Monthly Archives: July 2011

Iron Lord (Yaroslav. Tysyachu let nazad, Russia 2010)

Yaroslav (Aleksandr Ivashkevich) leads his men into another small settlement in Iron Lord.

This is the second recent pick-up of a Russian historical biopic by the UK distributor Revolver for a DVD release, following Admiral which we reviewed a few weeks ago. Both films were released in Russia by 20th Century Fox. As with Admiral, the film appears to be an ideology-driven film celebrating one of the first leaders to unite the principalities that would eventually become Russia. In some respects therefore the premise for the film recalls that of Zhang Yimou’s Hero about the king who first united China – though the actual narrative is quite different.

Historical outline

1010, the steppes of western Asia/Eastern Europe. The central character is Yaroslav (hence the Russian title of the film) son of Vladimir, ruler of what was in the early eleventh century, Rus’ or Kievan Rus’, with its capital in Kiev. Yaroslav is given the task of ruling the furthest territory controlled by his father, the wild lands of the North East around Rostov. Kievan Rus figures in Russian history as a ‘medieval polity’ that saw a concentration of power amongst the ‘Eastern Slavs’ before the invasion of their lands by the Mongols in 1230. Kiev is the capital of present-day Ukraine and Rostov is a city in modern Russia some 200 km North-East of Moscow. Rostov is a key city in Russian history and this film celebrates the founding of the city of Yaroslavl, now the major city of the region, 1,000 years ago.

Yaroslav has to find ways of gaining the trust of the local tribes (so that they will pay ‘tribute’) and fighting off marauding bandits who take prisoners to sell as slaves after being taken down the Volga River. Yaroslav has a central plan to build a fortress in the new territories. The local tribes are pagan but Yaroslav is a Christian and the fortress will also represent the solidity of Christianity. This narrative focuses specifically on a tribal group who worship a Bear god (veles) – a symbol of later Russia? The control of the area is further complicated by the actions of the Varangian (Viking) mercenaries who act as Yaroslav’s personal guards.

A Russian poster featuring one of the romance interests, Svetlana Chuikina as Raida


In Hollywood terms, this might be a ‘sword and archery’ type of film or a medieval epic – the time period is similar to that of Robin Hood and the Crusades. The presentation of Yaroslav is not unlike that of the Russell Crowe character in Gladiator, especially with the (rather confusing) references to his family. However, the strategies adopted by Yaroslav are also similar to those of a ‘liberal’ commander of the US Cavalry attempting to establish order in ‘Indian Country’, i.e. an imperial mission. Intellect’s Directory of World Cinema: Russia (ed Birgit Beumers, 2011) suggests that the ‘historical film’ has always been a major genre in Russian Cinema in both Soviet and pre- and post-Soviet periods. A second key genre is the action film which the Directory terms the ‘Red Western’ – an allusion to the way in which popular Russian films have borrowed aspects of Hollywood genres extensively since the 1920s. Iron Lord can be seen as an attempt to use these two genre repertoires as the basis for a conventional biopic about an important historical Russian figure.


A handsomely mounted film in CinemaScope, this would make a visual spectacle of the plains and forests on a big cinema screen. The visual quality is diminished on a TV screen. There is certainly plenty of action with up to four sets of combatants at different times fighting with swords, arrows, a variety of ingenious booby traps and even a bear or two – but these are all relatively small-scale skirmishes. I was most interested in the historical references and the construction of Yaroslav as an almost saint-like figure. There is a smidgeon of romance and one or two comic characters for light relief but on the whole the film is a relatively straightforward. The performances are fine and the combat scenes are well-handled. The weakness for me is in the script which I found confusing. Without recourse to Wikipedia and other sources I would have struggled to understand who the characters were and why they were acting in the ways they did – I’m still not sure that I fully understood the narrative. (The subtitles are OK but some Russian intertitles are not translated.)

Re-branding the film Iron Lord strikes me as misleading. Yaroslav is almost the opposite – he is ‘wise’ not brutal in this narrative and he spends much of the time in captivity or negotiation. Of course, few people outside Russia will know who Yaroslav was so the Russian title probably wouldn’t work either. The film was released in Russia on 550 prints and also has had a release in Ukraine and Germany. It lasted only one week in the Russian Top Ten so presumably audiences are too engaged with Hollywood product to lap up this kind of patriotic film. Revolver announce that the film is “from the same studio that brought you Black Death“. I’m not sure what this means – I couldn’t find any link between the two films. On the other hand, there has been a recent cycle of UK/Nordic/German films of this type (the most recent being Ironclad, 2011).

