Sunday, January 25, 2015

WAR AND PEACE: Blu-ray (Paramount 1956) Warner Home Video

Neither a, then, staggering $6 million dollar budget nor the combined formidable talents of Audrey Hepburn, Mel Ferrer and Henry Fonda can salvage King Vidor’s War and Peace (1956) from becoming an albatross; awkward, stagnant and ponderous. Here is an epic so in love with the idea of playing into the ‘bigger is better’ folly that afflicted mid-fifties cinema, it so completely misses the mark, neither slavishly devoted to Leo Tolstoy’s original nor satisfying even the most primary edicts of movie-land craftsmanship; namely – to entertain. Apart from Audrey Hepburn – still thoroughly miscast, though nevertheless filling the vast expanses of its VistaVision frame with her own inimitable luminosity, the rest of the assembled entourage perform as though too much starch has been applied to their vintage britches.  Let us simply clear out the obvious elephant in the room: that to affectingly tackle a 1,440 page novel and contextualize both its magnitude and greatness in a feature film is a fool’s errand – even as Vidor’s elephantine spectacle does its best to cram in drama, betrayal, marital infidelity, war, death and passion into three and a half hours.  Director, Sergey Bondarchuk had to make concessions for his seven hour 1966 epic. But at least, Bondarchuk’s efforts remain the definitive version of Tolstoy’s novel.
War and Peace is a colossus of literature. I recall studying the novel for a Russian history class many decades ago, completely absorbed by the author’s meticulous craftsmanship; his intricately balanced, and even more fastidiously interwoven, saga following five aristocratic families (the Bezukhovs, helmed by the wily Count Kirill Vladimirovich, who has sired dozens of illegitimate sons; the wealthy, Bolkonskys; the estate privileged, though cash poor Rostovs; the questionable Kuragins, and finally, the once proud, though now impoverished Drubetskoys) and their occasionally tragic entanglements with destiny, circa 1805 to 1813. Much of the novel is preoccupied with the 1812 Napoleonic invasion of Russia. The film is more interested in the three lives directly impacted by…well… Remarkably, the ‘war’ in War and Peace is sidelined by Vidor’s thirst for a passionate love story, or rather, one repeatedly thwarted at every possible turn by kismet. Natasha, a naïve and blindly optimistic green girl, is infatuated with Pierre Bezukhov (Henry Fonda); Count Kirill’s (Gualtiero Tumiati) illegitimate son. Pierre has a gentle heart he is desperately trying to bury behind a lifestyle of self-imposed decadence unbecoming either his stature or – more importantly – his nature. Poor Pierre: he wants so desperately to be the dashing devil-may-care about town. He just doesn’t have that world famous quality to carry it off; certainly, none to rival, booze-guzzling adventurist/debaucher and Captain of the Guard, Dolokhov (Helmut Dantine) whom he envies.
In the meantime, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky (Mel Ferrer) has taken an interest in Natasha – one she reciprocates for a time, but then, is easily coaxed into discarding for a torrid liaison with Dolokhov’s best friend; guardsman, Anatol Kuragin (Vittorio Gassman). Unbeknownst to almost everyone except Dolokhov, Anatol already has a wife and child living in Poland. When Andrei discovers Natasha’s betrayal he departs for the war front, leaving their once blossoming relationship in tatters. In the midst of these unhappily ever-afters, King Vidor tries, rather desperately, to lend War and Peace all the spectacular presentation value $6 million dollars can buy; hordes of Russians – aristocracy and peasantry alike – decamping Moscow as the Napoleonic forces proudly march into the city, and, an even more vast assemblage of armies confronting each other on raging horseback on the battlefield. It all looks as it should, except that every inch of it is permeated with a faint whiff of embalming fluid that makes the enterprise play as though it were an audio-animatronic attraction at Disneyland rather than a lusty and spectacular big screen epic.  
It is, perhaps, important to remember that Tolstoy never regarded War and Peace as a novel. Indeed, whole portions of his text, particularly in the latter half of its 3-volumed/15-parts, are explicitly devoted to analytical, theoretical and philosophical debates pertinent to the period in which the novel’s historical narrative evolves, but equally as relevant to the era, some sixteen years removed, in which Tolstoy was committing these thoughts to paper. Too bad King Vidor’s War and Peace remains a prime example of the old adage about ‘too many cooks spoiling the broth’.  No less than seven writers took their crack at distilling Tolstoy in cinematic terms, including Bridget Boland, Robert Westerby, Mario Camerini, Ennio De Concini, Ivo Perilli and an uncredited Gian Gaspare Napolitano and Mario Soldati. Vidor had the final say. He also rewrote portions of the shooting script at his own discretion. The film is a lethal mixture – or rather, mishmash – of these various writing styles; the dialogue full of grand speeches, boastful zingers and theatrically inspired gestures. As stagecraft, this might have worked. But the biggest problem with War and Peace – the movie – is its lack of continuity, its clumsy excision of some of the novel’s most pertinent and best-loved vignettes, and Vidor’s foolhardy attempt to take such a multi-layered/multifaceted character study and distill it into standardized, oddly insignificant and wholly banal melodrama.
Cinema in general, and American movies in particular, have never been able to faithfully interpret ‘human thought’ in visual terms, perhaps because ideas, in and of themselves, have no form or context without the impetus of action to propel them. An actor can only convey so much with the glance of an eye, wrinkle of a brow, or, casual flashing smile or grimace. True, the human imagination is a fertile commodity and truly gifted actors often convincingly express subtext with little or no dialogue. But War and Peace is a tough nut to crack for these stars. Henry Fonda, in particular, seems ill at ease. His Pierre never manages to grow beyond a very stiff, marginally foppish prig; scorned and spurned by polite society during his formative years as the Count’s unloved bastard child/exalted in his stature by an unlikely inheritance, then saddled by his own ridiculousness to marry a wily cousin, Helene Kuragina (Anita Ekberg), who brings ruin and shame to his name by taking up with Dolokhov. Audrey Hepburn’s Natasha proves dulcet and intoxicating, but only so far as ‘pretty young things’ go. Mel Ferrer probably gives the most intelligent reading of the three; at least making an attempt to go beyond mere character traits and clichés to flesh out his Andrei into a thinking man of quality.
Alas, there is also the episodic way King Vidor and his co-writing cohorts have managed to stage the drama; introducing, then casually jettisoning characters, offering the most remedial, if stylized of first impressions (Dolokhov – bad; Andrei – good), then expecting the audience to simply invest themselves and remember them later on as Vidor moves his cast like chess pieces; filtered in, then out, then back into these plug n’ play homogenized plot points.  If all this narrative meandering seems to sacrifice character development for the three principles, the secondary cast members fare with far less success. Anita Ekberg is barely seen, except in brief languid, and modestly flirtatious repose in her bed the day after she has married Pierre. We catch a glimpse of her again at the theater, preparing to play matchmaker for her disreputable brother, Anatol, who has become fascinated with seducing the innocent, Natasha. Vitorrio Gassman isn’t much for the part. But Helmut Dantine is far too obvious in his unscrupulousness as Dolokhov, the satyr of the piece, matched only in witless sexual appetite by Gassman’s Anatol, an aspiring straggler to Dolokhov’s Casanova charms. The pair picks apart Natasha’s heart as though it were a fine Stradivarius to be plucked with the mad abandonment of a gypsy’s balalaika.  
