This is another of those films from the 1960's that have apparently disappeared into the black hole that ought to have been reserved for some of the big-budget trash being made nowadays. It harks back to an era when halfway intelligent scripting and depth of characterization were deemed more important than brain-curdling eye candy and mindless special effects. And although not exactly what I would call a classic, it is nonetheless worthy of remembrance, at least among those of us elderly enough to remember it. Some of what follows may possibly be a bit of a spoiler, if there are any copies of this movie left to spoil, so be ye warned before reading further.
The film is based on an 1811 novella by Heinrich von Kleist, which in turn was based on the exploits of an actual fifteenth-century German horse trader named Hans Kohlhase. The story, in a nutshell, runs more or less as follows. On his way to market to sell his horses, Kohlhaas is intercepted by the minions of a nobleman named Tronka. He is informed that he is trespassing on Tronka's land, must pay a toll in order to continue, and winds up being forced to leave two of his horses behind as a surety. Upon returning to reclaim the horses, he finds that they have been maltreated and starved. Outraged, he seeks justice through official channels, but is stonewalled at every turn by the prevailing old-boy network. At length, his indignation erupts into violence. Brushing off advice to "just let it go," he takes up arms, gathers a band of similarly disenfranchised people, and starts an insurrection. In the end, of course, his insurrection is crushed, he is captured and condemned to die by one of the cruelest forms of execution ever devised: to be broken on the wheel.
Although fairly faithful to its original sources, the film does have a tendency to portray the character as a revolutionary, and at times even as a bit of a patriot and folk hero, rather than as the mere vengeful victim of injustice and local rabble-rouser that the real Kohlhase probably was. Nonetheless, the essential point of the story is not lost.
David Warner gives a typically intense performance as Kohlhaas. Whatever the character's motives may have been, the final scene of the film is unforgettable. Just before his execution, Kohlhaas learns that his case has finally been settled in his favor. His horses are returned to him in good condition, he says his goodbyes to them and sets them free. As he is hoisted aloft upon the wheel, broken and dying, he sees them galloping away across the plains and smiles contentedly.
The story of Michael Kohlhaas has certainly had some impact on later films. E. L. Doctorow was sufficiently inspired by it to adapt much of its thematic material to his novel (as well as the 1981 film) Ragtime, recasting the character of Kohlhaas as a black ragtime musician named Coalhouse Walker, who reacts similarly to an unredressed injury by a racist white policeman. And one can only wonder whether Mel Gibson was in any way influenced by it in his popular retelling of the story of William Wallace. Presumably Mel would know.
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