I couldn’t find much about any of the cast and crew. Most seem either to have come from TV or to be new to the industry according to IMDb. What I did find, however, was that a Soviet era version of the story was adapted as a 156 mins film in 1983. I’d like to see that for comparison. I wonder what happened to all those popular genre films made by Soviet era studios?

DVD Release

Revolver release the DVD on August 1 via the usual retailers. There is a website at complete with a clip from the film. Or see it on YouTube at:

Scala Forever, 13 August – 2 October 2011

We’ve had a request to promote a film festival running across several venues in London during August and September. The Scala was a cinema in London that operated at different times in Charlotte Street and Kings Cross between 1977 and 1992, offering a range of films from outside the mainstream. It was the last of the great London repertory halls where in the 1970s hundreds of us got our film education.

‘Scala Forever’ promises a range of interesting screenings, so click on the flyer below and you should get a full-size version of the programme or just go to Twenty-six separate venues are involved in this extravaganza and they are hoping to revive interest in the idea of film clubs for fans and cinephiles, showing much more interesting films in much more interesting locations than the soulless multiplex. There is everything from the Marx Brothers and Russ Meyer to Dario Argento, Michael Powell and ‘Pinky Violence’ from Japan. If you are in London you should give it a go!

See the YouTube promo here.

The end of 35mm?

There were two news stories from Norway last week. One was so shocking that it completely overwhelmed everything else coming out of the country. But that other story will have long-term consequences for the film industry. Screen International reported on 22 July that Norway’s move to complete digitisation of film distribution and exhibition had been completed in just over a year. From now on the Hollywood studios and major European distributors will only distribute 2K DCI compliant prints in Norway. 35mm is dead as a commercial medium. (Also worth noting – 80% of Norway’s screens are 3D capable.)

The significance of this announcement has to be looked at in terms of Norway’s special conditions. There are only 420 screens in the country and there is a history of municipal ownership of cinemas which alongside heavy government subsidies has made the transition to digital more straightforward than in other larger territories with more complex infrastructure. But the first stone has been taken from the dam. The Netherlands will be next – a larger population with more screens (690) and possibly more small film theatres. The UK multiplexes will be all digital by 2013 leaving major question marks over the smaller independents.

I assume that Norway will still have a handful of screens with 35mm projection facilities so that archive prints will be screenable? The other important question is how small independent cinemas outside Norway will find the necessary investment to acquire 2K projectors – and manage to pay the VPFs (virtual print fees) for digital prints for the first few years to cover the costs of conversion. Norway is a rich country. Elsewhere digital conversion is arriving inconveniently during a severe economic recession in Europe and North America. If you are a film fan committed to diversity in film exhibition, now is the time to start supporting your local independent cinema in any way that you can.

Los ojos de Julia (Julia's Eyes, Spain 2010)

Belén Rueda as Julia with bandaged eyes after an operation

Overall I think that Los ojos de Julia disappoints. It’s not that it is a bad film as such but it doesn’t have the richness and complexity of El orfanato. The comparisons are valid partly because of Belén Rueda’s central role and partly because of Guillermo del Toro’s implicit recommendation (as producer). It’s a couple of weeks since I saw the film and it hasn’t really resonated with me beyond the screening. On the other hand I did find it compelling over 112 minutes.

It’s not the same kind of film as El orfanato although there are similarities. Belén Rueda plays Julia, a woman whose sister appears to have committed suicide because she can no longer cope with the prospect of total blindness as the result of a degenerative genetic disease. Julia herself is also prone to the disease but when she visits her sister’s house she is not prepared to accept the suicide and she decides to investigate (along with her husband played by Lluís Homar – well-known in the UK for his performances for Almodóvar, including as a blind man in Broken Embraces.) Julia is convinced that there is someone watching the house – and watching her. The plot is purely generic in that it requires the protagonist to wish to be in the ‘old dark house’ even when she knows that the stress will hasten the degeneration of her sight. So everything that you might expect to appear as a thriller/horror convention does indeed pop up. I don’t really have problems with this – perhaps because I don’t watch so many Hollywood films with similar scenarios. What more can you ask for than for a film like this to make you jump and then leave you on the edge of your seat?

