Sergei Bondarchuk’s 1967 film adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel War and Peace is a cinematic masterpiece that successfully captures the complexity, depth, and grandeur of one of the greatest literary works of all time. At a runtime of over seven hours, the film is a monumental achievement in filmmaking, showcasing Bondarchuk’s talent as a director, writer, and actor.
The film is set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars, and follows the lives of several aristocratic families as they navigate the tumultuous political and social landscape of Russia. The central characters are the idealistic and romantic Pierre Bezukhov (played by Bondarchuk himself), the strong-willed and passionate Natasha Rostova (played by Lyudmila Savelyeva), and the calculating and ambitious Prince Andrei Bolkonsky (played by Vyacheslav Tikhonov). The film traces their journeys from innocence to experience, from love to heartbreak, and from idealism to disillusionment, against the backdrop of war, politics, and social upheaval.
One of the most striking aspects of the film is its sheer scale and ambition. Bondarchuk spares no expense in recreating the lavish costumes, stunning landscapes, and epic battle scenes of the novel. The battle of Borodino, in particular, is a tour-de-force of filmmaking, with over 15,000 extras and hundreds of horses and cannons creating a visceral and unforgettable spectacle. The film’s use of widescreen and color cinematography is also noteworthy, capturing the beauty and majesty of the Russian countryside and the opulence and decadence of the aristocratic estates.
But while the film is undoubtedly a visual feast, it is also a deeply psychological and philosophical exploration of the human condition. The characters are complex and nuanced, each struggling to find meaning and purpose in a world that seems to be crumbling around them. Bondarchuk’s performance as Pierre is especially noteworthy, capturing the character’s vulnerability, idealism, and existential angst with great depth and sensitivity. His scenes with Natasha, played with equal sensitivity and nuance by Savelyeva, are some of the most emotionally powerful in the film, showcasing the complexities and contradictions of human love.
The film’s script, co-written by Bondarchuk and Vasiliy Solovyov, is also a triumph of adaptation. While some may argue that the film takes liberties with the novel, compressing and simplifying certain storylines and characters, the overall effect is one of clarity and coherence. The film successfully distills the essence of the novel, capturing its themes of love, war, and morality, and bringing them to life in a way that is both engaging and thought-provoking.
Of course, no film is without its flaws, and War and Peace is no exception. Some may find the film’s pacing slow, especially in the first half, and the sheer length of the film may be daunting for some viewers. Additionally, some of the secondary characters, such as the scheming Helene Kuragina (played by Anastasiya Vertinskaya), may feel underdeveloped and one-dimensional. But these are minor quibbles in the grand scheme of things, and do little to detract from the film’s overall power and impact.
In conclusion, Sergei Bondarchuk’s 1967 film adaptation of War and Peace is a true masterpiece of cinema, capturing the scope, depth, and beauty of Leo Tolstoy’s novel with skill, sensitivity, and ambition. It is a film that rewards patience and attention, offering a rich and rewarding experience for those willing to invest the time and energy. If you are a lover of cinema or literature, or simply a seeker of great stories, then War and Peace is a film that should not be missed.
In 1812, Western Europe was doing pretty much the same thing it’s trying to do today, trying to destroy Russia and its Orthodox Christian civilization. Indeed, when Napoleon crossed the Nieman River at the head of what was up until that point the largest army the world had ever seen, the Russian people, like the people of Spain and the royalist French counterrevolutionaries of the Vendee in the years before, saw him as the anti-Christ, the beast on horseback who would bring the godless red terror of the French Revolution to their doorsteps. They weren’t entirely wrong. The French sack of the fortress city of Smolensk was not only brutal, it threatened to destroy an icon of the Virgin Mary that Russian legend maintained had been rescued from the Ottoman Siege of Constantinople in 1453. Later that year, just before the Battle of Borodino, the Stalingrad of 1812, the Russian Army held a religious service where the Smolensk icon was displayed in front of over 100,000 soldiers, many of whom would die that day in the great battle that finally broke Napoleon’s aura of godlike invincibility. While Napoleon would drive the Russian Army from the field, then go on to occupy Moscow, the West had lost the apocalyptic clash of civilizations. Orthodox Russia would survive for another 105 years until 1917, when Lenin and the Bolsheviks destroyed it for good.
Or did they? That Sergei Bondarchuk could make his epic movie War and Peace in 1967 with the full state support of Brezhnev’s Soviet Union is something of a miracle. If it’s one thing the Soviet Union was good at it was putting history on screen. October by Sergei Eisenstein not only captured the storming of the Winter Palace on film, it became almost a historical event in and of itself. Bondarchuk’s film, which features tens of thousands of Red Army soldiers as extras, and which includes a full length reenactment of the veneration of the Smolensk Icon, is most emphatically not a communist movie. It is, rather, a resurrection of the Russia of Czar Alexander II, of the first Great Patriotic War, of the grand aristocratic society the Soviet Union had supposedly replaced. If we American love tabloid stories about the British Royal Family, we have nothing on those Russian communists of the 1960s who pretty much built a complete live action museum of a Christian empire that was gone forever. Compared to Bondarchuk’s epic, American attempts to recapture their history, from the silly Ted Turner Gettysburg of the 1990s, to classics like Gone With the Wind, seem almost primitive and childish.
