He’s a Cossack prince. She’s the rabbi’s daughter. Can they find love? Also, the hero is a tad bit genocidal. Yes, that is the plot. The unusual duo of Mary Philbin and Ivan Mosjoukine (in his only Hollywood appearance) are star-crossed lovers in this Great War romance. It boasts superb cinematography but the story? Oh my. The main conflict: You always blackmail the one you love.
I will also be discussing The Journey (1959) and Stagecoach (1939), which share source material with Surrender. Click here to skip to the talkies.
Curse you, Universal!
Surrender was one of those silent movies that languished on my to-watch-but-in-a-vault list forever. Kevin Brownlow described the film in glowing terms in his beloved book, The Parade’s Gone By… The film’s director, Edward Sloman, was a charming and colorful interview subject who further whetted my appetite to see the movie.
A rare Hollywood look at Jewish village life in Europe, Surrender was the only American film of legendary Russian actor Ivan Mosjoukine. As the icing on the cake, it was purported to be drop dead gorgeous.
So, when it was finally released on DVD, you better believe I was the first in line to buy a copy.
Was it worth the wait? Kind of but it also had its share of major structural flaws. That’s what we are going to discuss today.
First, a bit of background and a lot of myth-busting. By 1927, European talent had been flooding into Hollywood for a while. It was a time when now-legendary names were getting their start in the U.S. Lubitsch, Garbo and Veidt all arrived during this period. Universal was already collecting a nice selection of European talent, particularly from Germany. Why not add a romantic Russian to the mix?
Ivan Mosjoukine had fled Russia with most of the other pro-Czar film personnel and had been making successful and wildly creative films in France. However, his name is often brought up (even by people who have never seen Surrender) as a cautionary tale of studio stupidity.
The usual narrative of his importation to America is as follows: After the death of Valentino, Hollywood studios were scrambling for a replacement. Mosjoukine’s 1927 version of Casanova was praised across Europe and made an impression in Hollywood. Eureka! A new Great Lover! On strength of his performance, he was invited to join Universal. The studio had him hack a few feet off his schnoz and then put him to work.
Well, the usual narrative is baloney. Time for some myth-busting! (Sharpens knife.)
Let’s start with the easy stuff. Casanova did not open in Paris until September of 1927, while Surrender premiered in October of the same year. I find it highly unlikely that Universal managed to import Casanova, negotiate a contract, get Mosjoukine to California, arrange for his plastic surgery and recovery, and shoot an entire feature in just three weeks. (Trade publications confirmed my suspicions. More on that in a moment.)
Further, I also can find no hard evidence of Mosjoukine’s alleged 1927 American nose job. He still sports an impressive beak in Surrender and I can detect no shrinkage from his work the previous year. I think it is just another one of those impossibly-wicked-movie-mogul stories.
There are even rumors that Hollywood put Mosjoukine in a bad movie to ruin him, which is ridiculous. There were so many easier ways to ruin an actor back then. Ask Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Mabel Normand. (Just to be clear, there is a big difference between foisting bad scripts and low budgets off on an out-of-favor performer and putting a Hollywood newcomer in what is essentially an expensively mounted Springtime for Hitler.)
I don’t know where the Casanova stuff got started. It is clear from industry news of the period that the 1926 Jules Verne-penned epic, Michael Strogoff, was the movie that inspired Mosjoukine’s hiring. A full-blooded adventure story that whizzes by even though it runs nearly three hours (Mosjoukine is one of the credited screenwriters), it was also an impressive epic that was said to have made use of the Latvian army to reenact war between Russians and Tartars. Plus, there is an extensive sequence of stencil tinting and you know how I feel about stencil tinting! Universal was its American distributor.
I should note that the movie is not Valentino-esque. At all. The romance is always secondary to the hero’s duty as courier of the czar and the heroine not only accepts this, she actively helps her love to accomplish his mission. They make quite a team. I have got to review this soon! (Update: I totally did!) I would say that Michael Strogoff can be best compared to the 1924 pirate epic, The Sea Hawk, starring Milton Sills. Much manly derring-do with impressive acting chops to back it up.
Also, Mosjoukine’s eyes get burned out by the Tartars with a white-hot sword blade at the end of act two. Yes, on-screen. I can’t picture Valentino doing that. Sorry. (No, it’s not a spoiler. The source novel is nearly 150 years old and the eye-burning is its most famous scene. But I digress.)