King Vidor’s awkward transitions between ‘war’ and ‘peace’ provide character actors, Oskar Homolka and Herbert Lom with all too fleeting opportunities to portray Field Marshal Kutuzov and Napoleon Bonaparte respectively. Homolka is given some weighty tomes to recite with his usual caustic abandonment, his strangely piercing albino eyes spookily soulless, if enterprising. Lom gets the thankless part of the French interloper, shouting commands and hurling insults at his generals; impatiently pacing back and forth with shifty eyes and a lot of handwringing. And then there is Barry Jones as Natasha’s doting pater, Prince Mikhail Andreevich Rostov; prone to bubbly outbursts like a spirited little Leprechaun, quite unable to shake his Mr. Lundie from 1954’s Brigadoon. No heather on this hill!
War and Peace opens with a lavishly appointed military parade through the streets of Moscow, meant to show off the enormity of the sets and costumes afforded the production, although – regrettably – looking very much like sets and costumes instead of a reasonable facsimile of the famed city and its citizenry. The pageantry is observed from the upper windowsills of the Rostov’s estate by Mikhail, Pierre and Natasha. While the Prince and his daughter are buoyed with a false sense of optimism built upon pride, Pierre is not entirely certain of Russia’s supremacy against the approaching armies of Napoleon. At present, we are introduced to other characters – once, integral to Tolstoy’s storytelling – but only of marginal interest or value to this movie: Natasha’s mother, the Countess (Lea Seidl), the youngest of the Rostov clan, Petya (Sean Barrett) and a cousin, Lisa Bolkonskaya (Milly Vitale), who is smitten with Natasha’s elder brother, Nicholas (Jeremy Brett). The whole family is rejoicing in Nicholas’ appointment to the army.
Sheepish and awkward around more than a select few of his closest friends, Pierre excuses himself to attend a nearby pub/brothel, popular with the guardsmen. There, he can drown his insecurities in vodka and quietly fade into the background, observing the drunken revelry with a dispassionate, if marginally envious, eye. Pierre admires Dolokhov; a boastful risk-taker, desired by all the women. Prodded by Anatol, Dolokhov swallows an entire bottle of vodka while precariously perched on a third story windowsill; never teetering in his resolve to be the most disreputable scamp in the room. Accepting a fool’s challenge, Pierre vows to replicate Dolokov’s stunt; his ignorance thwarted by Andrei’s arrival with news Count Kirill is on his deathbed. Sobering up on the way to his estranged father’s country estate, Pierre explains his personal regrets to Andrei. He wallows in self-pity. The film makes no comment about Kirill’s many extramarital affairs or his other illegitimate children, thus avoiding the implication Pierre is not alone, but also depriving the audience of their sympathies for Pierre.
Pierre arrives at his father’s estate and is shown into his bedchamber; given a moment’s recognition by the old bugger before he kicks off. This tearful farewell leads to a shocking turn of events. It seems Kirill has decided to make a mends for his errant ways by making Pierre his sole heir; a move that quietly upsets Helene and her mother, until the pair realizes the quickest way to remain ensconced in their former privileges is to marry money. The buxom Helene is not without her obvious charms. We jump ahead to Pierre’s announcement to Natasha; that he plans to marry Helene. She, in turn, wastes no time burning through her newfound wealth. Pierre, who has been stricken by a sudden urge and agricultural ‘green thumb’, has plans to improve the country estate and living conditions for all the serfs who work the land of his late father. Helene encourages Pierre go on ahead, promising to join him later; just as soon as she has had the opportunity to procure a few more dresses and trinkets for the journey. Actually, she is more intent on taking up with Dolokhov. Eventually, news of this affair reaches Pierre. At a dinner party, Dolokhov proposes an arrogant toast to ‘beautiful women’ and their lovers, prompting Pierre to rise to the occasion, dashing a flute full of champagne in Dolokhov’s face.
This, of course, means war. And so, Dolokhov and Pierre – a pacifist, who has never fired a pistol – prepare for a duel. As luck would have it, Pierre stumbles in the knee deep snow, his gun going off prematurely and wounding Dolokhov on the field of honor. Mercifully, Dolokhov is not mortally stricken and eventually recovers. Pierre stays married to Helene but begins to question his own values about war. It seems like as good a time as any, in fact; what, with Napoleon and Czar Alexander I (Savo Raskovitch) reaching something of a momentary truce. In Moscow, the Rostovs attend a gala ball. Natasha, having already become smitten with Andrei from a previous brief encounter in the country, after the untimely death of his first wife, now impatiently prays for his reappearance at the ball. In his absence her mood grows sour. But then, Andrei appears in full military regalia, a handsome figure to sweep a silly young girl off her feet and onto the dance floor. King Vidor’s handling of this pivotal moment is rudimentary at best; a missed opportunity without even a hint of amorous dialogue, much less a kiss to suggest the couple is well on their way to becoming…well…a couple!
A short while later, the war between Russia and France begins to heat up again. Pierre is exhilarated after witnessing a confrontation between the opposing forces. In the meantime, Andrei’s stern father, Prince Bolkonsky (Wilfred Lawson) dies. The Prince had emphatically opposed his son’s engagement to Natasha on the bourgeois principle the Rostovs were socially beneath his own clan. Now, Andrei goes off to partake in military exercises. In his absence, Natasha attends the theater with her family. There, she unexpectedly catches Anatol’s eye. He and Helene conspire to get Natasha alone in the adjacent box, Anatol’s bravado instantly captivating Natasha’s inexperienced ideas about rugged masculinity. News of Natasha’s clandestine rendezvous with Anatol eventually reaches Andrei. He is heart sore. But his panged dismay quickly translates to cold-hearted disappointment. He ends his engagement to Natasha at precisely the moment Lisa and Pierre conspire to prove to her that Anatol already has a wife and child living in Poland. Pierre thwarts the couple’s planned elopement, threatening to expose Anatol’s infidelity to the whole of Moscow. Such an indiscretion would ruin his ambitions for a prominent military career. Heart-sick and betrayed, Natasha retreats into self-imposed isolationism, becoming sickly and withdrawn.
The 1812 battle erupts, plunging the nation into war and forcing the city’s inhabitants to flee for their lives. In their evacuation of their family home, the Rostovs elect to forgo taking their creature comforts with them. Instead, they load up their wagons with the military’s wounded.  In the meantime, the youngest Rostov, Petya, enlists in the fight and is taken under Dolokhov’s wing. The young man has spunk. Alas, he does not heed his mentor’s advice. Charging ahead of the battle line, Petya is cut down, mourned a short while later, both by Dolokhov and Pierre in the snowy abyss of fallen comrades. Forced by the army to retreat from Napoleon’s armies, Pierre also witnesses the execution of Platon Karataev (John Mills); a character in Tolstoy’s story meant to expound and espouse to theoretically platitudes about the state’s purpose in the life of an individual, but herein seems even more the cockeyed nitwit than our fair Natasha.  
As the tide turns against Napoleon’s seemingly impregnable army, Andrei is mortally wounded, dying a short while later in a monastery with Natasha at his side; her past indiscretions forgiven, the love once shared between them renewed. As Napoleon retreats in defeat, the deflated city dwellers return to Moscow; the Rostov’s shocked by the state of their once elegant manor house. Its east wing is a burnt out shell. But the family, particularly Natasha, delights in discovering the west wing has survived virtually unscathed.  Left to her own accord, Natasha now slinks into quiet despair, remembering all that has been lost, particularly in the wake of her own foolish fancies. Her eyes meet with a shadowy figure in the hallway; Pierre stepping into the light to reaffirm his undying love for her. The two embrace and are seen a short time later strolling hand in glove through a garden.