Nevertheless, if Bondarchuk’s film is not a communist film, it’s not exactly a reactionary one either. Rather, it is a herculean attempt to bring Leo Tolstoy’s novel, and his deeply mature humanism, to cinema. Having read War and Peace twice, in English translation of course, I can say almost without reservation, that this film comes pretty close to succeeding. It’s not just that Bondarchuk manages to recreate a realistic facsimile of the world of 1812, it’s that he also manages to dramatize how small, relatively insignificant humans interact with gigantic historical events that threaten to crush them. In the burning of Moscow, for example, the film’s climatic sequence, and it does register as a climax after almost 6 hours of exposition, Pierre Bezukhov, the novel’s hero and Tolstoy’s alter-ego, who’s played by Bondarchuk himself, has stayed behind as part of a quixotic desire to assassinate Napoleon. The French, who had marched into the city in good order, have degenerated into a rapacious mob, looting and murdering civilians, raping women, and shooting at random civilians who they believe responsible for setting the fires. When a woman calls out that she has lost her child in the fire, Bezukhov forgets about his plan to assassinate Napoleon and bulls his way through a group of French soldiers in the direction of her house. The French, who had just finished looting it, tell Bezukhov that the child was indeed in the courtyard. They had made no attempt to rescue her, but don’t seem particularly interested in stopping the would be Russian hero from doing it himself.
Pierre Bezhukov succeeds in rescuing the child, but cannot find her mother. Did she die in the flames? Was she killed by the French? We never find out. Then the mood of the French soldiers changes just as suddenly as a fire changes direction in a strong wind. Even though he’s clearly got a child in his arms and he’s clearly looking for her mother, the French soldiers accuse him of being a saboteur, an incendiary who helped start the fires. They force him to abandon the child and lead him off to his execution. In the end, as anybody who’s read the novel knows, Pierre Bezhukov is not executed by the French. Rather he’s taken west on the retreat, death march of the French Army back to Western Europe, where, one by one, his companions are tied to a post and shot, the vulnerable 19-year-old boy, the kindly middle-aged man who had prevented him from starving, a few innocent peasants they picked up along the way, until he’s miraculously rescued by Cossacks. During his rescue, is he thinking about the child he saved from the fire but couldn’t save from the mob? We never find out. But Bondarchuk has succeeded beyond our wildest expectations of what it’s like to be caught in the maelstrom of history.
If the film has a weakness, it’s probably Bondarchuk’s decision to cast himself as Pierre Bezhukov. Pierre is a giant, physically powerful young man in his 20s on an elaborate philosophical and spiritual quest. Bondarchuk is a square, plain man in his 40s. He’s certainly better in the role than Henry Fonda was in the King Vidor version (what kind of drugs do you have to be on to cast Henry Fonda a Russian?) or Anthony Hopkins in the BBC miniseries from the 1970s, but the role really calls for a young Gerard Depardieu or Liam Neeson, a burly, brute of a man restrained only his cultivated spirituality. Then again, perhaps it’s not a flaw so much as an aesthetic choice. Bondarchuk feels so stiff and unemotive in the role that perhaps he decided to cast himself, not as a character in the novel, but as a witness to the novel’s events. Indeed, in real life, Pierre’s decision to stroll around the Battle of Borodino, a meatgrinder that made Gettysburg or Antietam seem almost bloodless in comparison, would have gotten him killed in the first five minutes of the battle. It would be impossible to depict these passages in Tolstoy’s novel realistically without spending the entire time with Pierre huddled behind an earthwork desperately trying not to get hit by shrapnel. Instead he becomes almost a disembodied presence, the angel of history recording one of history’s most hellish moments.
Vyacheslav Tikhonov as the brooding, intellectual Andrei Bolkonsky is somewhat better. Tall, spare, with aquiline features and graceful movements, he embodies Tolstoy’s tragic aristocratic hero. Anatoly Ktorov as Andrei’s father is even better yet. Somehow he manages to evoke in 1967 the wistful nostalgia of an old man in 1812 for old world that had vanished decades before 1812. How exactly did the proletarian dictatorship of the Soviet Union end up with so many actors so good at playing aristocrats? Ludmila Savelyeva, bears a striking resemblance to Audrey Hepburn, who played Natasha in the King Vidar film, but a Slavic Audrey Hepburn with none of the original’s — all apologies to fans of Ms. Hepburn — Anglo Saxon brittleness. Savelyeva’s Natasha, like Bondarchuk’s Pierre, is an abstract portrayal, but it’s on the opposite end of the scale. Savelyeva at times comes off like the most beautiful woman who ever lived. But at other times she comes off like a petulant, almost stupid child. She embodies all of the contradictions of aristocratic Russian girlhood as seen through the eyes of a mid-20th Century Soviet filmmaker.
Natasha is also the focal point of the film’s recreation of Russian society, the “peace” half of the novel to Andrei’s and Pierre’s “war.” Bondarchuk’s depiction of the grand balls of Alexander II are filmed with as much painstaking detail and elaborate choreography as his battle scenes. You can’t do any of this with CGI. At her coming out party, when Natasha attends her first grand ball thrown by the Czar himself, the camera follows her entrance into the palace. We weave our way in and out of the crowd, like children approaching the beach for the first time hearing seagulls and smelling salt water. When he have finished climbing to the top of the staircase and can finally see the length and breadth of the ballroom, the elegance and splendor of the guests, it almost takes our breath away. “So that was the world that was lost,” we think. We don’t even bother to remember how that beautiful world was built on the brutal exploitation of tens of millions of impoverished serfs. But we don’t care. If a communist filmmaker can enjoy such a spectacle of the aristocratic past, so can we.
E. E. Cummings (B-) “Edward. You should a good deal of creativity and independence of mind but spelling conventions exist for a reason.”
