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Kino on Video presents
Captain Chelpanov: Kindly separate the Reds from the Whites.
DVD ReviewThe Russian Civil War was one of the bloodiest in the history of mankind. It was predicated by the Russian Revolution of 1917, which resulted in Czar Nicholas II's abducation after his commitment to war with Germany in 1914 had cost him much of the military power base that had defended his autocracy—some 2 million dead, and 5 million injured—and ended 1000 years of tradition. The Provisional Government that seized power was itself overturned on November 7, 1917 by the Bolsheviks. The March 1918 peace accord with Germany, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, cost Russia one-third of her farm lands, half of her industrial strength, and some 60 million people. Anti-Bolshevik foreign interests, including Britain, France, the United States and Czechoslovakia, began an intervention designed to topple Lenin's regime, by supplying food, troops and financing to the growing rebel Whites. Hungarian director Miklos Janso sets his 1968 film, The Red and the White (Csillagosok, katon á k) in 1919, by which time the Russian Red army and the opposition Whites were fighting on 21 fronts.
In the Volga region, Hungarian volunteers are aiding the Reds in their battle. A group of White cavalrymen confront a Red soldier, executing him while his comrade hides in some bushes. We next move to a monastery where Red soldiers gather and execute their White enemy, then as the scene shifts, so does the upper hand. What follows is a series of skirmishes, as soldiers move from battle to battle, facing atrocities, then commiting them themselves. The effect is almost a stream of consciousness, as the focus changes with each sweep into each new segment. We follow one group as they win a battle then lose it as the camera pans. Each side strips its prisoners, sending them off into the fields or executing them on the spot. Dialogue is almost exclusively limited to orders, and much of it is untranslated, which plays up the dehumanizing nature of war. On first viewing it was next to impossible to tell which side was which, or who the central figure was supposed to be, as no sooner had someone become identifiable, they were killed. This gives the film a unique style, unlike most war films where a hero is defined through the course of the story. Here, there is no real plot, and no prejudice on either side, only a string of events that lead to the film's conclusion.
From the opening sequence with a band of cavalry riding in slow motion towards the camera, the cinematography utilizes the full scope of the frame to convey the expansive Russian landscape. Compositions sweep across the countryside and the wide angle captures a vast panorama, emphasizing the scale of the battleground. The takes are long, giving an almost theatrical feel to the film, though the camera is almost always in motion. The Red and the White is certainly one of the most unique war films I have seen, though only after a second viewing did the characters begin to become identifiable. Some claimed that this was a communist propaganda piece, though I would have a hard time deciding just who was being made out the heroes—or the bad guys—here.
The strengths of The Red and the White are also its downfalls, especially for most modern audiences. The brilliant sense of anonymity that Janso creates with clearly undefined sides in the campaigns means there is no central character to follow, no real continuity of narration, aside from the string of battle and atrocities that are depicted. Most of the time it is unclear which army the people you are watching are from. The audience isn't really allowed to choose a side, and in the end, it matters little who is victorious, for the message of this film is not the triumph, but the futility of war. Those seen as the champions of one battle are slain in the next, as who is winning and losing is a fleeting concept. For those used to European-style cinema, this is a worthy viewing investment, though will have a limited audience otherwise.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B
Image Transfer Review: The Red And the White is presented in anamorphic widescreen in its 2.35:1 Agascope aspect ratio, though appears to sit a bit left of center. While major damage is limited, the source print contains a fairly constant parade of minor defects such as dust, scratches, spots, specks and so forth which, while not preferable, is at least understandable. Grayscale is very well rendered, however the transfer is plagued by serious compression problems throughout, ruining fine detail, especially sequences featuring grasslands or wide angle exteriors. Aliasing and interlacing issues are also pretty severe in many places. I'm not very impressed by the degradation of the exquisite cinematography here—it isn't unwatchable by any stretch, but the compression issues should have been corrected, and mar an otherwise decent presentation.
Image Transfer Grade: C
Audio Transfer Review: The two-channel Hungarian mono track contains a fair amount of crackle, pops, and a moderate amount of hiss, though distortion is fairly limited. There are, however, some interesting intermodulation effects during loud choral shouting. Frequency spectrum is limited, and subtitles are burned in, and don't translate all of the dialogue. For a film of this vintage and country of origin, this is not unexpected, and seems on par with similar titles I've seen from this era.
Audio Transfer Grade: B-
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 10 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English
Packaging: Unknown keep style
Extras Review: The chapter selection menu is the only feature, other than chapter listings on the inset card.
Extras Grade: D-
Final CommentsMainstream audiences will find this one a challenge, due to the omission of a central character, and the difficulty in following which side is which on first viewing. For those interested in a unique approach to the war genre, the great cinematography and original narrative style is rewarding. Unfortunately, the image quality does not live up to the content, which is disappointing, given the wonderful images in the film.
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