War and Peace is uneven entertainment at best. King Vidor struggles to unearth the strengths of the novel while unceremoniously burying some of its strongest suits under a litany of parables, hyperbole and rankly sentimental clichés about love and life. These betray Tolstoy’s more finite critiques of both and his philosophical treatise on the state and its encroaching importance on individual lives. Vidor indiscriminately uses a jarring voiceover narration to provide causal links between certain passages, while leaving others to a mysterious fade to black, occasionally right in the middle of the action taking place. The initial peace treaty between the Czar and Napoleon, as example, is given a bloated moment of impressive scale in which none of the principles is featured in anything more than extreme long shot; a pointless moment in the movie. It all comes across as a terrible mess, painfully out of touch with vintage 1950’s film-making and Vidor’s own illustrious canon of movie-making accomplishments. Possibly, the director’s age had caught up to him. He was nearing 60 when he undertook to make this film. Also, Vidor was not primarily known for such extravaganzas, his métier of romanticism and screen intimacy well established during the late silent era and early talkies.
Alas, War and Peace is even more of an artistic tragedy when one considers the monumental talents involved in its undertaking: producers, Dino De Laurentiis and Carlo Ponti for starters – two of the most prolific and ambitious international financiers in the film-making business; éminence grise and visual stylist extraordinaire, Jack Cardiff to lens the spectacle in lush Technicolor; Nino Rota to pen its celebrated underscore; Mario Chiari, Piero Gherardi and Maria De Matteis to sheath the production in a mind-boggling array of sets and costumes that epitomize the ball-roomed grandeur of old world Russia. There’s no getting around it. War and Peace ought to have been one of the movie behemoths of the 1950’s; a cornerstone, beloved and enduring classic for the ages. Regrettably, it is none of these things, rather a tedious, stagnant and colorless example of excess run amuck; the girth of the visuals woefully undernourished by an impossibly dull screenplay and some truly terrible performances given besides.
Warner Home Video’s present custodianship of the Paramount Home Video library has not yielded the anticipated results on this catalog title. War and Peace was photographed in Paramount’s patented VistaVision widescreen process, affording it true motion picture high fidelity. This Blu-ray transfer is nothing more than a painful reminder of earlier home video incarnations. In fact, I detect very little improvement – if any – from the old DVD. Yes, the image tightens up – marginally – thanks to Blu-ray’s superior compression. But this is NOT a new 1080p scan. From the moment the VistaVision logo appears this becomes quite obvious, the peripheries afflicted with severe fading and a strobe in color density. Curses! We’ve been had in hi-def once again! Most of the image quality that follows (or lack thereof) is shockingly poor. Flesh tones are frequently orange or piggy pink. The image exhibits a very softly focused quality. This has absolutely nothing to do with Jack Cardiff’s diffused glow cinematography.
Contrast levels are weak, resulting in the whole image falling into an undistinguished mid-register of color implosion. There are some inexplicable ‘blow ups’ during the scene at the theater where Anatol convinces his sister, Helene to aid in his introduction to Natasha. Shots of Anatol miming his intentions to Helene are relatively smooth. But the reverse shots capturing her and Natasha’s reactions are severely blurry and riddled with digitized grain – odd! There is also a burnished darkness that creeps in from the edges of the screen throughout most of this presentation. We have speckling too, not to demonstrative levels, but more prominently exposed during darkly lit scenes. Film grain has been digitally scrubbed throughout, occasionally resulting in waxen images with a decided loss of fine detail. What ought to have at least looked razor-sharp, crisp and resplendent, instead registers as soft and hazy, grain-free and poorly contrasted. What a shame and a sham! The audio remains in mono and is adequate for this presentation. Bottom line: don’t waste your time. Pass.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Sunday, January 18, 2015

ON GOLDEN POND: Blu-ray (Lord Grade/ITC Entertainment 1981) Shout! Factory

Henry Fonda bid his farewell to the movies in Mark Rydell’s On Golden Pond (1981); an unabashedly sentimental tearjerker that proved the catalyst for a long overdue reconciliation between the actor and his daughter, Jane. The two had fallen out back in 1972, in part because of Jane’s outspoken liberal views and her highly publicized trip to Hanoi – then perceived in the media as something of an anti-American indictment against the Vietnam conflict. However, the truth of the matter, just like this father/daughter relationship, was infinitely more complex. Henry Fonda – despite being one of America’s finest actors – was not an easy man to get to know or, arguably, love. Perhaps his children never understood him and vice versa. As a younger man, Fonda had preferred personal solitude to family time, and, a cherished and enduring friendship with fellow actor, James Stewart. The two men could spend hours together, not saying a word to each other, while working on their passionate model train hobby. As Jane and Henry’s son Peter grew into adulthood they embraced the hippy counterculture of the 1960s; decidedly running against the grain of Fonda’s own ultra-conservatism. To Henry, this must have seemed the ultimate betrayal; the rift widening considerably. In fact, by 1980, the year Mark Rydell began to prepare On Golden Pond, Jane and her father were barely on speaking terms.
In reality, Jane had been the catalyst for bringing this little known off-Broadway property to Mark Rydell’s attention before it became a runaway hit. By the late 1970’s, Jane Fonda’s cache in Hollywood far outweighed her dad’s, thanks to a series of smash hits including Klute (1971), Julia (1977), Coming Home (1978) and The China Syndrome (1979).  In mid-stride, Jane changed directives, taking a leap of faith in Colin Higgin’s superb spoof, Nine to Five (1980). Now it was time to stretch her creative legs in yet another direction. On stage, On Golden Pond had been a two act, one room play about the ties that bind and those that can bring families to the brink of being torn apart. While Rydell was immediately enchanted by the story, Jane saw it as an opportunity to build a bond of reunion with her estranged father. By then, the elder Fonda was badly ailing. Alas, he was still as stubborn as ever in his refusal to reconcile. Therefore, Jane was taking no chances that Henry might turn both her and the project down flat. To sweeten the deal, Jane approached Katharine Hepburn to costar. Hepburn, as it turns out, had the deepest admiration for Henry; also, an eagerness to appear with him in a movie. As miraculous as it may seem, the two had never worked together before.
The notion of working again, particularly with Kate Hepburn, appealed to Henry too. Hepburn was, after all, nothing if not an indomitable spirit and a genuine force of nature. More to the point; she never took 'no' for an answer. Still, Fonda was reticent to partake, mostly because of his ailing health. He may also have harbored some lingering misgivings about appearing opposite Jane who, in addition to playing his on-screen daughter – also happened to be On Golden Pond’s producer. Mark Rydell quickly discovered he could get no insurance on the actor; a difficulty sidestepped by assuring the film’s backers/distributors, ITC Entertainment, that he would restructure his shooting schedule so all of Henry’s scenes could be shot first in the event of a health-related mishap or setback.  Rydell also hedged his bets by hiring playwright, Ernest Thompson to rework his own property into a manageable and ever so slightly expanded screenplay. Thompson’s love for the material is undeniable and quite unique; his ability to ‘open up’ his own play to accommodate the location work proving its pliability.  
By the time On Golden Pond went into production Henry Fonda realized, perhaps better than anyone else, his body was steadily betraying him. Although no one knew it at the time, Fonda had mere months to live. Undaunted and ultimately committed to the project, Henry turned in one of his most poignantly understated performances; no small feat considering the actor's perfectionism and formidable body of work. In some ways, Henry Fonda is playing himself in On Golden Pond – the physically fragile/emotionally isolated relic, whose estrangement from daughter, Chelsea (Jane Fonda) has amplified his own misery.
Rydell and the rest of his crew feverishly worked around Fonda’s physical limitations. Of immeasurable support in this regard was Kate Hepburn, who doggedly pursued a policy of stern kindness to bolster Henry’s resolve and confidence. Each would come to regard the other in friendship, and, this brief last chapter in Fonda’s life and career as a high water mark; Fonda relying on Kate’s no nonsense attitude to keep him motivated and focused. Rydell was relieved to find both actors in fine spirits throughout the shoot. But he had less success in keeping Hepburn's feistiness at bay; particularly when she insisted on carrying a canoe of considerable size all by herself down a steep embankment to the lake. Rydell, who had already assessed this sequence slowed down the story and was to be cut, shot the scene anyway out of respect for Hepburn, but quietly left the footage on the cutting room floor. When Hepburn viewed On Golden Pond’s final cut she was not amused. It is unlikely she ever entirely forgave Rydell his trespass.