Shakespeare (C+) “Bill. I really liked some of your work, especially the play about the failson who has a thing for his mom and the two young lovers but you tend to take it a little over the top sometimes and just out and out make up words. I’m only being so hard on you because I think you can do better.”
Mark Twain (F): “Mr. Clemens. We do not use the N word in this class. Please resubmit.”
Rimbaud (D): “Monsieur Rimbaud. We really don’t need to know about all the drugs you’ve done. If you want to start a punk band, start a punk band. This is high school.”
Victor Hugo (C+): “Victor. You show some potential and have some interesting stories but you consistently run over the word count limit. You can probably get away with it here but it’s going to hurt you when you get to college.”
T.S. Eliot (F): “Mr. Eliot. You’re not as clever as you think you are. We naive old Boomers have this little program called Turnitin. You have clearly plagiarized much of your ‘poem.’ Putting in footnotes doesn’t excuse it. Please see the Vice Principal. He will arrange a conference with your parents.”
Jonathan Swift: (D): “Ooo. Real edgy about eating babies. Get off the Internet and grow up. This is a class, not shit posting on 8Chan.”
John Milton: (B+): “Pretty good poem, if a bit long. But as my mother used to tell me, mixing politics and religion usually just leads to bad feeling. Next time try to find a more neutral subject.”
Emily Bronte( A-): “We all love the bad boys, especially when we’re young. But see your sister’s paper for a warning. They’re usually hiding something unpleasant in the closet.”
Samuel Beckett: (F): “Some of us are still waiting for the point Sam. Did you even read the instructions?”
Emile Zola (D): “I’m not really interested in your politics. Do better.”
Mark: (A-): “Absolutely terrific story about a poor boy who grows up to be a great teacher and spiritual adviser. Can the subaltern speak? You’ve proven that against the Roman Empire he can. I loved the imagery of the three crosses and that scene where he chases the money changers out of the temple. Terrific writing. But I can’t help but think you got a bit lazy with the ending. What? They kill him and then he just gets up and walks? Reminds me of a bad TV show where the screenwriter resolves the plot by saying it’s all a dream.”
Charles Bukowski (D): “I know you may not want to hear this but you’re actually a privileged white male. You got that unionized job at the Post Office and some better qualified person of color didn’t. Stop being so self-indulgent.”
Noam Chomsky (F): “Right. It’s all the media’s fault. How is that working out for our current President. Fake news. Fake news. And where did you get most of your examples. From the media, of course.”
Phillip Roth (A): “I liked the book about the Nazis taking over New Jersey but the one about the boy jerking off borders on sexual harassment. But I guess I better give you an A because if I don’t you’ll go whining to the ADL.”
William Faulker (D): “I honestly didn’t understand half of what you wrote. And much of it is borderline ableist and racist.”
Karl Marx: (C): “Lazy political writing. You ignore the intersectional complexity of our patriarchal and racist society to concentrate on class. You seem to have gotten most of your idea of what a proletarian looks like from a Springsteen album.”
(Thomas Henry Harrison, a hero of The Killer Angels, a Confederate spy who survived Pickett’s charge and died in 1923 at the age of 91. Note: In 1923, William Faulkner was already 26.)
Back in the 1990s, Ted Turner produced a 4 hour long film about the Battle of Gettysburg called, appropriately enough, Gettysburg. Based on Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Killer angels, it wasn’t exactly a bad movie. It had good performances by Jeff Daniels as Joshua Chamberlain and Sam Elliot as John Buford, but it fell far short of an adequate dramatization of the blood bath that took place in Pennsylvania early in July 1863. Politically, it was the usual watered down, “brother against brother” pablum that masquerades as the history of the United States Civil War. To quote Donald Trump, “there were fine people on both sides.”
Michael Shaara, an Italian American from Jersey City, New Jersey, and a graduate of Rutgers University in New Brunswick, was not exactly an aristocrat from “Old Virginia.” But that’s clearly where his sympathies lie. Shaara can’t quite help himself. Like Confederate General James Longstreet, the ultimate hero of The Killer Angels, a South Carolinian of Dutch, not English, descent, a man who ultimately regretted fighting for Lee and the Confederacy, Shaara watches the destruction of the elite of old Virginia’s chivalry with barely muted horror. Nothing that Shaara does to remind us that he’s a Yankee and a liberal, his narrative parallel between the brilliant Union cavalry officer John Buford, and his incompetent southern counterpart J.E.B Stuart, the heroic stand of the largely working-class, 20th Maine Regiment at Little Round Top, or Longstreet’s hard headed realism about the South’s chances for a victory in Pennsylvania matter, matters. His heart’s not in it. Like the novel’s moronic English military observer Arthur Freemantle, we came out of the novel infatuated with the Army of Northern Virginia. We want nothing more than to die for Robert E. Lee, to preserve the aristocratic, Protestant, Anglo Saxon way of life. That in and of itself makes the Killer Angels a good novel, almost in spite of itself.
The most important question about the United States Civil War is not whether Lee or Grant was the better general, or if the South could had won had Stonewall Jackson not been killed a few months before Gettysburg at the Battle of Chancellorsville. It’s this. Why did so many poor white Southerners fight for their oppressors, for aristocrats like Robert E. Lee who kept them in a state of poverty almost as bad as their slaves?
