Produced in 1967 in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, THE RED AND THE WHITE was released in the US in 1969. Set amidst the sites of the civil war that followed the revolution, the film is one of a group of remarkable, idiosyncratic works directed by Hungarian
Miklos Jancso in the 1960s.
It is 1919. Hungarian volunteers have joined the Bolsheviks (the Reds) in their struggle to overwhelm the last czarist holdouts (the Whites). As the film opens, a mounted Cossack officer captures a Hungarian foot soldier, orders him into a river, and shoots him. Nearby, in an abandoned monastery
temporarily controlled by the Reds, a group of White prisoners is told to strip and then allowed to flee. Suddenly, the monastery is seized by White troops. The Hungarians are warned not to meddle in a Russian civil war and allowed to go free, but most of the Red Russians are mowed down after
being told to run for it. Elsewhere, the Cossack encounters a pretty farm girl and forces her to undress, but is interrupted by another White officer who has him executed on the spot for meddling with civilians.
The scene shifts to a White-controlled military hospital, where several nurses are harboring 25 Reds among the patients. In search of amusement, White officers have the nurses costumed in civilian dress, transport them to a birch forest, and order them to dance with each other to the music of a
waltz band. Meanwhile, a group of Hungarians in an open field are fired upon by a convoy of biplanes. After the attack, several of the men are randomly singled out to be shot for cowardice, but a Hungarian officer steps in and prevents the order from being carried out.
Back at the hospital, a Red initiates an affair with a nurse, thus affording a fellow inmate an opportunity to run off and get reinforcements. When her lover is killed by the Whites, the nurse breaks down and exposes the other Reds on the hospital grounds. Midway in the execution of the Reds, the
hospital is seized by a squad of Hungarians. Its leader orders the execution of the White commander and the tattling nurse, but spares the others. Then, he leads his small band of men into battle against a large battalion of White troops. He and all of his soldiers are killed instantly.
Jancso was an experienced filmmaker in his mid-40s when his movies began attracting international attention in the mid-1960s. During this period, he produced a unique series of films which typically followed the actions of large groups of people back and forth through broad, flat, outdoor areas.
In a typical Jancso movie, there is little plot, less moralizing, and no central characters. The hallmark of his mature style is the depiction of almost incessant physical activity--running, walking, marching, crawling, riding, swimming, etc.--on the part of a great many characters and groups of
characters who are tracked and circled by a comparatively restless camera which, although endlessly alert and probing, is always fluid, assured, and dispassionate.
The total effect is of a kind of choreographed cinema, akin not to the strictures of ballet but to the looser modes of modern dance. What makes it all work is the fact that Jancso's "dancers" don't dance but, instead, move and behave quite naturalistically; the Reds and Whites never become the
Sharks and the Jets. Jancso's preoccupation with splice resistant moviemaking evolved into obsession in WINTER WIND (aka SIROKKO), a feature-length picture composed of only 12 shots, the technical minimum for a film of its length.
THE RED AND THE WHITE is quintessential Jancso. Like most of his best known films, it is a study of war on its meanest and most squalid level--war as a protracted seesaw series of small-scale, rapidly alternating power shifts, in which one army ambushes another, executes them (or some of them,
chosen at random), and are beginning to terrorize and toy with the local women when more of the seemingly conquered army's troops arrive on the scene to reverse the process. A particularly impressive illustration of Jancso's utterly anti-romantic attitude toward warfare, as well as his genius for
telescoping time without betraying the constraints of (at least nominally) realistic storytelling, occurs in the following sequence from THE RED AND THE WHITE: White officer exhorts nurse to identify Red patients; nurse is silent and is led offscreen; White officer inspects squad of soldiers; he
is informed nurse has talked; White officer is shot dead by Hungarian officer who appears from out of nowhere; Hungarian officer immediately begins takeover of hospital. All this in a single, four-minute take.
Jancso's refusal to glorify the Red combatants he depicted in THE RED AND THE WHITE so disappointed its Communist sponsors that they suppressed the film in the Soviet Union. (Violence, nudity.)
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- Review: Produced in 1967 in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, THE RED AND THE WHITE was released in the US in 1969. Set amidst the sites of the civil war that followed the revolution, the film is one of a group of remarkable, idiosyncr… (more)