Meanwhile, the screenplay was ever so slightly tweaked by Ernest Thompson to heighten and mirror the feuding Fondas own father/daughter legacy and ultimate reconciliation. In one of those ironic ‘art imitates life’ scenarios, On Golden Pond gradually evolved into a cathartic experience for Jane and Henry. In reviewing the film today, one can intuitively sense a more meaningful compassion at play; something about the bittersweet glint caught in Henry’s sad eyes, or that tear-stained laughter emanating from Jane as she embraces her own father in the final reel with genuine and unrehearsed abandonment, ever more heartfelt than acted. Just a scant three weeks after production rapped Rydell, who was heavily into cutting the movie, received a pressing phone call from Jane explaining how Henry’s health had deteriorated to such an extent he would likely not be able to make the premiere. Frenzied post-production commenced, with Rydell inviting Henry to an emergency private screening attended by all the principle cast. As the house lights came up, Fonda reportedly leaned into Rydell to thank him for the “greatest moment" of his career. As Rydell would recall years later, and still choking back a few tears, “This moment very quickly became the greatest in mine.”
In a nutshell, On Golden Pond is the story of a summer-long retreat and how it forever changes the toxic chemistry between an embattled father/daughter for the better. Henry Fonda is Norman Thayer Jr., a weary curmudgeon whose bark is much worse than his bite, but who seems unwilling to accept what the years have done to his life, his body and his health. Norman tells his wife Ethel (Katharine Hepburn) he is contemplating getting a job. She shrugs off the suggestion for its absurdity and lovingly refers to him as ‘the old poop’. But later, while walking down the town road back to their cottage alone, Norman suddenly becomes disorientated and panicky.  Rydell would later recall, “He (Fonda) put everything he had into that scene, pacing frantically and breathing so heavily and sweating that I sincerely worried for his health.”
Recognizing what a fright her husband has had, and perhaps even more concerned for him because he has suddenly been deprived of all self-reliance, Ethel comes to Norman’s side with a tender embrace, heartily encouraging, “Don’t you know, you’re my knight in shining armor? Don’t you ever forget it.” Norman, however, remains unconvinced; a bitter pill made all the more difficult to swallow when he learns his estranged daughter, Chelsea (Jane Fonda) has arrived to get the couple’s blessing about her new fiancée, Bill (Dabney Colman) and his young son, Billy Ray (Doug McKeon). Bill is a good man – fair and easy-going. But Norman relentless goads him into a confrontation, more out of his deferred anger over Chelsea’s first failed marriage. “You know,” Bill finally explains to Norman, “It's not imperative that you and I become friends. I thought it would be nice…but that's obviously not an easy task…But I think there's one thing you should know while you're jerking me around and making me feel like an asshole. I know precisely what you're up to. And I'll take just so much of it.”
Over the next couple of days the relationship between Chelsea and Norman becomes even more strained. Ethel has had quite enough, pulling Chelsea aside, at once chiding yet imparting some very good advice: “Don't you think that everyone looks back on their childhood with a certain amount of bitterness and regret about something? You're a big girl now. Aren't you tired of it all? Bore, bore. It doesn't have to ruin your life, darling. Life marches by, Chels. I suggest you get on with it.” Bill and Chelsea leave Billy Ray in Norman and Ethel’s care for a few weeks while they run off to get married. Norman and Billy take an instant dislike to one another, especially after Billy calls out Norman on his age, saying “So, I heard you turned eighty…yeah, man…that’s really old” to which Norman bluntly replies, “You should meet my father!”  Ethel nurses their mutual contempt by forcing the two to spend all of their free time together. When Billy suggests to Norman it isn’t necessary they get along since he won’t be around much longer, Norman’s sobering reply, “Yeah, neither will I” strikes the first nerve in a poignant chord of generation gap reconciliation.
The pair’s imposed companionship eventual gives way to a deeply satisfying mutual understanding and even more miraculous bond of compassion. In fact, Billy Ray and Norman become sincere friends, especially after a near-fatal boating accident almost puts an end to both their lives. Thus when Chelsea returns with Bill as her husband, she discovers Norman newly reformed, and with a newfound humility and willingness to embrace her and Bill’s happiness; ready to accept her for the woman she has become instead of the daughter he always wished her to be. Because of the subtext between Jane and Henry, Chelsea and Norman's understanding has, in retrospect, taken on more ballast; the audience absolutely certain their on-camera resolution has, in fact, transferred to these real-life counterparts: the old wounds finally healed.
Viewed today, On Golden Pond remains a lyrically inspiring critique of “loving through time”; perhaps even more impressive when one considers playwright, Richard Ernest Thompson was only twenty-eight when he wrote it. What began as a simple ode to Thompson’s own childhood recollections of a way of life, reared on summer retreats at secluded cabins and cottages dotting the New Hampshire landscape, quickly became a much beloved off-Broadway main staple in 1978, featuring Tom Aldredge and Frances Sternhagen. After sold out engagements at the Kennedy Center, it opened at the New Apollo Theater on Broadway in 1979 and was revived the following season at the Century Theatre where it ran for more than 400 performances. With the film’s unexpected $120 million box office success, Thompson could also add ‘Academy Award-winning screenwriter to his pedigree, preceded by similar accolades bestowed on him at the Golden Globes and by the Writers Guild of America.
On Oscar night, an emotional Jane Fonda accepted Henry’s Best Actor statuette (remarkably, Fonda’s first) for her ailing father, adding “I’ll bet he’s saying, ‘Hey! Ain’t I lucky?’ as though luck had anything at all to do with it.”  On Golden Pond would also afford Katherine Hepburn her final Oscar, her record-breaking and record-holding fourth!  Awards, although meaningful to varying degrees, rarely attest to a level of quality.  On Golden Pond proves the exception to this rule. A more deserving candidate you will not find. Alas, it lost the coveted Best Picture Oscar to David Puttnam’s Chariots of Fire; arguably, a forgivable loss. In hindsight, the passing years have only enriched the film’s message about the power of forgiveness. Billy Williams’ gorgeous cinematography transforms the wilds of Squam Lake into a graciously pastoral escape. David Grusin’s evocative score is an orchestral tone poem – arguably as integral to setting the mood and theme as the performances. Yet, in retrospect, it is the dramatic arc of the story, the verisimilitude between those lives depicted on the screen and the people who came together behind the scenes and the cross-cutting parallel between these two that continues to resonate with meaningful truth. Time itself has robbed us of Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda – two inimitable talents whose likes we shall not see again. But their legacies – both apart and more directly together - endure in this celebrated melodrama. On Golden Pond is among their finest hours on the screen.
Long overdue for a hi-def release, On Golden Pond arrives via Shout! Entertainment in a mostly pleasing 1.78:1 Blu-ray. Although there are a few minor speckles, this 1080p transfer sparkles with gorgeously vibrant colors and a quantum leap forward in resolving fine details, even during dimly lit sequences. Flesh tones are startlingly accurate; the lush forest landscape positively pops. I am confounded by the lack of chapter stops: only 8 for a nearly two hour movie. I recall when digital media first debuted one of its pluses was easy access to one’s favorite scenes. Of late, a lot of replicating companies seem to have set aside this advantage. To what purpose, other than laziness on their part to assign more chapters and author more flexible viewing options, I’m sure I don’t know. Overall, the image quality won’t disappoint. Neither will the 2.0 DTS audio that properly places Dave Grusin’s score, sweetly nestled within expertly recorded and well-placed dialogue. For a mono mix, this one has some remarkable spatiality.