The Union soldiers at Gettysburg, all those German and Irish immigrants right off the boat from old Europe, were always well-fed, well-clothed, and well-provisioned. They also had a rational cause to fight for. They might have been as racist as their southern counterparts, but ending slavery, destroying the system that made them compete unpaid labor, benefitted them materially. That land stolen in the west stolen from Mexico would ultimately be divided up and parceled out to them under the Homestead Act to create hundreds of thousands of small capitalists. The typical Confederate private fought hungry and barefoot, and yet he fought magnificently. As Shaara points out, Gettysburg, the first great Union victory in the Eastern theater of the war, was the first time most of the Union soldiers had seen confederate soldiers run. Man for man, the Army of Northern Virginia was one of the greatest armies in history. They lost at Gettysburg only because they were massively outgunned, out supplied, and because the Union Army held the high ground. Even so, they almost won.
Robert E. Lee, like Donald Trump or George W. Bush, was a magnetic, almost cult-life figure for conservative white Americans. John Longstreet, on the other hand, was an intelligent, rational man who knew how to manage an army of 100,000 men, but did not know how to inspire. Thus, he finds himself in the position of watching Lee lead the men he loved into a suicidal charge against hopeless odds. What Longstreet, or even Lee, doesn’t quite understand, is that many of the men in the Army of Northern Virginia wanted to commit suicide at Gettysburg, to die a romantic death in the prime of their youth against the Yankee invader. Many of them knew that what the United States would inevitably become, even if the South won, an industrial capitalist oligarchy that reduced everything to its vulgar exchange value, was not a world they wanted to live in. So, to quote Union General John Buford about the Union defeat that never came, “they charged valiantly, and were butchered valiantly.”
The problem is the American working class, at least in the South and Midwest, still has the same suicidal romanticism, the same desire to die a meaningless death for the ruling class. That the American ruling class no longer looks like Robert E. Lee, a courtly gentleman with exquisite manners, but instead looks like Donald Trump, a vulgar creep who jokes about grabbing women by the pussy, reflects the transformation of American capitalism over the past 150 years. Our aristocrats no longer have to put on a show. They know we’ll follow them anyway, however awful they become. Novelists like Michael Shaara, therefore, unwilling to embrace a revolutionary alternative to capitalism, can only look at the past with wistful nostalgia. They forever remain Faulkner’s 14-year-old Southern boy waiting for George Pickett to wave his hat and say “forward boys for old Virginia.”
For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances…
What are we beyond our memories? It was just after having a petty argument with the florist, an ignorant teen as she was that Ove first exposes the dimensions of his existence. Grieved by the death of the only love of his life, Sonja, we see him dissipating his space by magnifying his trivialities. A man that knew no work than the one that involved car engines, we see a reflection of unfaithful involvement with life in his disturbed yet deliberate movement. Who is this man; one may ask. There are blatant contradictions in his existence. Who is this being who dejects life and then lives only to uphold every law of it? We get our answers, unwoven thread by thread, in Hannes Holme’s A Man Called Ove.
The most fascinating element of this film is the use of space. We not only see the characters associating meanings to a particular space but also get metaphorically represented by it. For instance, the movie hardly shows us panoramic view of the entire space. Mostly, we are kept in the ‘guarded’ and ‘restricted’ space of Ove’s residential colony, his home and during the latter part of the film, his car. The only instances of open space with elements of movement and divergence come in the flashback scenes from Ove’s childhood and adulthood when there were present, reasons for him to escape linearity. This contradiction in the use of space in the representation of past and present tells us about the importance of life in the eyes of this weary old man called Ove. After the death of his wife Sonja, his life has lost any motivation to move beyond the linearity and hence the only space he restricts himself to is the restricted and regimented space of his residence. Moreover, it is only during his budding friendship with Parvaneh that we see the open space of a restaurant or the city road being brought back to his life (Interestingly he relates such openness with the time he used to have with his wife).
It is hard to deny the metaphorical use of space in the narrative of the film. The one that strikes the most is the train station. It is this space where we see intertwining of Ove’s past, present and a probable future. It is this space that stands for the very nature life; which is nothing but a mosaic of losses and love, of things being built and destroyed. So much so that the moving train almost felt like the ruthless movement of life itself. We are introduced to this space time and again to emphasise on the philosophy that life cannot be contextualised unitarily. It is the semiotic nature of everything that life offers us that makes it beyond every degree human comprehension. One baring example of this can be the scene from Ove’s mother’s funeral.
Lastly, I’ll take this discussion on memories to the use of strong representational symbols. And the one that struck me the most was the cat. Like every morning of life, this cat kept on showing up on Ove’s door, every time more undesirable than before, even after his constant shooing off. As the movie progresses, we can see the changing relationship of the cat with the protagonist that ran parallel to the change in perspective on life that he had. It is when Parvaneh tells him that it is you that have to take care of this cat that I see a bell being rang in Ove’s head telling him that his life shall be engineered by his own volition.
Even though there existed a beautiful sub-narrative that talked about inclusivity and diversity (the fact that Ove became friends with an Iranian refugee and a gay man) it is the natural display of empathy that inspired the screenplay. The very idea that we can delve into each others’ hearts while not being patronising at all speaks volumes about the most important common denominator that we share – humanity.
A revolutionary novel by a forgotten reactionary novelist.