The performances are generally very good and the sets and cinematography/lighting are excellent. The weakness is really the script. (Guillem Morales wrote and directed the film.) It seems to have several plot holes and some of the actions of some characters seem implausible. Some audiences seem to have problems with the ending and the symbolism of ‘Julia’s eyes’ (which I won’t explain as it would spoil the plot surprises). The ending didn’t bother me but I would have liked more of the relationship between Julia and her husband – something which served El orfanato well with the equivalent characters. El orfanato has a strong thematic around the ‘missing dead’ of the Franco period. Los ojos de Julia also has an underlying theme – about the people we don’t see, those who for various reasons are invisible to most of us. This obviously also refers to the concept of loss of sight or visual impairment. Unfortunately I don’t think this is woven through the narrative as effectively as the theme in the earlier film.

In institutional terms, Los ojos de Julia is another example of a classy Spanish horror thriller with careful production design funded via several Spanish TV companies with the support of Studio Canal and its long-term Hollywood partner Universal. It would make an interesting case study for genre analysis in linking the psychological horror film (i.e. with both ‘internal’ and external terrors for the protagonist) with the thriller format exemplified by Wait Until Dark.

The UK trailer:

Cutter's Way (US 1981)

John Heard and Lisa Eichhorn

I’m delighted that Cutter’s Way was re-released in the UK by Park Circus on 24 June in ‘Key Cities’. This is a ‘limited release’ but if it’s on anywhere near you, I recommend a trip.If you don’t know the film, DVDs are available.


Cutter’s Way is an adaptation by the Czech New Wave director Ivan Passer of the highly acclaimed 1976 novel Cutter and Bone by Newton Thornburg. The dates here are important because Thornburg’s story is about an angry Vietnam veteran Alex Cutter (John Heard) and 1976 was a year after the last American helicopters left Saigon. Five years on and Passer’s film finally reached cinemas during the first year of Reagan’s presidency when the political mood in America had changed. Cutter’s Way appeared as a film seemingly twice out of place since it more resembled the intelligent downbeat films of the ‘New Hollywood’ of the 1970s than the entertainment films of the new era of Spielberg/Lucas et al. As a result, Cutter’s Way had a difficult release and eventually came out as something akin to an independent film. Since its original release it has become something of a ‘cult film’.

This re-release has been promoted by the BFI which is screening the film on an extended run at the NFT with a feature by Michael Atkinson in Sight and Sound (July 2011). The re-release has been timed to be part of the BFI’s Jeff Bridges Retrospective. This is interesting for several reasons. It’s John Heard who in some ways steals the show in the film and the Bridges on view is the young man who was so beautiful rather than the post-Dude Bridges who is now a cult figure. Audiences who might be drawn to the film by Bridges’ presence may be surprised by what they find. Lisa Eichhorn is mesmerising as an alcoholic. She never got another major role of this quality and the American Film Institute reckoned her performance to be the most under-rated of the era.

Outline (no spoilers)

Santa Barbara, Southern California. Part-time yacht salesman and occasional gigolo Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges) witnesses an odd incident on a rain-swept backstreet when his car breaks down. He only realises later that a murder has been committed and that since he was at the crime scene, he is a suspect. Bone spends much of his time at the home of disabled and often drunk Vietnam vet Alex Cutter and his wife Mo (Lisa Eichhorn). Alex is quick to persuade Bone that he has seen the murderer – local business leader J. J. Cord. Alex wants revenge on the people who have caused all the trouble in the world, not least the useless war, and Cord fits the bill. Can Cutter and Bone finger Cord?


When I began to think about the film I realised that there is a great deal to explore – possibly too much for a single post. Let’s begin with the background to the adaptation. The Sight and Sound coverage of the film by David Thomson (Spring 1982) is an excellent read. Thomson reveals that the rights to the book were bought by an independent producer, Paul Gurian, who first interested EMI (which at this time was seeking to distribute films in North America as well as the UK). At this point, Robert Mulligan was to direct with Dustin Hoffman as Cutter and John Heard as Bone. But this didn’t happen. Mark Rydell was then going to direct before the script (by Jeffrey Alan Fiskin) was picked up by United Artists. This was at the time that Heaven’s Gate was in production and UA decided to go with Cutter and Bone if they could persuade Jeff Bridges – one of the younger players in Heaven’s Gate to play Bone, allowing Heard to become Cutter. Passer came on board at this stage. Unfortunately, when Heaven’s Gate crashed, nearly closing UA down, a $3 million production like Cutter and Bone was not a priority. The film was released and withdrawn almost immediately in March 1981. Only spirited critical responses could persuade UA to reconsider and it was passed to the new ‘UA Classics’ division (with a name change to the less helpful title of Cutter’s Way). Gradually the film began to pick up fans and festival appearances and it was released in the UK in early 1982.