The biggest disappointment for me remains in the extras. Virtually all are ported over from Universal Home Video’s DVD reissue from 2005 and include an audio commentary from director Mark Rydell, who revisits On Golden Pond with remarkable presence of mind and many poignant reflections. We also get the thirty minute featurette, Reflections On Golden Pond This is basically a puff piece with Billy Williams’ waxing about his own contributions on the film and featuring limited insight from Mark Rydell and writer, Ernest Thompson. Even less comprehensive is A Woman of Substance: Katharine Hepburn Remembered – at barely sixteen minutes, little more than a video dissertation.
Absent again is the glowing documentary ‘Loving Through Time’. This nearly hour long documentary, originally featured on the first release of On Golden Pond – but not via Universal Home Video - was infinitely more comprehensive, as it poignantly captured Mark Rydell’s recollections about making the movie and also featured some fairly solid interviews with Thompson and Jane Fonda, as well as many rarely seen outtakes and deleted scenes. Where is it now? One can only assume Universal had no rights to reissue it to Shout! Factory. But Shout! ought to have gone after the original holders of these copyrights to incorporate it into this Blu-ray release. Disappointing as this oversight is, this Blu-ray comes highly recommended for the quality of its 1080p transfer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


Saturday, January 17, 2015


The difficulty in bringing larger-than-life historical figures to the big screen is that the actor in charge of the performance is usually twice impugned by the subject being portrayed: once by a span of years (most biopics are made long after the actual person is dead, thereby depriving the thespian of direct consultation for inspiration), and then, by the daunting back catalog of popular opinion documented in literature (newspapers, autobiographies, unauthorized biographies and newsreel footage) made available to the actor. Alas, such tertiary content tends to color opinion and transform a seemingly ordinary creature of flesh and blood into the most rarified of icons. As such, the actor’s impersonation is dedicated to ‘the monument’ instead of the person, the artistry devolving into camp – or worse, abject mimicry.
All evidence to the contrary in director, Richard Loncraine’s The Gathering Storm (2002), a superb dramatization that provides Albert Finney with the daunting assignment of resurrecting the gutsy pugnaciousness of Sir Winston Churchill. Like his American counterpart, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Churchill is an impossibly complex figure to emulate with any degree of certainty, much less competence, perhaps even more so because Churchill was chiefly instrumental in muddying the waters of his own legacy. Once asked how history would come to regard him, Churchill’s blunt reply “Kindly…for I intend to write it” is, in effect, a sideswipe to any actor facing the challenge of conjuring up his presence without succumbing to the elephantiasis of the exercise. Yet, here is a task for which Albert Finney was seemingly created; Finney of sufficient experience, years, skill and physical type-casting essential to carry off the illusion without so much as a superficially awkward misstep.
To discover Finney in rare form on this outing is perhaps no surprise. He is unequivocally one of the last in a vanishing breed of British actors. First dazzling international audiences in 1960’s brilliant Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Finney has long since proven he can play everything from a randy English lord (1963’s Tom Jones) to an estranged and embittered married newlywed (Two for the Road, 1967) to the deliciously fastidious, Belgian sleuth, Hercule Poirot (Murder on the Orient Express, 1974) and, stern, though benevolent, Oliver ‘Daddy’ Warbucks (Annie, 1980) with aplomb, confidence and a merciless amount of inventive cheek. Finney has the guts, brains and temerity to be Churchill incarnate, even as we first observe this great man practicing his recitation to the House of Commons while standing nude before the porcelain bowl in his upstairs bathroom and peeing. It’s a self-deprecating moment in Hugh Whitemore’s teleplay, one of several peppered throughout and meant to humanize Churchill via his own caustic humor. Churchill, so we quickly discover, was far less the monument and far more the frustrated politico who, at least on the home front, was contending with a vivacious and strong-minded wife, Clementine ‘Clemmie’ (superbly realized by Vanessa Redgrave), ambitionless son, Randolph (Tom Hiddleston) and free-spirited daughter, Sarah (Dolly Wells), whose flighty daydreams of becoming a legitimate actress would eventually be realized in 1951, when the real Sarah Churchill co-starred with Fred Astaire and Jane Powell in the MGM musical, Royal Wedding.
At 96 minutes, Richard Loncraine hasn’t the time to plum any of this fertile backstory in great depth (although, it is rumored a European cut of The Gathering Storm runs 120 min.). What is quite marvelous about the 90 min. American edit is how succinctly it plays without rushing through these narrative portholes from the past.  Whitemore’s teleplay captures a mere snapshot from the historical record – a moment when the tide of popular opinion was turned in Churchill’s favor. Here is the man before he stood taller than most, teetering on the cusp of his own preeminence. And yet, somehow, it is quite enough to whet the appetite and invigorate our appreciation for the portly British bulldog peeking out from behind the legacy. What is quite remarkable, apart from Albert Finney’s eerie physical assimilation, is the actor’s ability to so completely absorb the quintessence of his alter ego – arguably, concocting a private self few in Churchill’s presence were ever privy to witness. The cumulative result is we quite easily forget this is Albert Finney - and not, Winston Churchill - almost from the moment Finney first appears on the screen.
There is a two-fold presence here; the actor portraying the myth, even as he systematically debunks the mythology buttressing our collective impressions of this larger-than-life 20th century leader. Finney’s Churchill is a man of doubts; even more disturbingly, of guarded fallibilities tucked awkwardly behind his documented efforts to shape and mold public policies and his own public image in tandem. He struggles with diplomatic ambitions, but more importantly, with bouts of anxiety over his inability to will this conception into a reality. Whitemore’s teleplay is particularly adept at paralleling Churchill’s private concerns with those more ominous trepidations facing the nation, shadowy and looming large on the horizon.
Albert Finney, in his BAFTA and Emmy award-winning performance, is the consummate professional – no secret or surprise there. Yet, his Churchill is more than a man, even as he remains mercifully less of a candidate for canonization in the annals of British 20th century history; Finney’s tenuous balance between these seemingly irreconcilable poles never faltering for a second. When Finney bellows on the floor of parliament, it is the Churchill we recall from vintage newsreels of the period. When he tenderly emotes oddly infantile platitudes of love, begging an emotionally-wounded Clemmie to remain at his side, his tenderness is infused with a base masculinity and deeply affecting sincerity no one – least of all, his wife and the audience – can resist.   
And then, of course, there is Vanessa Redgrave’s Clemmie to consider. Here again, we are blessed with an actress who knows her own mind and available strengths, and, is able to carry over both to her portrayal of this ‘woman behind the throne’. Clemmie is a devoted wife and mother. But she is as much her own person as she remains moderately contented to act from the wings on her husband’s behalf. At the start of our story Clementine is, in fact, very much taken for granted by Churchill, merely another appendage of the household support system that has buttressed the old man in his political endeavors for some time. However, this trestle is about to be tested. And Clemmie’s patience will stretch only so far. Again, in barely an hour and a half, Redgrave manages to clearly delineate the varying attributes of this complex woman with a sense of proportion. Not only is she an actress poised to rival Albert Finney, her Clemmie is a formidable partner for our blustering man of action.  
If only for Finney and Redgrave, The Gathering Storm would already have much to recommend it. But Hugh Whitemore’s prose introduce a subplot into the proceedings, as tragic and arguably, as compelling, as the principle narrative thread; this one involving a junior member of parliament, Ralph Wigram (Linus Roache), his devoted wife, Ava (Lena Headey) and their severely mentally challenged son, Charley (Laurie Flexman). Others in the supporting cast include the incomparable Jim Broadbent, as mutual family friend, Desmond Morton; Tom Wilkinson as wily politico, Sir Robert Vansittart, and, Derek Jacobi, Churchill’s ill-fated predecessor, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. Both in front of and behind the camera, The Gathering Storm is impeccably cast; pedigreed with exemplary production values; Howard Goodall’s inspiring underscore, Peter Hannan’s gorgeous cinematography, Luciana Arrighi’s peerless production design and Jenny Beavan’s flawless costuming among them.
