The plains of war are unforgiving in Jancsó's The Red And The White (1968)
Miklós Jancsó could be the most underrated action director of all time. For proof, take the first sequence shot in The Red And The White. A young soldier retreats into the dense marshland, firing off rounds as he eyes an escape route across the neighboring river. The camera comes to a standstill as he wades through the water, but soon halts; enemy horses approach in the distance, chasing a single fugitive. They thunder into the foreground, and Jancsó allows for silence in their approach. Now we fear for the fugitive, and wonder where the solder has hidden away (as he now lies out of frame). The camera remains motionless, save for gentle pans left and right to provide greater focus on the action. Eventually the fugitive is shot dead, and his body tumbles like a rock into the river. He floats downstream and the camera follows, picking back up with our hidden soldier who now accompanies the corpse on its course. The sequence is exciting; dramatic; mournful. In one single motion Jancsó has framed a set-piece which ticks all the boxes of action cinema: coherent geography, tight pacing, character drama and violence. By keeping a steady eye on his protagonists and allowing the action to move around the camera (as opposed to framing the camera around the action, which risks sensationalizing it) he has crafted a masterful set-piece. It's quite literally breathtaking, but unfortunately The Red And The White never surpasses its opening moments...
Set in 1919, the film revolves around the opposing "Red" and "White" forces in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. The "White" army seek to restore the old Czarist order, while the "Red" revolutionaries (largely consisting of Hungarian volunteers) attempt to crush their efforts. Jancsó denies the audience any relationship with an individual character, nor does he dedicate the story to any one side. In my review of The Round-Up I contemplated that Jancsó's films portray "constant shifts in power between opposing political factions", and The Red And The White is the strongest example of this idea - for fifteen minutes we may follow the "Red" order, but at any second they may be ambushed by enemy forces, who would then become the film's focus. The narrative structure allows for lucid camera movements, but this, combined with the lack of dialogue, can often become disorienting, especially for an audience unfamiliar with Hungarian history and politics (again, this bracket includes me). DP Tamás Somló lenses the landscape beautifully, but without the human drama of My Way Home or satirical ferocity of The Round-Up the action the plains support is far less engaging.
There are several action sequences in the film, all shot with the same cold distance of that opening set-piece. Jancsó doesn't allow for any sentiment to enter his executions, either - they are a common fact of war, and presented as such. Many describe the violence in The Red And The White as random, but I feel this is incorrect. The chilling thing about the violence is that it is entirely calculated, but carried out without remorse or feeling. These men kill with the same level of consciousness with which they would slice bread. Their moral compass has been corrupted. And in this sense, can any side truly be called good? Watching these three releases back-to-back I sense one might build a devastating and complex picture of war. It wouldn't be the easiest of viewings, but it's one I'd highly recommend...
Undoubtedly the worst transfer of the collection, which is a shame, because The Red And The White is perhaps Jancsó's most visually commanding film. It could be that the source print was in bad shape when Second Run got to it, but the grain in some scenes can be awfully distracting. On the whole the film is still perfectly watchable, but it's not up to the company's usual high standard. Luckily the extras are solid, with the accompanying booklet containing an essential 18-page interview with Jancsó, conducted by writer/critic Andrew James Horton, and the disc containing the first part of Jancsó's Message Of Stones documentary series, Budapest (1994). The trilogy will be reviewed separately, at a later date.
The Red And The White is released as part of the Miklós Jancsó Collection, on shelves Monday November 21st.