My hometown of Roselle, NJ is in a very old part of the United States. Elizabeth, the nearest big city, was founded in 1664. Westfield, the most important town in the western part of the county, was settled in 1712, and contains a house that dates all the way back to New Amsterdam. Unless you have a very sharp eye, however, you won’t notice much of the state’s colonial heritage, and for a very good reason. Not much of it is left. The currently existing landscape of northern New Jersey was built in two waves. The massive construction of working-class suburbs in the 1940s and 1950s that came out of the Baby Boom and the G.I Bill is fairly well known. “Little boxes on the hillside,” Pete Seeger sung in Little Boxes, his savage attack on post-war American suburbia, “little boxes made of ticky tacky, little boxes on the hillside, little boxes all the same.” Most of the grand mansions and solidly built colonial revivals, on the other hand, the houses that have retained their value in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, were built during the less well-understood, but probably more important phase of economic development that unfolded during the two decades before the First World War. If the suburbanization of the 1940s and 1950s was based on the car culture, the suburbanization of the 1890s and 1900s was based on the construction of railroads. Starting at about 1890 and continuing on through about 1910, the colonial era towns of Union County, NJ, which up until then had been mostly farmland, were rebuilt as upscale bedroom towns for people who commuted to Wall Street by the New Jersey Central Railroad. While New Jersey had already become a multicultural, and largely Catholic state, little cities like Summit, Westfield, Cranford, and Scotch Plains retained the White Anglo Saxon Protestant culture of the old colonial bourgeoisie, now made wealthy beyond their wildest dreams by the economic boom that followed the Civil War.
Who built these grand old houses? Why have they been abandoned?
Northern New Jersey has never to my knowledge produced a great historian or realist novelist. The closest Union County has come is Van Wycks Brooks, after whom a once wealthy neighborhood in Plainfield has been renamed. Indiana, on the other hand, has produced the now almost totally forgotten but, I would argue, still worth engaging writer Booth Tarkington. Reading Tarkington’s 1918, Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Magnificent Ambersons feels a bit like reading the origin story of my civilization, not “Western” or “Christian” or even “American” civilization, but the civilization of the suburban American bourgeoisie. Tarkington was a conservative Republican who opposed the New Deal and who probably thought people with “ethnic” names like “Rogouski” were ruining America. Nevertheless, The Magnificent Ambersons, which is set in the Woodruff Place neighborhood of Indianapolis, cuts right to the heart of American capitalism, and ultimately exposes it as an empty and soul-killing exercise in futility and environmental destruction.
In the 1870s, Major Amberson, a veteran of the Battle of Gettysburg, riding the wave of economic prosperity that followed the establishment of the United States as a world power in the wake of the Civil War, becomes the wealthiest man in what was then the fairly small city of Indianapolis. He builds a grand mansion, then a hotel, then a second great Victorian house, all of which become the core of a burgeoning, upscale little suburb. He has three children, two sons, George and Sydney, and a pretty daughter named Isabel, who becomes a desirable “catch” for many of the town’s eligible young men. Eventually she settles on two suitors, Eugene Morgan, a dashing young lawyer from a middle class family with a degree from a state college, and Wilbur Minafer, a rather dull, plodding, unromantic young man, but one from a more suitable background. One night Eugene Morgan gets drunk and accidentally steps through a bass violin at a party being held in her honor at the Amberson Mansion. Whether it’s mainly due to bourgeois snobbery or some odd streak of perversity is never fully explained – I’d guess the latter – but Isabella rejects Eugene the love of her life and marries the uninspired Wilbur Minafer.
Booth Tarkington may have been something of a Wilbur Minafer himself, a dull, conservative WASP, but he’s written a novel with romantic critique of American capitalism. By rejecting love in the name of social status, Isabella dooms the Amberson family to dissolution and eventual destruction. As Mrs. Johnson, the town gossip, accurately predicts, since Isabella can never love a man like Wilbur, she will end up doting on her children. George Amberson Minafer, Isabella’s only son, grows up to be an arrogant, conceited, and to be perfectly honest – although I don’t think Tarkington meant for us to see it this way – fairly stupid young man. Even though he gets the best education money can buy – a local prep school and an Ivy League university – he not only makes more enemies than friends, he doesn’t prepare himself for a profession. If George is a sympathetic character almost in spite of himself, then it’s because he speaks to our own fears of what we all could become. More specifically he speaks to a successful writer’s fears of becoming a nobody. He’s a rebel who’s also a conformist bourgeoisie, a man with an artistic temperate but without any talent for or even inclination to take up a creative discipline like poetry or music. In the end, he’s simply a snob who wants to live in his money, a rich slacker who wants “be” and not “do.” The main problem is that he’s not as rich as he thinks he is. Wilbur Minafer may have been a gentleman from an proper family, but he has no talent for making money. Major Anderson may have been a savvy businessman in the 1870s, but by the turn of the century he’s little more than a relic living off past glory. What’s more, capitalism in Indianapolis in the early 1900s, like capitalism everywhere else, as Marx pointed out, has to revolutionize itself continually or die.
If the revolutionary technology of the Civil War Era was the railroad, by 1907, when Henry Ford invented the Model T, it was the automobile. Booth Tarkington’s stand in for Henry Ford is none other than Eugene Morgan, Isabel’s rejected suitor. What made Eugene Morgan ineligible in 1890 has by 1910 made him the heir apparent to Major Anderson as the unofficial King of Indianapolis. We never find out the name of Eugene Morgan’s wife. By the time he returns to Woodruff Gardens after twenty years she’s already dead. Morgan also has a pretty daughter of marriageable age named Lucy, with whom the arrogant George Amberson Minafer falls hopelessly in love. George’s love for Lucy is not exactly what you would call “unrequited” – he’s an exceptionally good-looking young man from a prominent family and Lucy is tempted by his offer of an engagement – but it’s certainly unfulfilled. Lucy, who’s very much the daughter of her upwardly mobile father, can’t understand, not only why George Minafer won’t prepare himself for a profession, but why he just doesn’t seem to have any interests in life. Tarkington once again may have been a conservative Republican, but he’s also written a novel with a strong feminist undercurrent. Lucy Morgan is quite simply too smart for George Minafer. She’s too strong to be bullied into a marriage she doesn’t want. She doesn’t like his assumption that he’s entitled to her love. In the meantime, Wilbur Minafer has been getting sicker and sicker, mainly out of worry that he’s made too many bad investments. Eventually he dies, setting up the opportunity for the widower Eugene Morgan to finally marry Isabel, the love of his life, and an ultimately tragic confrontation with her son George.