In any case, the point of all this is that Mosjoukine (spelled “Moskine” before they settled on “Mosjukine” in Universal press releases) came to America, either with or without his nose (but most likely with) and went to work.
Universal head Carl Laemmle had a story in mind. In fact, it seems to me that Mosjoukine was chosen specifically because of that story. Laemmle wanted an adaptation of the play Lea Lyon (apparently a favorite of his), a tale of forbidden love between a Jewish girl and a Russian prince. Popular Universal actress Mary Philbin could take the lead. Mosjoukine was an actual Russian. What could be better?
Edward Sloman was chosen to direct. He had a megahit under his belt with His People, a beautiful New York-set story of a Jewish family coping with generational divides, health problems and sibling rivalry. (I cannot recommend His People enough, by the way.)
Sloman did not want the picture (the play was infamously creaky) but Lammle signed the checks and orders were orders. According to Sloman, a good portion of Universal objected to Mosjoukine’s casting but Laemmle got his way on that as well. The frank and reliable Sloman did not mention any Valentino connection in his interview and it seems to me that Laemmle was more interested in the fact that Mosjoukine was Russian than in creating a new Latin (er… Slavic) Lover.
(Some anecdotes about Mosjoukine’s importation include Laemmle hiring him sight unseen because of hearing he was described as the Valentino of Europe. I have been unable to unearth any first-hand accounts of this. As stated before, it’s pretty clear that Laemmle based his hiring on Michael Strogoff. I am always extremely cautious of “too funny/inept to be true” anecdotes as they almost always prove to be myths. However, it is possible that Laemmle used the “Valentino of Europe” description to make his case for hiring Mosjoukine or that it was mentioned in passing during negotiations, I just do not believe it was his only reason.)
I’m sure Laemmle would have liked to make Mosjoukine as popular as Valentino but that does not seem to be the main motivation in signing the actor. In any case, I was unable to track down any primary or secondary source material that mentions the Mosjoukine-Valentino connection. It sounds to me like some overzealous fans or historians played the old 2 + 2 = 7 game, otherwise known as association fallacy. You know, Valentino died in 1926, Mosjoukine came to Hollywood in 1927, there must be a connection! What movie did Mosjoukine make that was like a Valentino movie? Casanova! Therefore, Mosjoukine must have come to Hollywood as a replacement for Valentino! (Similar logic: A dog has four legs, a cat has four legs, therefore a dog is a cat.) I wish these people would stop writing about cinema and go burn witches or something.
And now, my dears, the final nail in coffin of the “Mosjoukine was hired because Valentino died” myth:
This is dated August 14, 1926. Valentino died on August 23. Case rested. Mic dropped. Thank you, good night.
By the way, don’t you love these contradictory rumors? Mosjoukine was brought to Hollywood with great fanfare to be Valentino’s replacement! But Universal studios made a pact with his unnamed rivals to ruin him! Ruin him, how? By putting him in a really expensive movie based on the head of Universal’s favorite play and co-starring the leading lady Universal was hoping to groom for superstardom. Then, to assure the plan really worked, Universal became the American distributor for Michael Strogoff, one of Mosjoukine’s best and most crowd-pleasing European films, and promoted it tirelessly… This scheme is flawless!
The story of Surrender opens at the dawn of the First World War. Our heroine, Lea Lyon (Mary Philbin), is a rabbi’s daughter and lives with her father in a little village on the Austro-Hungarian border. Rabbi Lyon (Nigel de Brulier) is a beloved figure in the village. He dispenses wisdom and good deeds wherever he goes. Lea is engaged to Joshua (Otto Matieson), a bookish fellow conspicuously lacking “it”.
Meanwhile, Constantin (Ivan Mosjoukine), a Russian prince and Cossack commander, is out of uniform, over the border and off on a hunt. He runs into Lea, who is paddling around in a stream, and they immediately begin to flirt. Lea’s father shows up, tells Constantin where he can get off and orders his daughter home. Constantin pulls rank on the rabbi and things look set to get nasty. Lea realizes who Constantin really is (the Russian nobility had a long and cruel history of oppressing their Jewish citizens) and throws herself between him and her father. Everything calms down when Constantin is called off to duty but you just know all this is going to come back to bite Lea and her father.
