. . . . I watched about half of Polish director Aleksander Ford's Krzyżacy / The Black Cross / The Knights of the Teutonic Order (1960) last night in blu-ray (there are a variety of titles by which this film is known outside of Poland).
The novel by Nobel-prize winner for literature, Henryk Sienkiewicz, from which the film was adapted, was published in 1900. Sienkiewicz's historical novels are one of my historical fiction passions and admirations. The author wrote them in fire, from his passion for educating the Polish people in their language, culture and history, all of which, even lullabies, were forbidden under the occupation years of her 18th century partition,
This was my first blu-ray experience. It was an eye-popping visual experience, which additionally was critically revealing. I admit that blu-ray is a superior medium for experiencing certain kinds of films, though it probably doesn't matter for the run-of-the-mill shoot and / or blow up everything that moves or bro-mance drunken stupor varieties.
The Black Cross is one of those whose excellence is truly revealed by the meticulous restoration and blu-ray conversion of Scorsese's Masterpieces of World Cinema treatment.*
It's an historical epic, filled with crowd scenes (of actual human beings, whether mobs, armies, weddings -- not CGI cloned mud), panorama landscapes of rivers, forests and mountains, close-ups of wild life, such as owls, in which the subtle shading of every feather is visible.
As the tale is set in the late medieval era (14th century -- Battle of Grunwald, the film's conclusion, was in 1410), showcasing the traditional social and cultural life in Poland's town and country. Whether disappeared among Prussia, Russia and Austria, or under soviet occupation, the palaces, fortresses, and other buildings remained intact, not torn down and replaced. The wild regions were pristine too in 1960 -- and remained so until now under this current Polish plundering 'populist' government. Each brick is clearly visible, each bit of fabric of a gown or a fur -- the colors of the townspeople's traditional dress in crowd scenes, the outfits of the musicians, the armor of the warriors and the tack of their horses -- they're all brilliant and pulsing with historical information.
I have attempted to watch this same film previously on dvds from the NYPL. It was so unsatisfactory I had to quit, particularly as the subtitles were often unreadable. There is no resemblance between these blu-rays and those dvds beyond the plot. As I hopefully have shown, there are many reasons to watch these films that have nothing to do with plot. However, this being Polish and based on a novel that was certainly politically motivated, the plot does serve to illustrate those concerns as well.
All that said though, it does feel somewhat odd to see so much of the histrionics of early cinema acting employed by the actors, particularly in the scenes among the Teutonic Knights in Schytno, their castle-fortress, as well as the claustrophobic cinematic techniques soviet era Russian filmmaker that we see in Sergei Eisenstein's two-part historical, Ivan the Terrible. That was filmed in black and white, so the shadows and sense of being enclosed underground, extreme in its foreboding of the "coming of Stalin," were deeply affecting to the audience and fit well with the exaggerated, stage operatic physical acting, even though the film was released in 1944.
But Black Cross is in brilliant, sparkling color of 1960's film, so this jars. But it probably is supposed to -- as the Knights' dress is black and white, and their fortress is a dungeon from top to bottom (the views of that fortress and the drawbridge and all its impregnable defenses are worth seeing all alone). And director Aleksander Ford was highly educated in film history.
None of that above is anything I was able to see and reflect upon in the other dvd version of The Black Cross I saw. This is why Scorsees's Masterpieces of World Cinema - Criterian collections are such expensive, limited editions and aimed at professional cinephiles, presumably.
The horses and the horsemanship are spectacular. The dancing is equally so. These are Poles riding and dancing, so, of course!
I wish that this same treatment had been given to the Jerzy Hoffman films made from what is known as Sienkiewicz's Trilogy of the time of Poland's great troubles in the 17th century. They are even more brilliant than The Black Cross.
* Go here to see the contrast in the film before the Scorsese treatment and after.