It’s easy to see why George Amberson Minafer stands in the way of his mother’s second marriage. He’s partly motivated by his resentment over Lucy’s rejection. More importantly, lacking a profession or any useful occupation, he’s finally found his calling in life, to defend the family honor against an outsider, to imagine himself as Hamlet to Eugene Morgan’s Claudius and Isabel Amberson Minafer’s Gertrude. It’s a little harder to understand why the forty-year-old Isabel allows her twenty-year-old son to become her patriarchal oppressor. I suppose you can only expect so much from the turn of the century Midwestern bourgeoisie. In any event, George gets control of Isabel in a way he could never get control of Lucy, bullies his mother into rejecting a second chance of happiness with the man she genuinely loves, and then whisks her away to Europe after he decides there’s too much gossip. In reality, there’s never as much gossip as George thinks. His distorted sense of his own importance has exaggerated in his mind the extent to which people are interested in his mother’s move love.
By this point, the House of Amberson, both the literal physical mansion in Tarkington’s fictional Woodruff Place as well as the family reputation and fortune have rotted way. Major Anderson’s oldest son Sydney has already demanded his share of the inheritance, which the old man reluctantly gives. His younger son George has made a series of bad investments of his own. What’s more, the property values in the old suburbs, long degraded by the city’s rapid industrialization and urbanization are dealt a death blow by the increasing popularity of Eugene Morgan’s automobile. Nobody wants to buy or rent property downtown anymore. They all want to live further away from the noisy, dirty factories and the air made unhealthy by soft burning coal. One kick will bring down the edifice of the Amberson family for good.
That kick is the death first of Major Anderson, then of Isabel. Major Anderson dies of old age. Once unable to rebel against what she thought were the expectations of her parents – in reality Major Anderson never had a problem with Eugene Morgan and it was her own inflated sense of her own importance that made her think he did – Isabel is now unable to rebel against her son. She grows sick, then dies of a broken heart. The rest of the rotten old House of Amberson crumbles in rapid succession. Major Anderson’s younger son George and Wilbur’s sister Fanny had made foolish investments in an electric headlight company that eats up the rest of the family fortune. The paperwork for the great old mansion had never been put in proper order. Unable to take a low paid position as a law clerk and law student – he has to earn enough money to support himself and his Aunt Fanny — the once lordly George Amberson Minafer ends up as a low paid factory worker, and then, after he carelessly steps into the street and gets hit by a car, a disabled factory worker. He will remain childless. The Amberson bloodline has come to an end.
The son as the patriarchal oppressor of his mother.
Orson Welles’ 1942 film The Magnificent Anderson’s is quite simply the most virtuoso adaption of a novel to cinema that I have ever seen. Welles, who was only twenty-seven-years old, works on a level as far above the typical Hollywood director of his age as Mozart was above Antonio Salieri. I actually saw Welles’ film before I read Tarkington’s book. Somehow, almost miraculously, Welles sculpts 600 pages of narrative into a feature length movie. Welles’ camerawork is so fluid and so powerful, his direction so effortless, that he doesn’t suggest the movement of time. He transforms it into images and sound. Welles’s film is both pure cinema and pure narrative. He has not translated Tarkington’s novel into a film. He has reproduced Tarkington’s novel as a film. Unfortunately, either through malice – Citizen Kane had offended the powerful Hearst Corporation – or sheer stupidity – Welles’ film was too cynical about American capitalism to be released only a few weeks after Pearl Harbor – RKO Studios cut forty minutes out of the intended two hour and ten minute film, released it as a ninety minute B-Movie, and burned the scenes they edited out of the original theatrical cut.
Booth Tarkington’s remarkably prophetic warning about the car culture.
“They destroyed Ambersons,” Welles once remarked, “and that destroyed me. I think it also impoverished American culture. Welles had revived Tarkington’s radical critique of American capitalism, and above all the car culture, only a few years before the construction of the Interstate Highway system and the second great wave of suburbanization in the 1940s. Had this great, butchered film been shown in its full length – a film none of us have ever seen – and had it become a hit, we might have saved public transportation. General Motors might not have been able to buy up and destroy large parts of the Los Angeles streetcar nework. We might not have demolished Penn Station. We might not have built mile after mile of sterile, “ticky tacky,” little Levittowns that are now, in turn, as neoliberalism hollows out industrial America, falling into disrepair and disuse. We might have been a better, more humane culture. Nevertheless, as I read Takington’s novel and watched Welles’ film, as I used both to fill in each others gaps, I felt as if I was learning something about the world in which I live, as if I was peeling back layer upon layer of dirt and cultural obfuscation away from the civilization that nurtured and oppressed me. I became George Amberson Minafer. I was given the opportunity not to share his fate.