Yep, it certainly does. You see, a bit later, the Russians take the little village and now Constantin is in charge. He immediately demands to see Lea. Lea’s father has hidden her in a Torah cupboard and denies that he ever had a daughter.
Okay, this man is supposed to be wise and that’s his strategy? Like that’s going to work. I mean, all he had to do was send his daughter over to a neighbor’s place and then claim that she went to see relatives in Vienna or something. But noooooo, he has to keep denying that she ever existed.
Constantin: Where is your daughter?
Lyon: Daughter? Daughter? I don’t have a daughter.
Constantin: Yes, you do. I met her. About five foot two, curly hair, nice legs.
Lyon: I told you, I don’t have a daughter.
Constantin: If you don’t have a daughter, whose dresses are these?
Lyon: The cat’s.
Constantin: Your cat wears dresses?
Lyon: It’s a very fancy cat.
In the film, Constantin quickly finds Lea’s hiding place and begins some very aggressive, grabby wooing, punctuated by debates on the relative guilt of Cossacks in general for crimes against minorities. Needless to say, the tone of these scenes is all over the place.
Then Joshua shows up, demanding to see his fiancée. This is the first Constantin has heard of Lea’s engagement and he is jealous. How could Lea love anyone else when this hunk of Russian man meat is in the room? Hmph! Lea’s father says it is her duty to love her fiancé and then Constantin begins to rhapsodize about how love is not a duty, it must come unbidden.
Now this point of view has merit and to back up what he says, Constantin threatens to burn down the entire village—and everyone in it— if Lea does not sleep with him.
But he said… But they… I mean…
Will Lea surrender or will everyone burn? That’s the moral dilemma they settled on? Seriously? Oh, for goodness sake. Mr. Laemmle, Mr. Sloman, you both should be ashamed of yourselves. (Sloman wrote the screenplay, in addition to directing.)
Normally, I prefer movies to have fairly high stakes but Surrender is not one of them. In fact, the lower the stakes, the better the scenes work. I would even go so far as to say that the only scenes that do work in the film are the ones with as little danger and suspense as possible.
When Constantin discovers Lea’s hiding place and starts pawing her, things take on a skeezy tone. Lea’s father takes up a knife, intending to stab the Cossack. They are interrupted by an announcement that the Sabbath is about to begin and Lea breaks away from Constantin while he is distracted. Now that the caveman stuff is out of the way, we get more character moments. Lea’s father casually sets the knife down on the table in front of Constantin, who realizes, much to his alarm, just how much danger he had been in. This part of the scene has the humor that the rest of the film lacks and it only comes about once the manhandling stops.
In that same sequence, Constantin invites himself to dinner and Lea and her father set about making him as unwelcome and uncomfortable as possible. They “forget” to give him any wine and then serve him a crust of bread and the head of a fish. While there is still danger (he is the commander of an occupying force, after all), the characters are more evenly matched. Lea and her father are on their home turf and are, frankly, a whole lot smarter than their uninvited guest.
Scenes like these represent the Surrender that I wanted to see. I wanted more father-daughter scenes, more village scenes, more humor and some actual character development. In short, I wanted more His People. Unfortunately, the story kept getting in the way.
The original play that the film is based on is pretty much the same but a bit more straightforward. The Cossack shows up as a conqueror, demands Lea and issues a threat but then gets soused and forgets to carry it out. The next day, he falls for her and she for him. Romance. When her father realizes what has happened, he performs an honor killing. The Cossack’s men lose their battle while he was off canoodling and he kills himself. The end. Ew.
My word, how in the world could such a nasty, unpleasant story even be considered for film adaptation? Really, Mr. Laemmle? Really?
On the surface, it must have seemed like a sound plan, at least to Laemmle. Sloman had successfully directed His People and the film was a hit with both the critics and the public. One might argue, though, that His People succeeded, in part, due to a distinct lack of honor killings. Just a thought.
Of course, there was no way that the play Lea Lyon would work as-is. It needed something else, something to replace the father’s murder of his own daughter…
While watching the film, Surrender reminded me of something and I could not put my finger on what. Then, of all people, Mordaunt Hall came to the rescue. Mr. Hall was the New York Times film critic for much of the silent era and he was noted for being less than incisive in his criticism. However, his review for Surrender noted that the film was similar to Boule de Suif by Guy de Maupassant.