Our story begins in 1934. Winston Churchill’s political career is in utter disarray. Not only has he fallen to the backbenches of a nearly empty and thoroughly ineffectual parliament, but the stubborn and forceful resolve of his political convictions has cost him the respect of both parties. In an England wary of another world war, Churchill is surrounded by naysayer pundits. Even Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin (Derek Jacobi) is embarrassed by what he misperceives as Churchill’s pathetic futility to stir political animosity and public dissention against a free Germany. At home, Winston’s authority is also in question. He’s a figurehead more than a patriarch, moderately tolerated by his children and placated by the rest of the household staff. Although he has been working on his memoirs for some time, Churchill’s attention span, setbacks in his career, and, his fiery temperament often prove a distraction. He is exceedingly annoyed with daughter, Sarah’s (Dolly Wells) desire to become an actress; perhaps equally concerned over son, Randolph’s (Tom Hiddleston) late night boozing, and, facing the very real specter of personal bankruptcy. Flying in the face of this ‘gathering storm’ is Winston’s greatest comfort; his wife, Clemmie (Vanessa Redgrave). Always a stabilizing force, she brings order and calm to the daily fray and regimented routine to bear on his breakneck schedule of public addresses.
Battling personal demons, Churchill entrusts his concerns to longtime family friend – and British spy – Desmond Morton (Jim Broadbent). It is Morton who first introduces Winston to Ralph Wigram (Linus Roache); a foreign secretary with access to secret government files that can help Churchill in his uphill battle, convincing parliament of the very real danger Adolph Hitler’s Germany poses to England’s tenuous talks for ‘peace in our time’. Wigram is reluctant to leak information about Hitler’s renewed militarization plans and a reinvigorated Luftwaffe.  It could cost him his job if anyone finds out. Alas, Wigram is a doting father and husband, fearful of what it will mean for his family if war should come. And he has Charlie to consider; a child severely afflicted with mental retardation, requiring all of the couple’s love, patience and attention.
When Churchill launches a verbal attack on Baldwin in parliament, using secret information given to him by Wigram to help bolster his case, Baldwin becomes suspicious of Churchill’s connections. Although not without his enemies, Baldwin knows that, once provoked, Churchill is a formidable foe.  Baldwin puts out feelers regarding who is feeding Churchill his information, placing an incredible strain on the Wigram household and Ralph in particular. As the country is drawn nearer to war, Baldwin’s faith in a peace pact with Hitler is proven foolhardy.  Things on the home front reach a critical point when Churchill takes Clemmie for granted. She is incensed and embarks upon a lengthy holiday abroad that has all the ear-markings of a marital separation. Wigram, who cannot see any future for himself within this devious interplay of espionage, is pushed to the brink, ultimately taking his own life to spare his family his personal shame. At Wigram’s funeral, Churchill learns of Baldwin’s misguided attempt to appease Germany. Churchill is overwhelmingly restored to power and prominence; appointed to take command of the Royal Navy as First Lord of the Admiralty.  
Clemmie returns home to stand at her husband’s side. Churchill is so utterly grateful for this second opportunity to honor his wife he darts playfully across the reflecting pond to meet her arrival at the front gates of their country estate. The family bids farewell to their servants. The manor house is shuttered as Churchill and Clemmie prepare to make their new home at 10 Downing Street.  Arriving in London under the cover of darkness, Churchill is met by a Royal Marine Corporal who informs him the fleet has already been signaled ‘Winston is back’ to which an ebullient Churchill emphatically replies, “He bloody well is!” A brief epilogue informs us of the varied accomplishments wrought on Churchill’s watch before the screen fades to black.
Initially planned as something of the first installment in a miniseries for HBO, The Gathering Storm was followed up by a delayed sequel seven year’s later; 2009’s Into the Storm. This time, Churchill was played by Brendan Gleeson. Alas, Gleeson’s portrayal lacks Albert Finney’s finesse and inimitable charm. By all biographical accounts, Winston Churchill was not a ‘charming’ fellow – at least, not in the traditional sense. What he proved to be was enigmatic, if as dogmatic. Finney’s performance manages to capture this essential quality of Churchill’s enigma without becoming slavishly resolved to anchor his interpretation in blind mimicry of his mannerisms and precepts. The effect proves uncanny and supremely satisfying. Screenwriter, Hugh Whitemore brilliantly condenses Churchill’s private history into a manageable teleplay that dots all the ‘I’s and crosses every ‘T’; or rather, seems to imply a lot of ground has been covered in a relatively short period of time. We go from Churchill’s relative political obscurity to his reinstatement as Britain’s most ardent champion against Hitler, never losing sight of the intimate back story.
As Churchill, Albert Finney is the embodiment of sustentative stoicism. We get a real sense of the man, his values as well as his caste; Finney delving into a vibrant wellspring of human emotions to reveal a richly textured tapestry of life. Peter Hannan’s evocative cinematography does an exquisite job of capturing England in the 1930’s. Visually, we are treated to some truly memorable visuals, particularly the opening sequence in which Churchill stands silent and curiously absorbed while looking over a bucolic field of grain, envisioning his ancestors at war; the stir of drums and fife echoing in his eardrums. In hindsight, The Gathering Storm is one of the finest productions to emerge from HBO – no strangers to producing TV drama that is far and away above the regular compost passing for entertainment these days. ‘Superb’ is somehow grossly inadequate to describe it.
HBO Home Video’s anamorphic DVD delivers a rather impressive image, although I would challenge HBO to give us a Blu-ray of this magnificent ‘made for TV’ movie. On the whole, this DVD is smoothly rendered with colors that are warm and bold. Flesh tones are accurately represented. Occasionally, an awkward softness creeps in; faces losing their subtle, craggy lines. These are minor quibbles at best. Other good news; the image has retained excellent contrast and a smattering of film grain that appears to be indigenous to its source. For a DVD, this is a fairly impressive release and one surely not to disappoint. The Dolby Stereo surround audio is adequate, though unremarkable. Dialogue is clear and Howard Goodall’s underscore sound fabulous. Apart from a fairly fascinating audio commentary by director, Richard Loncraine and his producer, Frank Doelger, there are NO extras. Bottom line: Very highly recommended for content and generally recommended for quality. But please, HBO – how about a snazzy 1080p release for 2015? Pretty please?
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


Friday, January 16, 2015

DANCES WITH WOLVES: 25th Anniversary Blu-ray (Orion Pictures 1990) MGM/Fox Home Video

A revisionist western with enough expansive sweep and sun-drenched vistas for at least two movies, Dances With Wolves (1990) marks the memorable directorial debut of its star, Kevin Costner. In hindsight, Costner’s movie career has always been one of minor regrets for yours truly. After a few false starts in the 1980’s (most notably, having his scenes in The Big Chill, 1983 left on the cutting room floor) Costner began anew, auspiciously billed as the scruffy, blue-jeaned, mid-western stud muffin of two baseball classics; 1988’s Bull Durham and 1989’s Field of Dreams. He also appeared to more awkward effect in Brian DePalma’s compelling big screen revamp of the old TV G-man drama, The Untouchables (1987); in hindsight, a more noteworthy film for Sean Connery’s Oscar-winning performance than Costner’s rather goony impression of Elliot Ness. But then, Costner hit his stride. More than that, he sent shock waves through the complacent film-making community with Dances With Wolves – made at a time when the Hollywood western was considered box office poison. Indeed, the last sprawling sagebrush saga had been Michael Cimino’s disastrous Heaven’s Gate (1980); a film that so completely put the fear of God into this otherwise godless mecca by breaking the venerable United Artists down to bedrock. The Hollywood press, never at a loss to condemn any movie before it actually hits theaters, had already sardonically dubbed Dances With Wolves, ‘Kevin’s Gate’, even before the ink on Costner’s contract with Orion Pictures had dried. And in the intervening months between its arduous gestation and lengthy production shoot in Wyoming, the critic’s eagerness for another fiscal and career-ending implosion could not be concealed.
