Friday, November 7, 2008

MGM's Quo Vadis Finally Comes to DVD!

QUO VADIS, a MGM production from 1951 that was the biggest epic up until that time, will be released on domestic DVD in a two-disc set from Warner Brothers. Street date is November 11th. I've sampled the DVD, and the Technicolor is amazing. So many shots are framed as if artistic photographs. They really did know how to make movie magic in those days. Robert Taylor, Deborah Kerr, Leo Genn, and Peter Ustinov star. Ustinov is particularly superlative as Nero.

The two-disc set is being offered on for the amazing price of $14.99. Order directly here.

I will be adding commentary about this release, but, for now, here are several screen captures from the presentation:

Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Purity of Neoclassicism

Visually and artistically, the Napoleonic period is characterized by neoclassicism, which inspires with concurrent visions of rebirth and freshness. As the Wikipedia entry explains: "In the visual arts the European movement called 'neoclassicism' began after A.D. 1765, as a reaction against both the surviving Baroque and Rococo styles, and as a desire to return to the perceived 'purity' of the arts of Rome, the more vague perception ('ideal') of Ancient Greek arts (where almost no western artist had actually been) and, to a lesser extent, 16th century Renaissance Classicism."

As I experience it, Neoclassicism is like the sun on clear day, and I think that Sienkiewicz, in proceeding with THE LEGIONS, carried within him not only the inspiration of a potent nationalistic message he wished to amplify, but the bright sunny vision of another time that blossomed with political and artistic changes--and hope. It is no surprise that the Neoclassic Movement was followed by the Romantic Movement. Sienkiewicz, writing at the time into the 20th century, was one of the last literary voices of Romancism, and was returning to Romanticism's childhood--Neoclassicism. His journey can be likened to a man of elderly years who with ever increasing frequency thinks back of the days when he was young and the world was filled with sun and joy and adventure and promise.

It is a shame, of course, that Sienkiewicz never finished THE LEGIONS, but we have his precious words and the new breath of his vision before us, and our own visions and sense of aliveness take us from there.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Historical Films of the 1950s and 1960s

In the 1950s and the early 1960s, the historical film was immensely popular throughout the world. There were various reasons for this, undoubtedly, but one of the most direct was the international success of three films: SAMSON AND DELILAH (1949), QUO VADIS (1951), and THE ROBE (1953). Of these, it was QUO VADIS, based on a novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz (the author of THE LEGIONS), that influenced the Italian film industry the most, as the film was the only one of the three to be shot in Italy, which created a need for local artisans, set designers, costume makers and extras (a young Sophia Loren being one) who could apply either their talents or their presence to the mammoth MGM production. This stimulus generated an ever-increasing native production schedule of Italy's own historical epics of Roman and mythological times, which resulted in the blossoming of the "peplum" genre that frontlined such strongman heroes as Hercules, Goliath, Maciste and Ursus, the latter being a character from, yes, QUO VADIS. Pretty soon, Italy was producing more historical fiction films than any other country in the world, and not just of the time period already mentioned. Pirate films, swashbucklers, Renaissance adventures--these and more filled world screens. America still retained the lead in terms of quality. Films like BEN HUR and SPARTACUS impressed with their scope and production values. But the Italian films had their own delights, pure entertainment being one. And however the American or Italian films managed to re-write history, they still instilled in the viewer a curiosity about that history and a sense of mankind as a journey that did not just start in a generation or two before the birth of the viewer.

This was the atmosphere, cinematically, that I grew up in, and so the historical epics of Henryk Sienkiewicz were sure to find fertile soil in my imagination and my soul when I began reading them in my teens. My family would frequently go and see whatever historical film was playing on the Saturday evenings that we would walk to one of the film theaters in Brooklyn, where we lived at the time. A Loew's theater was a favorite, as its interior was just as majestic as many of the films we were viewing and contributed to the atmosphere of antiquity and celebration. So, when I was a child, I remember seeing revivals of SAMSON AND DELILAH, THE ROBE, and QUO VADIS. (As videos or DVDs were some time away from reality, certain popular films would be re-shown years later and sometimes just as successful as during their original run.) I remember also seeing, but during their first run, films like SPARTACUS, EL CID and TARAS BULBA. Films like THE VIKINGS I may have seen close to their release date, but already double-billed with a newer film. Then, during summer vacation time at my grandparents' in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, I saw such peplums as HERCULES and HERCULES UNCHAINED, starring Steve Reeves, the undisputed champion of the peplum film. I tried to see every Steve Reeves film I could. I saw THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD and MORGAN THE PIRATE, but somehow missed GOLIATH AND THE BARBARIANS and DUEL OF THE TITANS, the latter which promised a fierce, perhaps deadly, match-up between Reeves and former Tarzan, Gordon Scott.