Eureka! Then, after a quick reread, I also recalled that John Ford’s Stagecoach borrowed heavily from the French tale (Ford himself acknowledged this). Then I realized that Boule de Suif also clearly inspired the 1959 Yul Brynner/Deborah Kerr vehicle, The Journey. (More on those films in a bit.)
(We are going to be talking about Boule de Suif a lot. Here is a link to a public domain version, which may be read freely on archive.org.)
Since we are going to be discussing Boule de Suif and how it influenced these films, here is a quick and very barebones rundown of the story:
A group of passengers in a carriage are traveling through a war-torn section of France. One of the passengers is a prostitute, nicknamed Boule de Suif or Butterball, who is looked down on by the more respectable travelers. The little party falls into enemy hands and the commanding officer will only let them go if Butterball sleeps with him. She refuses but the other passengers finally wear her down and convince her to sacrifice herself for them. She does and the commanding officer keeps his word, the party is free. Once released, the respectable citizens are openly contemptuous of Butterball for her surrender. So, who is really the immoral one in the story?
Of course, the problem with using this story should be obvious. It’s those high stakes again. The characters in Boule de Suif are being threatened with inconvenience but are not directly menaced. They build up the danger among themselves in order to justify their treatment of Butterball. On the other hand, the entire village in Surrender is being threatened with genocide. I mean, the people are boarded up in their homes, surrounded by Cossacks with lit torches! There is a bit of a difference. While the villagers in Surrender are still asking the heroine to do a terrible thing, their panic is understandable. The social commentary dulled, the story relies on the blackmail plot. However, there is no point to the blackmail unless it is to expose the underlying falseness of the people encouraging our heroine’s surrender.
His People is a beautiful movie and it succeeds because its themes are universal. Surrender, on the other hand, bashes us over the head with a big old sack o’ melodrama. We can’t relate to the characters because no one acts the way a sane, normal human being would act. They are just somewhat deranged cardboard cutouts who exist to further the plot.
*The climax and ending (major spoilers in this and all paragraphs with asterisks) are examples of what I mean. Lea can’t stand her moral knot anymore and runs to Constantin, ready to give him what he wants. He’s pouring on the charm because she clearly wouldn’t be there if she wasn’t smitten. Then he kisses her and makes a startling discovery. She’s not smitten after all and only came because he threatened to kill every single person she knows. Gasp! This revelation makes him repent and then… wait for it… Lea falls for him.
*That sound you heard was me smashing my television screen.
*Out of all the things that happen in silent movies, this cliche annoys me the most. The hero is about to force himself on the heroine but then realizes that it is a Very Bad Thing. She is so grateful that she immediately loves him. Of course. Because that’s exactly how things work.
*Good lord! This guy was also threatening genocide but that’s all forgiven because, apparently, he’s not such a bad guy once you get to know him. Lea even hides Constantin from the advancing Austrian forces and then accepts his proposal of marriage. I know that some people think this is okay because Lea kind of flirted with Constantin before she knew he was a Cossack but, come on, people! If you like a girl and then she learns that you are part of a group that kills and oppresses her people, you don’t win her over by threatening to kill and oppress her people. The only way the film could have pulled this off is if Lea was just being devious and then went full Judith of Bethulia on Constantin. That I would love.
*What was that? Oh, me doing some more smashing.
*So the villagers are annoyed that she is protecting this would-be mass murderer and they are treated like hypocrites. Well, excuse them for not wanting to be burned to death. They’re kind of funny like that. Most people are, in fact. They don’t like to be burned to death. It makes them sad.
*Lea gets thrown out of the village, her dad dies saving her from a stoning and then years pass and she runs into Constantin, who has been rendered penniless by the Russian Revolution. (Good! That man should not be in charge of a lemonade stand.) And he’s like, “Hey.” And she’s like, “Hey.” And they live happily ever after.
*But they’re still different religions! And he, and he, and he….
Never mind! I’m though! I’m done!
I can’t believe I am typing this but… this movie would have been much better without Cossacks or Ivan Mosjoukine. Oof! That hurt. You see, as a general rule, Cossacks make all movies better. Heroes or villains, Cossacks work either way and they look snazzy in their uniforms. And Ivan Mosjoukine is wonderful in anything… except Surrender.