While praise was swift, it was not unanimous upon the movie’s debut, the critics again too quick and too clever with their vitriol; perhaps because Dances With Wolves belied their naysaying by becoming an instant smash hit with audiences, earning $424 million worldwide and taking home a slew of little gold statuettes on Oscar night. Indeed, Dances With Wolves was the first western since 1931’s Cimarron (a commercial flop) to win the coveted Best Picture Academy Award. As nothing breeds jealousy more than success, so, invariably, has Dances With Wolves been more heavily panned of late for its ethnocentricity; just a story about a ‘white guy who saves the day’, feeding into revisited clichés regarding ‘the noble savage’.  Rubbish, if you ask me. It is important to note Dances With Wolves was – and still ought to be considered – a monumentally progressive depiction of native Americans. The Lakota language employed extensively throughout the film, though maligned for its periodic misuse of the female-gendered spoken dialect, has not deterred the First Nations’ peoples from embracing this movie as a part of their collective heritage. Costner was, in fact, made an honorary member of the Sioux and, on Oscar night, was sincerely touching in his extensive plaudits to all the indigenous peoples who had helped shape and guide the integrity of his epic.
Dances With Wolves is impressive for other reasons too. Michael Blake’s screenplay (based on his novel) is understated, yet potent. Here is a writer unafraid to allow for the luxury of time to pass, to enrich us with his even-paced reveal of our central character, Lieutenant John Dunbar (Kevin Costner); an idealist with a misguided illusion about the American west. Asked by his superior, the insane and suicidal Major Fambrough (Maury Chaykin) why any man should so desire an assignment to Fort Sedgwick, a forgotten outpost in the middle of this godless nowhere, Dunbar’s optimistic reply of wanting to ‘see the west before it’s gone’ immediately sets up our hero for a fall. The cinematic landscape, impeccably lensed by cinematographer, Dean Semler, reveals all the sumptuousness and breathtaking natural beauty any daydreamer like Dunbar could hope for, much less imagine. But the wilderness is untamed, and frequently inhospitable, and – of course – dangerous; particularly for the white man.
Dunbar’s first encounter with the Sioux’s fiery warrior, Wind In His Hair (Rodney A. Grant) is hardly encouraging. Neither is Dunbar’s initial meet with Two Socks, the lone wolf cautiously monitoring his every move.  Perhaps a little too optimistically, things begin to fall into place for the ambitious Dunbar, despite his isolation on the plains. Depending on one’s point of view, Fambrough’s suicide and the murder of uncouth and foul-smelling wagon train master, Timmons (Robert Pastorelli) creates either a vacuum for this isolationism to ferment or the perfect storm in which Dunbar can explore an unlikely friendship with Kicking Bird (Grahame Greene) who is as curious about this pale-skinned stranger. Kicking Bird encourages Stands With A Fist (Mary McDonnell), a white woman reared from childhood by the Sioux after her family was killed, to ‘make talk’ with Dunbar. This détente, predictably, is fraught with immediate romantic underpinnings and overtones. As Dunbar’s appreciation for the Sioux continues to evolve, so does his great admiration blossom into love for this mediator who has brought them together. McDonnell is perfectly cast as the marginally frightened, intensely passionate interpreter; her eyes even more expressive than her wafer-thin whispers that build from inward shyness to defiant resolve.
Interestingly, Dances With Wolves began its life as a screenplay back in 1979. Alas, Michael Blake could find no one to take an interest. Even after the property was adapted as a novel by Blake - with Kevin Costner's encouragement - it proved un-saleable with publishers until late 1988; almost a decade after it was initially conceived for the screen. By then, however, Kevin Costner had risen to prominence in the Hollywood community. He quickly snatched up the film rights and thereafter set about courting interested parties to raise the $22 million necessary to produce it. In the end, Costner would fork out nearly $3 million of his own cash to complete Dances With Wolves. Production delays were considerable, most attributed to South Dakota’s temperamental weather; also owing to considerable difficulties in ‘wrangling the various live wolves, and finally, due to the complexities in staging both an all-out Indian battle and bison hunt sequences. Alas, the shooting of the latter was not without incident. Employing domesticated bison from singer, Neil Young’s ranch, Costner, who did most of his own horse riding, was T-boned during the stampede, knocking him, full force, to the ground. Badly bruised, though otherwise unharmed, Costner’s pride was likely the only true casualty of the accident. But it just as easily could have broken his back or even paralyzed him for life.
Our story begins with one of the last standoffs between the Confederate and Union Armies during the American Civil War.  Awakening, bloodied, on an operating table inside a gruesome makeshift hospital on the front lines, where surgeons lop off limbs with savage and unclean utensils and without the benefit of chloroform, Major John Dunbar discovers that his own wounded leg is slated for amputation. In a moment of semi-lucidity, Dunbar hops off the table and hobbles to his waiting horse, determined to go out in a blaze of glory as a suicide rider between enemy lines. This stunt is repeated over and over again, Dunbar’s audacity winning him mutual respect on both sides of the battle line. He is afforded his General’s private surgeon, who operates and saves Dunbar’s leg. Dunbar is also given his choice of commissions. He chooses Fort Sedgwick, a frontier outpost in the middle of the wide open west. His motives are fanciful. He wants to ‘see the west’ before it becomes overpopulated by settlers.
Dunbar’s initiation to this untamed wilderness is hardly welcoming. His superior, Maj. Fambrough has lost his mind, signing Dunbar’s orders to proceed to Fort Sedgwick before barricading himself in his office and declaring “to your journey…to my journey!” then, blowing his brains out with a pistol. Dunbar is assigned a wagon master, Timmons, to see him to Fort Sedgwick. Regrettably, the man is about as unkempt, slovenly, ill-mannered and inarticulate as traveling companions can get. The arrival at Sedgwick is even less assuring. Dunbar discovers the fort virtually abandoned, the nearby sump full of carcasses of slaughtered animals and the previous occupants, presumably either from fear or madness, having moved all their supplies and living quarters to some man-made holes dug in the side of a nearby hill. Dunbar elects to send Timmons back with a message, instructing for military reserves to be sent at once. Alas, on the long journey Timmons is pierced through the heart with an arrow by the marauding Pawnee, dying in the open fields of tall waving grass. Although Dunbar does not realize it, he is now completely isolated from civilization.
Electing to proactively restore the fort, Dunbar spends his days cleaning out the sump, burning the decomposing animal remains in a bonfire and making the most of what limited repairs can be made to the fort itself. His industriousness attracts the attentions of the neighboring Sioux, also a lone wolf whom Dunbar nicknames ‘Two Socks’ since the animal’s front paws are uniquely colored in white fur.  Dunbar’s first encounter with Wind In His Hair is eventful, the rider gallantly charging and shouting in his native tongue. The spectacle is startling to Dunbar and witnessed at a distance by Kicking Bird, who is more reticent and curious about this newly arrived stranger. Returning to their encampment, Kicking Bird explains to his chief, Ten Bears (Floyd Westerman) that perhaps their next line of recourse ought not be intimidation, but a cautious extension of friendship. Soon, Kicking Bird returns with members of the tribe. Dunbar attempts to make them feel at home, bartering for goods and preparing coffee. But the language barrier between them is a stumbling block that Kicking Bird attempts to rectify when he encourages Stands With A Fist to ‘make talk’ with the white man.