The cinema of the 70s is often termed as an era that marveled the art of pop culture reorientation. A decade that immersed itself in the chaos of coming of age screenplay and ever inspired music ensemble, the flights of imagination was anything but predictable. It was during this period that Hindi cinema saw the rise of its one of the most ground-breaking actress, a gifted performer and a formidable fashion icon – Zeenat Aman. The characters that she adorned were unafraid of juxtapositions and oozed liberation that was rarely seen in the public eye. From being an adultress in Dhund (Obsession) to a cheerful prostitute in Manoranjan (Entertainment), Zeenat Aman redefined narratives of gender roles in not only Hindi cinema but also in the entire urban Indian society. A former Miss Asia Pacific (1970), she was the first South Asian woman to win this coveted title. Even though her acting skills were second to none, Zeenat Aman had sealed her name in the history of Indian cinema for her unparalleled contribution in revolutionizing the use of fashion in Hindi movies.
The looks adorned by the lady swing across the spectrum of avant-garde fashion. She had never ceased to reinvent herself and often pushed the boundaries of artistic expression by her V-neck hem slit evening gowns or her infamous Boho looks. This post is a tribute to some of the most foresighted, coming of age and classical fashion statements of the woman that charmed the 70s and cemented her position in the pop culture.
The Boho Chick
Dubbed as her first block-burster hit, Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1971) paved the way for Zeenat’s towering success. What began as a role received by fluke, later unraveled into a timeless performance that got her the Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actress, and most importantly, her perennial place in the pop culture.
Playing the role of a girl separated from her family who subsequently slips into drug addiction, the character of Janice was unconventional for her period but beheld potential for a memorable performance. And for the visionary as she was, she delivered, and delivered with utmost excellence.
2. The Girl with a Guitar
When Zeenat Aman held a guitar to belt out a soothing lullaby for her lover in Yaadon Ki Baraat (The caravan of memories), she gave us a melody of a generation. The climatic progression of the music with the innocent smile decorating her face, Chura Liya Hai (Now that you’ve stolen my heart) is the musical beauty of the highest order. Apart form its melodious supremacy, it was this long white gown that etched Zeenat Aman in every man’s heart for years to come. Complementing that look with a choker necklace, she added one more feather to her overtly decorated hat of fashion laurels.
3. The Femme Fatale
Although, every song of Zeenat Aman has been a masterpiece in its own right, there is one song that not only concreted her as a superstar but also reflected her ideas of empowerment through sexual liberation. In Laila Main Laila (Laila, I’m Laila), a song that has been subsequently covered by a dozen singers and actresses, Zeenat Aman unleashes her femme fatale and explodes into the space where she adheres to no boundaries, rising above the artificial constructions of gender roles.
In Aap Jaisa Koi (Someone Like You) and Don, she takes her seduction to next level and amalgamates it with her impeccable acting skills to deliver the critically acclaimed performances as a cabaret dancer and a villain respectively.
Zeenat Aman had metamorphosed into a multi faceted performer who freed herself from the fear of being judged for her decisions. She pushed the limits of visual representation in Hindi cinema and became an icon for all the actresses that followed. Apart from her mounting commercial successes, she was critically well received for her depiction of a rape victim in Insaaf Ka Taraazu (The Scales of Justice). She was translated as a visionary, an artistic maverick, and a farsighted actress for her coming of age role of a cheerful hooker in Manoranjan (Entertainment). With more than half a ton movies on her name, Zeenat Aman was and will always be the first and the most beloved diva of Hindi cinema.
Indian cinema had birthed a fair share of visionaries even before the beginning of what later came to be termed as the Golden era. Under the reigns of the British Raj, certain Indian artists thrived upon the offerings that colonial engagements with art had to offer and used the political situation of the period to engage cinema in a dialogue of cultures. The dialogical development of cinema, with silent movies relying heavily on scenic photography and camera angles, what unraveled on the big screen involved not only the oppressed lot making a statement but also the privileged lot participating in the process. The emancipating nature of art drew many budding filmmakers to garner the global recognition of not only Indian art but also Indian culture in general by using films as language. In this democratising activity of filmmaking, one of the most celebrated manufacturers was Himanshu Rai who dared to look beyond the logistical restrictions of his space to harness a global outlook. However, this post is not about him but about an unsung actor, who despite not being biologically involved in the cultural milieu of the subject matter of her work, adorned many characters in a number of such experimental films. Though, she was born as Renee Smith in an Anglo-Indian family, the cinematic history would remember her as Sita Devi.
The silent movie era of Indian cinema had a brief but eventful affair with German collaboration. Though much has not been written about her, Sita Devi’s momentary presence in Indian films can be seen in these very collaborative projects. When Himanshu Rai joined hands with a Bavarian film company Emelka, a film named Prem Sanyas (The Light of Asia) was released in 1925 which was generously budgeted and was directed and produced by Himanshu Rai himself who also appeared as one of the actors. This very film had the young Renee Smith (Sita Devi) playing the character of Princess Gopa, who is decorated quite intricately with the cultural symbols of Buddhist ritualism. This was her debut film, and thanks to her blossoming presence on screen, she became an overnight star. She later went on to work under the banner of Madan productions but could never repeat the success she garnered in her very first film.
Renee went on to do two other films with this Indo-German collaborative project, which seemed more like a trinity now, that were also classified as period dramas showcasing the grandeur of Indian culture. Interestingly, these three films spanned three different religions (Buddhism, Islam and Christianity) rightly spanning the diverse cultural fabric of the country.
The artistic outlook of Renee Smith and her respect for the art of cinema can be traced from the diversity of roles she played in this trinity and also the distinct nature of each of those characters. Despite sprouting as a star in her very first film, she did not hesitate to play the ‘other woman’ in Shiraz (1928) and a villain in Prapancha Pash (Throw of Dice, 1929). Despite the social perception of that period for such roles and the impact it had on the careers of the actors who played them, Renee chose to explore the shades of her artistic capabilities rather than fearing social stigmatization.