Without the Cossacks and Mosjoukine, we would have had a nice little story of Jewish village life. You couldn’t keep me away from a film like that. It would have been a European Tol’able David. Or the movie might have worked if Constantin had not been in charge and could have been good cop to a bigger villain’s bad cop. Rather than being both hero and villain, Constantin could have had more normal interactions with Lea and her father. Instead, we end up with… this… thing… A weird combination that is neither proper drama nor romantic melodrama.
It has been brought out before but is worth repeating that this caveman romancing was absolutely not Mosjoukine’s forte. As the romantic lead in Russia and France, he won over ladies with some combination of charm, magnetism, nobility or sense of humor. This latter quality is often ignored in examinations of Mosjoukine’s appeal but I feel it is essential to understand that the man was funny. On purpose funny. Goofiness was sometimes part of the seduction. In case you missed last week’s review of The Burning Crucible, we’re talking about a man who did this:
In the same film and assisted by his leading lady, Nathalie Lissenko, he did this:
You know what? There is more charm in these GIFs than there is in all of Surrender. (And why the heck didn’t they make better use of his athletic ability? I mean, I can’t really see Mary Philbin performing a sliding tackle but there surely could have been more for him to do physically.)
Mosjoukine was one of the best actors of the silent era (or any era) and he really doesn’t need me to defend him but miscasting is miscasting. That’s not to say that Mosjoukine was incapable of playing villains but the whiplash-inducing shift from lover to genocidal creep and back to lover is just too abrupt for even the best actor to bridge. He actually seems quite uncomfortable in the role and I certainly cannot blame him. Mosjoukine was an actor who could portray complex emotions with extreme precision. Using him in such coarse melodrama is simply a waste. It’s like using a scalpel to chop firewood.
Surrender is so bad, in fact, that one could almost believe the rumors that Universal had conspired to destroy Mosjoukine. Almost. (You would do well, my lambs, to remember Hanlon’s Razor: “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.”)
Another issue is the fact that Mosjoukine claimed to speak no English and Sloman spoke no Russian. (Sloman intimated that he believed Mosjoukine knew more English than he let on, clever boy.) His instructions were conveyed to the actor through an interpreter. Sloman stated that Mosjoukine was standoffish but gave him no trouble and acted exactly as directed. However, the language barrier doubtlessly resulted in a less rich and nuanced performance.
On the plus side, the film has atmosphere to spare, a rare setting for silent cinema and it boasts of some rather attractive camera work. There is a particularly impressive scene at the beginning of the film where the camera swoops along the point of view of Mosjoukine’s rifle sights.
This talent for atmosphere creates issues of its own. As Lea is walking through her village, the citizens shout for her to help them. They are boarded into their home and Cossacks stand by with lit torches. You definitely feel their fear. And after this we are expected to like Constantin?
Mary Philbin does well enough, though not spectacularly. She is the central figure in the film, though, and so-so is just not good enough. Like most other elements of the film, she does best in the quieter, cuter scenes and falls apart when things gets serious. Philbin was shy and tended to key off the energy of her co-stars. Mosjoukine’s quiet demeanor on the set was clearly no help to her.
For his part, Mosjoukine was used to more creative control (in addition to acting, he was a credited director, cinematographer and he wrote many of the films he starred in) and the warm company of fellow Russian expats. A few Russians worked in Surrender as extras but it can hardly be compared to the Russian-run studios that Mosjoukine was accustomed to. He also was, frankly, used to competent and experienced leading ladies who could pull their own weight. Mary Philbin could be pretty good under the right circumstances but she was incapable of going it alone.
Surrender was not the blockbuster that Laemmle and Universal had hoped for but it was not the bomb we are often led to believe. The New York Times sniffed at it but Photoplay praised it to the skies. (The same magazine dismissed Michael Strogoff as so-so. Shows you what they know.) In any case, The Jazz Singer had opened just before Surrender and the talkies were already building momentum. Instead of looking to continental Europe, studios were looking to the English-speaking stage for their new superstars.
If you came to this movie for Ivan Mosjoukine, see anything else. Literally, anything else. In fact, I beg you to do so. I re-watched this film for the review right on the heels of seeing The Peasants’ Lot, The Burning Crucible, Michael Strogoff (which was amazing, by the way) and The House in Kolomna. The contrast is extraordinary. Hollywood managed to sap every ounce of charisma from the man and it beats me how they managed it.