Dunbar’s initial introduction to Stands With A Fist, a white woman, captured as a child after her entire family was slaughtered and raised by the Sioux (shades of Natalie Wood in John Ford’s The Searchers), is heartrending. She is uncommunicative and seemingly inconsolable after the death of her husband, attempting to take her own life with a knife.   Dunbar prevents this suicide and returns her to Kicking Bird, whom he later discovers has acted as her adopted father all these many years. (Interestingly, Mary McDonnell was actually several months older than both Grahame Green and Tantoo Cardinal, who plays her Sioux mother, Black Shawl). Kicking Bird’s admiration for Dunbar is firmly established and Dunbar is soon drawn into the tribe’s lifestyle. Stands With A Fist begins to teach him the Lakota dialect, and Dunbar wins even more browning points with the tribe when he helps locate a huge herd of bison for their annual hunt.
Forsaking his ambitions for the fort, Dunbar becomes an honorary member of the Sioux, befriended as something of an elder brother by Cisco (Justin). Dunbar is also rewarded with a betrothal of marriage to Stands with a Fist after he helps smite the onset of a village invasion from the rival Pawnee. Owing to these increased threats, Ten Bears urges the tribe to relocate further west. Alas, Dunbar explains he must first retrieve his diary from Fort Sedgwick, as it would provide proof of their existence and thus, put the entire tribe in danger. Regrettably, Dunbar, escorted by Cisco, discovers the Fort occupied by the U.S. Army.  As he is dressed in native garb, Dunbar is mistaken as Sioux. The military open fire, killing Cisco and taking Dunbar hostage. Unable to prove his miraculous story, Dunbar is charged with desertion and sentenced to be taken back east for a court martial. Soldiers of the escort cruelly kill Two Socks after he attempts to follow Dunbar’s military escort. Eventually, the Sioux track down the convoy, attack and kill the soldiers, setting Dunbar free.
Reunited with Kicking Bird and the rest of the tribe at their winter camp, Dunbar elects to leave with Stands With A Fist for parts unknown. His presence, if he stays, would only place the rest of the tribe in grave danger. In their bittersweet farewells, Kicking Bird gives his blessing to the couple and a soulful Wind In His Hair reminds Dunbar to never forget the loyalties of their friendship. In the movie’s epilogue we hear the panged, echoing cry of a lone wolf and see the U.S. military searching the mountain range for any sign of Dunbar. An epitaph explains how a mere thirteen years into the future, the Sioux were all but vanquished by the U.S. government’s forceful push into the western frontier.
Dances With Wolves finale is both sobering and sentimental; a sort of ambiguous – if marginally flawed – attempt to reconcile the plight of the Native culture, while basically reasserting the white male perspective at the crux of its central narrative. There’s never any doubt about this. The film belongs to Kevin Costner’s forthright man of integrity. Yet, we must recall Dunbar’s willingness to ‘learn’ from the Sioux, as well as his embracement into the very heart of their way of life as a Hollywoodized notion of history at best. Such noble interactions, inbred with tolerance and mutual respect were hardly the overriding altruistic motivations or principles on either side. The west was conquered in bloodshed, not bittersweet tears, as Dances With Wolves finale erroneously suggests. There was ignorance and arrogance on both sides. And Dunbar’s escape into the night with Stands With a Fist at the end of this lengthy 236 minute director’s cut does more than simply reinforce the reality of ‘civilizing’ the American west. It returns the audience’s ethnocentric center of gravity to the Caucasian patriarchy; an affirmation of those dyed in the wool policies that were to prove a hellish expense to these indigenous custodians of the earth.  
Still, Dances With Wolves remains impressive large scale film-making at a time when both the concept and the western genre were considered box office poison. On set, Kevin Costner was an exacting professional. When cost overruns threatened to shut down his production, and Orion Pictures adamantly refused to put up one cent more to finish the picture, Costner dipped into his personal finances to finish this passion project. His stubborn faith in Dances With Wolves, and his commitment to make it as true and respectful to both sides, remain unbowed.   Originally planned at a truly epic four hours with intermission, a full hour of footage was excised shortly before the film’s theatrical engagement at the insistence of Orion Pictures. Costner pruned his opus magnum to the more manageable 180 minute general release; promised by Orion the film would be seen in its entirety for its home video debut. Both sides remained true to their word and in 1995 Dances With Wolves was afforded its first ‘complete’ release on Image Laserdisc. Since that time, many things in Hollywood have changed; chiefly, Orion’s financial ruin and the film coming under the acquisitions banner of United Artists and then, MGM/Fox Home Entertainment.
In the intervening decades only Costner’s director’s cut has survived the transition to DVD and now Blu-ray. Fascinatingly, at 236 minutes we are never strained or bored; the intensity and methodical pacing of Costner’s final cut remains a sumptuous story-telling feast for the eyes. Dances With Wolves was one of MGM/Fox’s first Blu-rays, the entire feature compressed onto a single Blu-ray without intermission. In 2010, Dances With Wolves was afforded a fairly lavish 2-disc 20th anniversary affair; the second disc containing a wealth of vintage documentaries on the making of the film, a history lesson about the actual American western frontier and some fairly comprehensive featurettes dedicated to the movie’s production design and Costner’s own recollections about creating what he undoubtedly – and rightfully – has come to regard as his masterpiece.
In short, the 20th anniversary Blu-ray was a cause for celebration, with minor caveats pertaining to compression-related artifacts on the actual feature film. Actually, given the movie’s monumental run time, the hi-def image quality was fairly startling. Rich, vibrant colors were evident throughout with very natural looking flesh tones. Contrast seemed just a shay lighter than expected, but not at negligible levels. Film grain had an overall highly pleasing texture, surely not to disappoint. Although there remained instances of faint and fleeting compression noise, the image quality was bar none a surplus of tactile textures with virtually no untoward digital tampering and no distracting DNR, edge enhancement or boosting.
The impressive DTS 7.1 surround was equally startling in its clarity and depth with low-end rumbles to give your subwoofer a real workout during the bison hunt; John Barry’s glorious underscore rising to new levels. In short, there was nothing to poo-poo about regarding the 20th anniversary. All of the above accolades may be reapplied to this newly released 25th anniversary of Dances With Wolves. What is frankly, and bafflingly inexcusable is MGM/Fox Home Video’s decision to excise virtually all of the aforementioned extra features. Not only this, but the 25th anniversary is a single disc affair, with only a digital copy option to recommend it. Ho-hum, how I am tiring of these lackluster reissues. Pointless, just pointless!
We get the same audio commentary; the first featuring Kevin Costner and producer, Jim Wilson, the other an in-depth analysis of the creation of the movie’s visuals by director of photography, Dean Semler and editor, Neil Travis. MGM/Fox has given us two superfluous featurettes; Military Rank and Social Hierarchy Guide, and, Real History or Movie Make-Believe? Honestly, I think this is just a really dumb money grab on the studio’s part. A real 25th anniversary might have included both the theatrical and director’s cuts (on separate discs), and should have contained all of the aforementioned extras from the 20th anniversary, plus the add-ons from this outing.
Bottom line: Dances With Wolves deserves the deluxe box set treatment a la a Lawrence of Arabia or Gone With The Wind. Do I see a 30th anniversary on the horizon? Unlikely. MGM/Fox is not really into producing such sets. But their idea of swag on this outing is, frankly, pathetic. If you own the 20th anniversary I can’t think of a single reason to repurchase this time around. If you don’t, I would strongly recommend you seek out the 20th anniversary instead, from any number of online vendors as it contains far more detailed back stories on the making of the movie than this meagerly appointed reissue. Bottom line: pass.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)