Jeff Bridges in beach boy mode

I’ve introduced Cutter’s Way as in some way the a late entry into the ‘New Hollywood’ of the 1970s. I need to explain the term. The period between 1965 (the date of the last major success of the traditional Hollywood studio musical, The Sound of Music) and 1975 (the appearance of the first modern ‘blockbuster’, Jaws) was a time when the studios to some extent lost control of American filmmaking. They still made films – or at least acquired them for distribution, but the nature of the films changed and many of the conventions of Hollywood production fell away – like the Production Code, the tedious happy ending, the genre certainties. The new films attempted to engage with the counter-culture and with politics – ‘personal’ and ‘hard political’ – and social issues. This period is often confused with the rise of the ‘Movie Brats’ and indeed Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Peter Bogdanovich and William Friedkin did initially make films which seemed to challenge ‘Old Hollywood’, but Lucas soon followed Spielberg into making the new form of blockbuster – essentially in homage to 1940s Hollywood. Coppola followed later. For me the interesting purveyors of 1970s Hollywood were older, wiser or more embittered and had histories in television and theatre. They weren’t Hollywood at all: Arthur Penn, Sam Peckinpah, Alan J. Pakula and Robert Altman. (I’ve read somewhere recently that Pakula was judged to be a nouvelle vague follower.)

Passer has an affinity towards this group but he properly belongs to the European émigré group of the period – Passer’s old colleague from the Czech New Wave, Milos Forman plus Roman Polanski and the Brits, Karel Reisz, John Boorman and John Schlesinger. All of these directors made films in the 1970s which explored American genres. The other two films that share some elements with Cutter’s Way are Polanski’s Chinatown (1975) and Karel Reisz’s Dog Soldiers (Who’ll Stop the Rain?) (1978). Cutter’s Way has a similar trio of characters to the Reisz film with the aggressive Vietnam vet Cutter, the indecisive commitment phobe Bone and the depressive Mo. In a sense this trio represent three responses to the craziness of America in the post Vietnam era. Andrew Britton put it very well in a 1980 piece in Movie 27/28. His argument includes the observation that the Vietnam War cannot be ‘explained’ satisfactorily within American ideology. It’s no use just assuming that the war is morally wrong since the war was inevitable given the American commitment to imperialism and fighting communism. For that position to be tenable would mean endorsing socialism in an American context which Hollywood can’t do. I haven’t space to go into the full analysis but it means that the normal ‘heroic’ role for the ‘US male’ is not available in a Vietnam film. Thus the hero is forced either to be ‘passive’ (‘acted upon’ rather than acting) or psychotic – there is no available way of being heroic. Cutter and Bone are in effect psychotic and passive. So does this then mean that the woman in the threesome must be depressive since neither man can offer her a fulfilling relationship?

Inevitably perhaps Cutters Way has to be carried by the performances and it is here that Passer’s direction works so well. The film is engrossing because the characters are believable and all three actors grasp their roles and deliver. This is a film you can keep on watching.

The opening sequence to Cutter’s Way featuring Jack Nitzsche’s wonderful score:

al-Ard (The Land, Egypt 1969)

The villagers Abdel Hadi (Ezzat El Alaili) and Wassifa (Nagwa Ibrahim) in 'al-Ard'

My second film at the Liverpool Arabic Film Festival was a beautiful print (supposedly the only viewing print available and hired at considerable cost) of Youssef Chahine’s 1969 adaptation of a novel by Abdel Rahman al-Sharqawi. The novel was written in the 1950s about events in the 1930s but the film’s appearance in the late 1960s still resonated, especially after the trauma of Egypt’s defeat in the 1967 war against Israel.