If you came for a respectful look at Jewish culture in a Hollywood film, see His People. If you came for Mary Philbin, see The Man Who Laughs. Surrender is a miss and a rather unpleasant one. Not recommended for newcomers to silent film.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★
Where can I see it?
Surrender was released on DVD by Grapevine. Originally released at an 8-reel length, this version runs just 77 minutes. Assuming even a fairly speedy projection rate, that is about 12 minutes per reel or 96 minutes. From Brownlow’s description of (what sounds like) the more complete print he saw, it seems that there were some scenes of village life that got cut from this version. A pity. (Silent films were often sliced down for re-release, this is not Grapevine’s fault.)
As I mentioned before, The Journey also borrowed heavily from the plot of Boule de Suif. In fact, it lifted more than Surrender ever did.
The Talkie Challenger: The Journey (1959)
The basic story: The Soviet hammer has come down on Hungary and a disparate group of passengers find themselves stranded on their way out of the country. They are forced to take a bus to the Austrian border but two of the passengers have a secret.
Lady Diana Ashmore (Deborah Kerr) is rescuing her Hungarian lover (Jason Robards, sounding not even slightly Hungarian), an escaped political prisoner who calls himself Fleming. The other passengers include an American family (one of the sons played by Ron Howard) and a pompous English reporter (Robert Morely). There are others but those are the main ones.
The group is stopped at the very last checkpoint, just across the river from Austria. Major Surov (Yul Brynner) seizes their passports and the passengers find themselves stranded in the local hotel. Lady Ashmore catches the eye of Surov and as their detention stretches on, the other passenger begin to suspect that there are personal reasons why they are being held…
This movie has quite a following, mostly fans of the Brynner-Kerr screen team. Reading these gushing reviews, I must wonder if we saw the same film. The Journey has deep structural flaws that it simply cannot overcome. Regarding these flaws, I am afraid I have a heart of stone. Even Brynner’s bald pate is not enough to salvage it in my eyes.
The main problem with the film is its script. You see, the influence of Boule de Suif is quite clear but the point of the tale is missed. Like Surrender, the plot of The Journey is more fixated with the blackmail and less concerned with the hypocrisy of the fellow passengers. It is touched on but the power dynamic of the tale has changed so much that the bite of the social commentary has been muffled. In this case, it has been replaced with rah-rah anti-commie stuff, which I’m sure went down well in 1959 but this is not 1959.
In the original story, Butterball is not a rich woman or a powerful one. She has no handsome freedom fighter to make a sacrifice for. She is at the bottom rung of society. Kerr’s character, on the other hand, is a British aristocrat. She is divorced, to be sure, but that hardly carried a comparable stigma in 1956, the year that the film is set. She is still “Lady Ashmore” before all else. The other passengers may not agree with her support for the Hungarian freedom fighters but it is due to personal cowardice and naiveté, not disdain.
There is no moral ambiguity, except on the part of Yul Brynner’s character. Kerr is a brave and noble woman sacrificing herself for the semi-unworthy passengers and her very worthy lover. It’s the oldest form of sainthood in the movie playbook. She is torn because Yul Brynner is the Officially Sanctioned Second Love Interest. And by torn I mean that she barely manages to avoid spitting on his boots. Not a lot of chemistry here, at least in my opinion.
Kerr’s character is so one-dimensional that I am at a loss as to what, exactly, makes her so irresistible to Brynner. This is a problem as she is the one character who must be well-drawn. By converting Boule de Suif into a forbidden romance, the script is forced to develop the character of the enemy commander, a character who does not matter to the point of the story. It didn’t make any difference why the Prussian wanted Butterball, what mattered was how she and the other passengers reacted.
Frankly, we are also left with the fact that Kerr’s character does nothing but escalate an already dangerous situation, calling attention to herself and her companions with random flag-waving. Oh great idea, lecture the slightly unhinged guy who eats glass (really) and randomly takes tour groups captive. If I were on the bus with her, I would want to smack her silly. She is the movie equivalent of that person who misses their plane and then yells at the airport staff, “Do you know who I am?” I have been stuck around enough of these people to have a very low tolerance.
Certainly, there were, to put it mildly, issues with the USSR’s foreign policy and human rights record and the situation in Hungary was dreadful but the time to debate that is maybe not when one of their officers is holding your passport. Especially if that officer is a bit, er, odd. I just get a little annoyed when an entire movie plot can be avoided by employing a teensy shred of common sense.
