30 May 2001 | rfkeser
Early spectacle from Michael Curtiz
This patriotic Austrian costume drama, about the martyr Medardus who opposed Napoleon's occupation of Vienna in 1809, helped to earn Michael Curtiz (then Kertesz) his ticket to Hollywood and a long, productive career.
The plot proceeds in a series of confrontations with Medardus, his mother and sister, the blind exiled Count of Valois, his ambitious daughter, and Napoleon himself (portrayed as a cool strategist), including several brief flashbacks. The romantic element pits Medardus --the blond Mikhail Verkonyi,who became Victor Varconi in Hollywood, working often for DeMille and Borzage-- in a love-hate relationship with the Valois daughter. The result makes for tight-lipped entertainment, too steely and humorless to succeed as human drama, but interesting for Curtiz's handling of spectacle.
Curiously, whether in military parades or court pageantry or epic battles, Curtiz never once moves his camera. Each setup is cemented in place, although Curtiz stages plenty of movement within the frame, especially marshaling his armies in combat, adding inventive use of smoke effects, and ultimately achieving a genuine sense of spectacle. Only once, when the cavalry charges toward a ground-level camera, does this film suggest the dynamism of Curtiz's CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE. Also, from the director of Errol Flynn's most thrilling swordfights, a dueling sequence here offers remarkably disappointing swordplay, filmed in basic one-shots.
Among the numerous locations -- forests, the banks of the Danube, Schoenbrunn palace-- it is startling to glimpse the Josefsplatz, the square outside Harry Lime's flat which would form the epicenter of THE THIRD MAN a quarter century later.
In the end, the non-moving camera, combined with the enormous chunks of dialogue that clog the titles, suggest an illustrated text, elaborate but uncompelling, rather than the best of Curtiz's later work.