The focus is on a small village in the Nile Delta region. The peasant farmers rely on Nile water to irrigate their crops, especially cotton as a cash crop. The authorities (in the 1930s Egypt was a semi-autonomous monarchy but still ultimately under British control) allow the fellaheen (peasants) 10 days of water (per year?). This is barely enough but then news filters through that the ration is to be reduced to 5 days. The villagers must organise themselves to protest and to put their case. However, there are different interests for the Mayor, the wealthier landowners and the local bey (noble rank) and they conspire to maintain their own status so that the main burden falls on the fellaheen. The central conflict focuses on Abou Swelem the most respected of the fellaheen, who has remained on the land while his two former comrades in the 1919 rising against the British have ‘progressed’ to positions in the town or in business and now carry the honorary title ‘sheikh‘. Abou Swelem (Mahmoud El Miligui) has a beautiful daughter Wassifa who is courted by a peasant farmer and by the educated son of one of the sheikhs. Eventually the villagers will have to fight for their land and their crops.


This long (130 minutes) film is beautifully directed and wonderfully acted by all concerned. The 35 mm print looked stunning – in Technicolor I assume? The film was shown in competition at Cannes in 1970 and this perhaps explains the quality of the subtitles.

In her book on Arab Cinema, Viola Shafik (American University in Cairo Press, 2007: 137) cites al-Ard as an example of ‘socialist realism’ but suggests that the ideology in the script is derived from the novel whose author expressed “an uncompromising Marxism” – rather than from the director, who she points out was from the Egyptian bourgeoisie. The only other Chahine film I’ve seen up to now is the 1958 Cairo Station. Shafik describes that title as ‘commercial realism’ using the generic conventions of the crime film. I think I need to revisit that film.

‘Socialist realism’ was the realist form developed in the Soviet Union after Stalin repressed the more experimental work of the 1920s. In many ways it mirrored the ‘Hollywood realism’ of the 1930s and 1940s except that it focused on the collectivist ideology of the workers’ state rather than the individualism of Hollywood. It was the form taken up by Chinese Cinema post 1949 and up to the mid 1960s. al-Ard, however, made me think not about Soviet or Chinese films but about Indian Cinema. The scenes of village life are reminiscent of Hindi ‘social films’ going back to Mehboob and Bimal Roy, though al-Ard being ten years later is more polished. The politics of the film suggest Indian parallel cinema, especially some of the films of Mrnal Sen. Although the film is essentially realist in its presentation, there are moments when short sequences of montage are used for emphasis. The narrative is ‘bookended’ by close-ups of the central character’s hands running the soil through his fingers at the beginning and being literally torn through the soil at the end. There are scenes of song and dance at a wedding and an almost erotic scene of a village woman bathing. The references to Indian Cinema are not too surprising given that the theme of struggles over land are universal. This specific narrative involving careful gradations of social class operating within a colonial framework is certainly very similar to conditions in much of India where British policy left in place feudal arrangements which allowed exploitation by larger landlords (cf the zamindar system in British India).

al-Ard is not a simplistic tale by any means. The various plot lines are brought together very carefully and we learn that the bey, while pretending to help the villagers is in fact using the potential dispute to make it easier to build himself a new road (using land taken from the peasants). To enforce this theft, troops are brought in. The sergeant in charge of these camel soldiers is himself a displaced peasant and he and Abou Swelem have an uneasy bond. But if I remember correctly, the soldier was displaced in order to build a dam – which aids everybody. The bey‘s road is also ‘modernisation’, but designed primarily to boost his private enterprise.  Abou Swelem recognises this like any good socialist. Abou Swelem’s daughter must choose between the brave and strong man who is seemingly a younger version of her father and the weak but educated man who represents the possibility of economic progress. The fair distribution of land has proved to be the major issue for many states following decolonisation. (Zimbabwe for instance?) It remains an issue to fuel political discourse. I hope that this wonderful film gets many more screenings.

The festival screening was introduced by Brian Whitaker, former Guardian Middle East Editor (and current online editor). I found this useful in picking out some of the interesting aspects of the narrative. Viewing the film in 2011 it’s salutary to note that the recent ‘revolution’ in Cairo was largely a middle-class affair amongst the educated youth. Millions of fellaheen still toil on the land for little reward as far as I can see.

al-Ard also played at Cornerhouse Manchester this week alongside Cairo Station so thanks to whoever secured the bookings. More please!