Miklós Jancsó’s nihilistic war film is something of a minimalist masterpiece; it’s recent neglect unfathomable. In this brilliantly staged & subtly stylized view of military absurdism during the Russian Civil War of the late ‘teens, we follow a day’s worth of skirmishes between Red (Communist) and White (Tzarist) forces along the path of the Volga, largely in sweeping lateral tracking shots.* As the advantage flows back & forth between sides (with a loose contingent of leftist Hungarians thrown in the mix), the casual executions and quick turns in rank & fortune come across with stunning force. Acts of courage, honor or even commonsense stand out in stark relief from the grim business-as-usual military mentality, and the fighting only ends when one side gathers together for certain annihilation. The characterizations are as vivid as they are harrowingly brief, there’s no time for anything more, yet so many of the men & women stick in your mind. Compared to this, acclaimed stories like CATCH-22 or THE THIN RED LINE come across as hopelessly overelaborated, even condescendingly over-intellectualized. It’s likely that Jancsó’s rep waned as the Cold War thawed. Who needs Soviet Bloc humanism when everyone’s joining NATO? But Jancsó’s work here is simply too good to become unfashionable.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *The film was initially banned in the USSR. Perhaps no one noticed how consistently Janscó’s lateral tracking shots move to the left.
READ ALL ABOUT IT: Isaac Babel’s RED CALVARY STORIES are unmatched in depicting the era. A recent COLLECTED STORIES edition has the best translations.