stairs going up to the flat (they very much look like a single set which is amazing); the lighting which makes the film look gorgeous; the sister; Charles Farrell's facial expressions which reminded me of those of a friend and Janet Gaynor's wounded animal performance, something I quite liked in "Sunrise" but is so perfect for her character here - her best two moments being the sequence after Charles Farrell saves her and the sequence after the policeman leaves the flat.
And then the war comes, and while the action scenes aren't bad, they break the pace and change the atmosphere of the film. From a couple of intimate sets - we have spent most of the previous half an hour in the sewer cleaner's apartment - we are now in the open, in fields, in the trenches, in war rooms. Inevitably, the connection between the audience and the characters changes, and in my case the magic was gone, with the final sequence delivering a final blow in my interest. If you have seen the film, it's not the actual ending that I object to. It's the message that it conveys. Up to that point the cornerstone of the film had been a relation based on faith between two human beings, and suddenly God invades what it should never had invaded. Borzage did this later again in the ghastly "Strange Cargo" (which my flatmate loved, so "ghastly" is a very personal opinion). Yet, in his films I liked the most - "Mannequin", "The Mortal Storm", and to a slightly lesser extend "Three Comrades" and "The Shining Hour" (and I am excluding "Desire" since that one is more Lubitsch than Borzage) - he never crosses that barrier which is to me certain death. And I really regret that he crossed it here.