Finally, Jason Robards is saddled with a character who has just as little personality as Kerr’s. That means that two points in the love triangle are taken up with very boring people, leaving Yul Brynner to do all the heavy lifting. The script would have been improved immensely if the romance had been removed. The spy vs. spy aspect at least had potential to be interesting and it would have been an intriguing battle of wits. Then we could have had the heroes on the run and some real excitement. I am thinking something like Man Hunt, perhaps.
Further, the large supporting cast is introduced and then essentially forgotten (except for Morely and the parents of the American family) once Brynner enters the film. It seems a bit odd to have a dozen or so characters doing the work of three. The preview promises an ensemble cast and debates on modern life. A Cold War Twelve Angry Men! Nope. The other characters have essentially no interpersonal relationships outside of their behavior toward the love triangle trio.
Again, bringing back in Boule de Suif, Lady Ashmore makes some spectacularly stupid decisions and endangers everyone else with her behavior. She brings an escaped prisoner among civilians, gets mouthy to the Russians and then blows her own escape plan by not shutting up. Once more for emphasis, she hides a political prisoner among civilians, who include children. That is not cool. Ashmore and her lover could have left the bus early in the movie when it was stopped at a partisan checkpoint but they didn’t. In contrast, Butterball was entirely a victim of both the Prussians and her fellow French citizens.
Speaking of stupid, why did no one report Brynner for his strange detention (at state expense) of a large party of civilians? Does he do this often? If I were a Soviet poobah, I would certainly object to state funds being used this way. Stuffed cabbage is not free! (That is pretty much all everyone eats in this picture. That’s all well and good but wouldn’t that get a tad… aromatic? Especially in such close quarters?)
Yul is stationed at a border crossing, presumably he has foreigners passing through at a fairly regular clip. Why is he acting like he has never met a non-Russian? Is his usual romantic method to trip his lady love up in red tape and then wait around until she decides she loves him? If so, that seems dreadfully inefficient. Why does Yul act like its such a big deal to learn Lady Ashmore’s first name during the drinking game? Hasn’t he been holding her passport for, like, days?
Without the central conflict and questions about who is in the right, all we are left with is a fierce performance from Brynner (a definite plus) and a rather long-winded piece of fifties propaganda. I swear, if that partisan fighter chick showed up in the crowd to stare at Brynner one more time… (I find it interesting that Litvak employs the same propaganda trick that Eisenstein used much more successfully against the Germans in Alexander Nevsky. The side of right has warrior women and passionate female supporters while the enemy women are not to be seen, emphasizing their alien nature. Or at least that’s what Eisenstein accomplished. This movie, not so much.)
There has got to be a drinking game in this, is all I can think.
- One shot for Partisan Chick staring at Yul ominously
- One shot for Ron Howard acting like Opie Taylor
- One shot for Jason Robards blowing his cover spectacularly (“I’m only a Hungarian-speaking fellow with no fingernails and a bullet in my chest. I claim to be English but talk like an American, live in Austria, am visiting Hungary and my passport has nary a stamp. Not suspicious at all!”)
- One shot for Deborah Kerr making things worse by being whiny or rude
On second thought, don’t do it. You’ll be soused by mid-point. On third thought, maybe that is a better way to watch this movie.
And just so you know, I understand the emotions of George Tabori. He was a Hungarian and he was writing about his country and people. Director Anatole Litvak was Ukrainian and had defected to the west. I think both writer and director may have been too close to their material. It’s a very common issue when making a film as topical and political as The Journey. What should have been a story turned into a screed.
In contrast, Litvak’s direction of Anastasia, another Russian subject and also starring Yul Brynner, was brilliant and struck the perfect balance between fairy tale and reality. Characters came before events. Anastasia is one of my favorite movies but I find Litvak’s work to be very hit and miss in general.
And the winner is…
While the sound film boasts of good performances from Brynner and the always-excellent Robert Morley, it fails as a character study and its propaganda is a bit too ham-fisted to be enjoyable. Kerr is given nothing to do except be noble. While Surrender has an improbable happy ending, it at least realizes on some level that it is brainless fluff.
