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IN TIME AND SPACE. 10 historical movies from ten countries

Every country has its own history, recorded in the annals or handed down from generation to generation.

Mariusz Czernic

19 May 2023

Every country has its own history, recorded in the annals or handed down from generation to generation. Therefore, historical cinema is a universal genre, practiced wherever cinematography develops. The belonging of specific films to this genre seems obvious on the surface, but nevertheless often raises doubts. They arise due to excessive deviations from what we know about history from textbooks. Old chronicles and archaeological research explain a lot, but will not create a complete picture of past reality. Directors often use historical materials in order to tell a fictional storyline, usually an adventure-romance one. They have the right to do so, but if they make a centuries-old historical event an important factor in the performance, there is no reason not to include it in the genre. Deviations from the “truth” are not always mistakes of the creators, as they often serve specific purposes – they are the result of budget, convenience, specificity, creativity….

This text aims to highlight the best historical films, but according to a strict key (productions from different countries and in different languages). In order to select works representative of individual countries, I decided to juxtapose side by side the so-called historical giants – the most expensive (and possibly the best) domestic films that are “national epics” and are also successful abroad. It’s also a good opportunity to learn about the history of different nations, so I chose films in which local directors tell the story of heroes from their own country’s history. For this reason, I left out Pharaoh (1966) based on the novel by Boleslaw Prus. For this reason, I didn’t consider American films about ancient Rome (in the end, no English-language film entered the list). I also omitted films about 20th-century armed conflicts, because according to the common definition, they belong to a different genre – war cinema. Concluding this introduction, I invite you to an interesting cinematic journey through time and space… Order of titles – chronological.

1. The Gaucho War (La guerra gaucha; Argentina 1942), dir. by Lucas Demare

The scale and significance of this film is so great that it was talked about like Argentina’s Gone with the Wind (1939). The thing is set during the Argentine War of Independence from 1810-1818, specifically in its final phase, in 1817. Troops of Argentine cowboys, the so-called gauchos, fought irregular battles against royalist forces loyal to the Spanish crown. The film depicts a series of guerrilla battles, reminiscent of American films about the Wild West, as well as Italian-Spanish zapata westerns made two decades later. Among others, the gauchos have on their side a church worker (the so-called sacristan) who, feigning loyalty to the royalists, favors the guerrillas – sending them information through a messenger or by striking the church bell. Captured by the rebels, a lieutenant from the Spanish army also succumbs to revolutionary ideals about freedom, incidentally falling in love with the beautiful Asunción.

Argentina was going through a turbulent time in the 1940s. People were divided between those in favor of joining the war and those who wanted to remain neutral. Ramón Castillo’s rule led to conflict, and in 1943 a military coup ousted the president. The Gaucho War, made based on a series of books by Leopold Lugones, was well suited to the mood of the country at the time. For greater authenticity, the cinematography was shot in the province of Salti, in northwestern Argentina, where the events depicted here took place.

The powerful sound of musical instruments is striking from the outset – the director’s brother, Lucio Demare, was the author of the soundtrack. The film in question won as many as seven awards from the Argentine Academy of Cinematography Arts and Sciences, conceived on the model of the American Academy. In 1955, the Academy was dissolved by the military junta. To this day, however, another Argentine award is presented, the Silver Condors, which were won by The Gaucho War (for best picture, director and adapted screenplay) during the first hand in 1943. The film has stood the test of time well and would have found numerous audiences had it been better distributed. Some cinephiles may be familiar with Hugo Fregonese, who served as assistant director here and later gained popularity abroad. He shot films in Argentina, the US, Italy, Spain, the UK and West Germany.

2. Against All (Proti vsem; Czechoslovakia 1957), dir. by Otakar Vávra

When the first historical production in color was made in Poland – Mountains in Flames (1955) about the 1681 anti-Saxon uprising – the Czechs reworked the theme of the Hussite Wars of the 15th century for 33 million crowns. Three parts were produced: Jan Hus (1955), Jan Zizka (1956) and Against All (1957). The latter lands in the compilation, as the trilogy is on an upward trend. Each part is basically a separate story, so they can be viewed in any order. Alois Jirásek’s prose was used to create a capital show, visually impressive, criticized for stereotyping and bias, heavily distorting the real picture. Communism ruling this part of Europe certainly influenced the final version of the film, but to look for communist ideology in the Hussite movement, in my opinion, makes little sense.

Otakar Vávra’s higher rated film is Witchhammer (1970) about the activities of the inquisitors in the Czech lands (the witch trials in the town of Šumperk). The work won greater acclaim because the director put more emphasis on the dramatic layer, creating a shocking picture of the era. The Hussite trilogy, especially the crowning work Against All, deserves attention for another reason. It’s an excellent representative of the times in which it was made, proving that Czech cinema isn’t only “nobody knows anything” films, but also spectacular genre productions. When we watch the final clash – the Battle of Vítková Hora from 1420 – it becomes clear that the film matches the quality of more expensive productions from overseas. In addition, the chaos of the time, amidst medieval hypocrisy and religious fanaticism, is very well portrayed. It’s very edgy on one side and the other. People sing religious songs, but they have hatred in their hearts instead of God. The scene in which the house is burned down, even though there are two people in it, is strongly memorable and thought-provoking.

3. The Leopard (Il gattopardo; Italy 1963), dir. by Luchino Visconti

Burt Lancaster in

The unification of Italy, or the so-called Risorgimento, was a landmark event in Italian history that lived to see a magnificent tribute in the form of a colorful, visually stunning production. Director-aristocrat Luchino Visconti has taken care of the right means to create not so much a film, but rather an extraordinary series of images, masterful works of art that true connoisseurs will appreciate. It was a beautiful time, so the actors were chosen attractive as well. Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale and Alain Delon, although they were not fluent in Italian and had to be dubbed, perfectly fit into the vision of the changes taking place in the “animal kingdom”, where jackals and hyenas come in place of cheetahs and lions. Beauty and majesty gave way to dark forces, which reached their apogee during World War II.

The early 1960s saw the premiere of two works by Visconti that were very different from each other – Rocco and His Brothers, which was close to the aesthetics of neorealism, and the historical fresco The Leopard, which was comparable to lavish theatrical productions. However, he would be wrong who thinks that artistic richness hides shallow content. The script, which involved as many as five authors, is – based on a novel by Giuseppe di Lampedusa – a deep and sincere expression of longing for something that is irretrievably gone, but deserves to be remembered. The ball sequence, lasting more than 40 minutes, is a symbolic farewell, a feast in honor of those whose loss hurts the most. Because nothing can replace them. The film was awarded the Palme d’Or, but was submitted for the Oscar at the time. As it turned out later, it was the right decision, because Federico Fellini’s film was awarded the statuette. However, for me, it’s The Leopard that is an exceptional work, which has aged very nobly.

Mariusz Czernic

Mariusz Czernic

Tries to popularize old, forgotten cinema. A lover of black crime stories, westerns, historical and samurai dramas, gothic horror movies as well as Italian and French genre cinema.

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