The short filmography of this illustrious actor involves many socially unconventional roles in movies such as Bharat Ramani (Enchantress of India, 1929), Bhrantri (Mistake, 1928) and Kal Parinaya (Fatal Marriage, 1930). Despite not being culturally relatable to the majority of the population, the success of Renee Smith established itself upon her ability to immerse herself in the complexities of her character, reaching the finest degrees of method acting. She came across as an exotic representation to many of her contemporary directors, but that only worked towards constructing a strong narrative around the creative credentials of this effervescent actress.
With her films being showcased in German and English to the elite cinematic audience of Europe, including the royal family, a couple of Renee’s films were also immortalized for global audiences with German translations (Das Grabmal einer großen Liebe and Die Leuchte Asiens). It is hard not to mention the famous rumour of the period which said that Renee’s sister Patty was often used as her double in some of the sequences. Renee Smith has been unfortunately forgotten by the repositories of Indian cinema. In her short yet colossal montage of work, Renee aka Sita Devi has displayed the full dimension of her artistic prowess and the lengths of her creativity. I hope the reading of this post will only generate more discussion on this wonderful actor, getting her the rightful place in pop culture, something she so unequivocally deserves.
There aren’t many works of cinematic art that become cinematic in their own right. The legacy of these works transcends what is projected on the screen and venture into the arenas of popularity that was quite unintended by the creator itself.
Pakeezah, a Hindi Cinema classic that took almost 15 years to complete, is one such movie whose legacy is unparalleled and finesse unmatched. The fervour around the film was as much due to the stories that revolved around each and every person associated with it as the climactic plot of the film itself.
The journey of making Pakeezah is no less of an odyssey for its director Kamal Amrohi and the lead actress Meena Kumari. They both were in the romantic company of each other both during the commencement and the conclusion of the film, however, going through a judicial separation and an alleged extra-marital affair in between. As much as I would love to delve more into the depths of this theme, the main focus of this work is rather centred upon one of the most intelligently designed sets from the movie – Bazaar-e-Husn.
Translated as a ‘fair of beauty’, Bazaar-e-Husn reflects the budgetary prowess of Pakeezah’s production. Often termed as a perfectionist, Kamal Amrohi had to shed almost a million rupees to build a perfect settlement for a desired reality of erstwhile Muslim royality.
The set for Bazaar-e-Husn took six months to complete with over 600 men working on it. A publicity material for the film described it as:
“There is nothing make believe in this set. Dozens of genuine shops from the various parts of the country were bodily shifted to the set to lend it the authenticity it demanded. These shops remained on the sets for more than a year involving a payment of huge compensation to their owners. Nothing so fantastic was ever attempted or achieved in a single film.”
Despite involving investment of such magnitude, the set has only been used for just one dance sequence in the entire movie. Since the plot of the movie shifts from Delhi to Lucknow, the only display of Bazaar-e-Husn that we get to see is during the opening mujra of Sahibjaan in Inhi Logon Nai. Despite having such a brief presence, the choreography of Inhi Logon imbued with the charm of Meena Kumari, makes the scenic experience of the establishment quite unforgettable.
In the only dance sequence where the glimpse of Bazaar-e-Husn is shown, we can see the flavour of the tawaif (courtesan) culture of Delhi in its maturity. As Sahibjaan (Meena Kumari) is performing her teasing dance number, we can see a lot of motion behind her that manifests itself as daily routine at such establishments. We can see parallel mujras being performed at other courts and commodities such as betel nuts, ornaments and fruits being sold. Despite the commotion in the streets, one finds it really difficult to take his eyes off from the leading lady and take a moment to ponder upon the life at Bazaar-e-Husn. However, as a myriad of vivacity and vividness, Bazaar-e-Husn not just beautifully merges with the choreography of the mujra but goes on to enhance the aesthetics of it. It provides it with a context that paints a picture in the viewer’s conscience which is like a medieval portrait of a desired escape.
Apart from the monetary shelling, a lot of artistic capital also went on to contribute to the making of this enchanting establishment. Hundreds of dancers were specifically trained for months just for the picturization of that brief mujra sequence of Inhi Login Ne. This not only gives us a glimpse of Kamal Amrohi’s traits of perfection but also goes on to expose his tremendous respect for the art that he intended to pursue.
If Pakeezah was Amrohi’s dearest creation, Bazaar-e-Husn would undoubtedly be his most vivid fantasy. As the making of the movie saw no signs of completion, and while being intertwined in a personal turmoil, Amrohi never shed a single shade of doubt on his brainchild. In an interview which he gave to Time Magazine for the project that he had penned, directed and also intended to act in, he said –
‘Jab tak Pakeezah khatm nahi ho jaati, tab tak mujhe maut bhi nahi aayegi’
What if I seek light in
Flicker lights falling upon my
Cheek, glistening a part of it, a part
Still left hidden.
What if I seek journey here
Sitting at a deserted bus stand, who
Uses them anyway? Maybe,
Some adventures are good untravelled
What if I seek dance in
The still trees and fully
Blossomed but burdened petals
Of this red red flower, Maybe
Some emotions are best unspoken
Broken down in this part of
The world. The passers by
Still passing, the pretentious
What if I seek forgiveness in
This waning crescent moon,
This stillness, this halt
This long drawn silence is not
Here to stay forever,
But it’s still mine
So I don’t see anything moving
But my memories, Maybe
Some notes are better unplayed
Picture: It’s me trying to discover Fort Kochi
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