(Can I mention here how sick I am of watching movies where Yul Brynner’s performance is the only asset? Why didn’t someone put him in better films? A few great ones do not make up for the wave of meh titles.)
Simply put, the propagandistic aspects of The Journey date it badly. Propaganda films can be enjoyable but in order for them to age well, they have to have a decent story underneath the sermon. Since the entire point of the source tale is missed, we are left with the lesson that “some Russians are okay, I guess, but most are horrid and you guys in the West are sure jerks for abandoning Hungary,” which does not exactly flow on movie posters.
Plus, The Journey take for-stinkin’-ever for anything to happen. It drags and drags and drags… and then it drags some more. Over two hours! Boule de Suif was only about 50 pages long. I felt like I was being held prisoner along with Deborah Kerr. Rather than being contemptuous of the other passengers, I began to actually sympathize with them.
I have rarely been so relieved to see “The End” appear on a television screen, let me tell you.
Look, I understand that The Journey has fans and I can certainly see its appeal to devotees of the Kerr/Brynner pairing but it just did not work its magic for me. Please don’t throw your vodka glasses at my head.
While neither film is a masterpiece, at least Surrender did not bore me. Infuriated me, certainly, but never bored me. And you can never accuse the characters of being dull. Weird, certainly, but not dull. (Though I always appreciate a chance to ogle Yul Brynner. Swoon!)
But wait, there’s more!
The fun never stops! You see, there is one more take on the tale that we need to cover. The one that got it right.
Stagecoach is an awfully good movie. So good in fact, that I am not even going to bother playing games. It is by far the best of the three films I am featuring. Let’s take a moment to understand why it is so excellent and why it succeeds in adapting Boule de Suif to a new time and place.
The idea that Boule de Suif inspired Stagecoach has been pooh-poohed in some corners and Bret Harte’s short story, The Outcasts of Poker Flat, is listed as the true inspiration. While I do think that some elements of Harte’s tale were used, notably the pregnant passenger and the character of Dallas, the mark of Boule de Suif is unmistakable. (Quite frankly, I find Bret Harte’s tales to be tedious and singularly unsuitable for film adaptation.)
The Motion Picture Production Code may have actually saved the day. You see, both Surrender and The Journey got caught up in the dubious thrill of sexual blackmail. Well, there was no way that was going to fly in the uptight movie world of 1939 Hollywood. Instead, Stagecoach is forced to reckon with the real core of the original story: The very nature of morality and goodness.
I believe that critics who dismiss the Boule de Suif connection are also placing too much weight on the blackmail plot of the original story. The fact that Butterball is pressured to give herself to the commander is not the point of the story, it is merely a tool for revealing the true nature of the characters and exposing the hypocrisy of the so-called respectable citizens. It would have been less dramatic but the same result could have been obtained if Butterball were a pickpocket who was persuaded to ply her trade one last time in order to save the ungrateful passengers. They use her skills to buy their freedom and then look down on her for possessing those skills in the first place.
Stagecoach takes a generally more positive view of humanity. The snobs on the stagecoach learn to appreciate their unrefined companions the going gets tough.
I am going to take for granted that everyone has at least a passing familiarity with the plot of the film. If not, shame on you! Go see it at once! Take it from someone who is neither a fan of John Ford or John Wayne. If that’s not a recommendation, I don’t know what is.
Claire Trevor’s Dallas is a beautifully written character. While the basic thumbnail sketch of a working girl with a heart of gold was old even in 1939, she is a bit more complicated than that.
Dallas is a true romantic who is genuinely hurt at the battering life has given her. The Ringo Kid (John Wayne) is her equal in romantic notions. Some of the other characters are polite to Dallas, some are even her friends but Ringo’s unsophisticated manners mean that he is the only one who treats her like a lady. Her relationship with him is both romantic and maternal as she strives to maintain his innocence and prevent him from discovering her past.
More than anything, Stagecoach has the advantage of understanding that replicating the spirit of a story is more important than lifting events out of context and twisting them to fit an unsuitable narrative. Stagecoach knows what it is about, it knows its characters and it knows how to tell a rip-snorter of a story.
Further, the colorful cast of characters is used to the full. Unlike The Journey, not a single one of these interesting people feels underused or wasted.
While Stagecoach is ultimately a happier story than Boule de Suif, it asks the same questions about human nature and the quality of innocence. Simply put, this film is a classic for a reason.