Theatrically, the historical fiction film is not doing that well these days. It hasn't been doing well for some time. Oh, there's the occasional film, but it seems to rely more on gimmick (300), silly curiosity (will ALEXANDER show homosexuality?) or CGI effects rather than a "cast of thousands" that was the staple ballyhoo of the historical epic in the 50s and 60s. Still the occasional historical epic is better than no historical epics, and a few--BRAVEHEART, GLADIATOR and 300--have become as popular as the classics from the past.

Not theatrically, the historical film is doing quite well. DVD has provided much, and more is coming. And, in some cases, in restored, deluxe editions that, though they can never take the place of seeing one of these epics at the cinema, are the next best thing and welcome indeed.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

A Precious Work

I read the book decades ago, so I've forgotten portions, but some scenes still remain with me. I know there is an Italian scene that is one of the most beautiful, poetically, ever rendered by Sienkiewicz. I'm pretty sure that there is no battle, as Sienkiewicz still didn't get up to one before outside events and his death intruded. Curiously, perhaps because he knew he had to take a pause, he ends what he had written with a scene that duplicates somewhat how he ended ON THE FIELD OF GLORY, another unfinished work that was nevertheless published as a complete book.

Despite being an unfinished work, THE LEGIONS is brimming with much that showcases Sienkiewicz's impressive talents as a writer of epic historical fiction. There is also a freshness to the work, a vibrancy of exploring a new period of history, that gives the reader vigorous images of what might have been and that is satisfactory on its own. THE LEGIONS is, I would say, the most precious of Sienkiewicz's work, one that allows us to meet our beloved author once again and share in his enthusiasms and his dreams before he left us.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Inspiration

This is the book that began my fascination, at times obsession, with translating. I was in my teens, and I had read several of Henryk Sienkiewicz's epic historical novels in the Jeremiah Curtin English translations. My father, I found out, had a Sienkiewicz novel in his collection that I knew nothing about and that had never been translated. The title, LEGIONY (THE LEGIONS), was instantly captivating and impelled visions of another great, and unknown, historical epic from this master writer. It took place in the Napoleonic Period when Polish fighters joined up with Napoleon to change the map and governments of Europe and, importantly for the Polish, to liberate Poland from foreign occupation. This was a time that was rife with Romanticism, and Sienkiewicz, being a superb Romanticist, was perfectly suited to write about this period and its people and its heroes.

As soon as I realized that the book was available to me and had never been translated into English, I determined to translate it. I needed a solid Polish dictionary, for, though I was raised in a Polish home, I was not born or brought up in Poland, and in many ways considered Polish my second language, though it was undoubtedly the first language I spoke. My father ordered from Poland a two-volume Polish/English dictionary, which I still have to this day, and which has served me so well that the Polish to English volume has come apart from use, with several pages missing.

The book pictured above is the actual book from my father's collection. As you can see it was published by the Instytut Literacki, in Rome, in 1946. The softbound book carries its own romance with it. The pages have been browned through age for decades now, and the smell of the pages is delightful and brings one to another time, another place, after the Second World War, when Polish people in exile were beginning new lives in different countries throughout the world. The irony of what the novel was about and the then-current situation Poland found itself in, under the dominance of foreign power, is clear.

When I received the two-volume dictionary, I instantly began translating into a spiral-bound notebook, which I still have. Like Sienkiewicz, but for different reasons (so far!), I never finished my work on this book. I didn't get far, but I always had the dream of finishing what had been unfinished by Sienkiewicz and by me. And so now, this is what I'm attempting to do.