One of the most enduring fallacies in discussing Hollywood is to argue that because of the constitutional guarantee of free speech, American films can tackle any subject, any way. The reality is, of course, that only conventionally executed, commercially viable projects are produced. Another myth is that no one can equal Hollywood technically, and that films from totalitarian societies particularly can be dismissed unseen as propaganda.
A film like the Hungarian Miklós Janscó’s The Red and the White gives the lie to all of these chauvinist assumptions. It is impossible to imagine anything so relentlessly downbeat being made in the US. Set during the Russian Civil War, amidst the back and forth between White (Tsarist) and Red (Soviet) troops, there is little to engage sympathy. The action is violent without being more than formally exciting. The one brief hint of sex is cut short before anything happens. And while it is just possible to imagine a Hungarian audience identifying with their countrymen in the film (as allies of the Soviets) the nameless “characters” do not invite very deep concern. For anyone else, the situation verges on the abstract since the only suspense is not who, but when and how people will be killed.
Nor is this desolate world made familiar through predictable technique. Instead, Janscó employs long takes in widescreen images with action occurring on multiple planes. The scenes are staged with masterful precision and fluidity, but far from weaving the viewer into the action emotionally, they repeatedly challenge expectation. The story, such as it is, consists of little more than sudden shifts of power and submission as the Reds, then the Whites have the upper hand, then switch again and yet again.
As for any propaganda, made as a Russian-Hungarian co-production, and staged against a vast horizon, The Red and the White hardly presents a glowing affirmation of the “partnership” between the countries. About the most the film could be expected to deliver politically would be a reminder that Hungarians fought alongside the Bolsheviks. That reminder always has to skirt the realization, however, of how little Hungarians got for their sacrifices.
Thus, even to suggest that something like The Red and the White could be made in Hollywood is a sick joke. No studio executive could conceive of anything so bleak, risk the fortune necessary to make it or to give its creator the expressive freedom to film it so single-mindedly. While politics may have been the yoke around the neck of artists in socialist societies, money is the no less constraining collar that strangles American cinematic expression ever tighter. A work as formally radical and uncompromising as The Red and the White is just too dangerous for a cinema and society that insists the most unpleasant realities should be softened and sweetened with sentiment. Janscó has the courage to show humanity’s cruelty, brutality and ruthlessness without any suggestion things could be better.
Try pitching that one in Burbank.