A Walk With Love And Death Review
A Walk With Love And Death is set during the 14th Century in the midst of the Hundred Years War. Heron Du Foix (Dayan) is a student who abandons Paris, sickened by the brutality he has witnessed, and decides to walk to the sea. On the way, he takes shelter in a castle and meets Claudia of St Jean (Huston), daughter of the King’s intendant. When rebellious peasants destroy the castle, Heron rescues Claudia and takes her to her cousin, Robert (Corlan). His promise to keep her safe and, effectively, be her knight, leads them both to experience life at its extremes as they, inevitably, fall in love.
This seems an utterly bizarre project for John Huston to direct but can perhaps be best understood in the context of his work after Moby Dick in the mid-1950s. Having tried and honourably failed to tame Melville’s beast of a novel, his work begins to divide into two categories. On the one hand, there are the obvious commercial projects seemingly designed to finance his extravagant globetrotting lifestyle - The List Of Adrian Messenger, Sinful Davey, The Kremlin Letter - while on the other there are the films which seem to really mean something to him - The Misfits, Reflections In A Golden Eye and A Walk With Love And Death. Exactly what drew him to Hans Konigsberger’s brittle, evocative novel is something of a mystery but, as Konigsberger himself suggests, it may have more to do with the ideas explored in the book than with the picaresque narrative and historical setting. Indeed, what he produces is perhaps most aptly described as a more intelligent version of what Franco Zefferelli tried to do in Brother Sun, Sister Moon - relate stories of the past to contemporary issues. Like Zefferelli, Huston seems interested in the youth movement and the struggle for peace and love in a time of conflict. But whereas the Italian director makes pretty pictures and fills his soundtrack with Donovan’s cheap sentimentality, Huston has a clear-eyed vision of the period as vicious and cruel. His view of the late Middle Ages is gritty and, most significantly, largely unclouded by sentiment. The scenes in which sentiment is allowed to take centre stage – as in a romantic idyll around the hour mark – are by far the least effective.
Huston’s viewpoint in the film has been called cynical and, to some extent, it is. But it’s also pragmatic, accepting a certain attitude towards the world but allowing for the fact that individuals can rise above their circumstances even if simply by virtue of having a dream. Heron’s simple ambition of seeing the sea and taking his fate unto himself raises him above the soldiers and peasants. If they are doomed to fail in the end – as the peace and love kids manifestly failed in the turn of the decade from Sixties to Seventies – it is at least an honourable and perhaps beautiful failure. Huston keeps his lovers centre-stage throughout which has the result of making the violence slightly distant – a particularly nasty “quartering” by horses is shown obliquely with the bloody results almost absurd. He isn’t simply trying to shock us with blood and gore, he’s immersing us in a time where brutality is so commonplace that it no longer has the capacity to surprise. Key scenes, such as Robert’s duel with an aggressive knight, are shown in long shot and the results are deliberately kept from us. It’s a fascinating technique, almost the direct opposite of that used in the same year by Sam Peckinpah. Huston abstracts violence whereas Peckinpah makes it hyper-real. Both techniques have their virtues.
The film looks absolutely ravishing thanks to the stunning location work and rich colour cinematography from Ted Scaife. It has the visual quality of a tapestry – there is something slightly soft as if the images were being printed straight onto cloth. Stephen Grimes’ production design is typically brilliant, making use of a variety of real locations including the vast Gothic abbey of Fossanova in Italy. The images are bathed in Georges Delerue’s note-perfect score which never drowns the meaning of them but enhances it. The only thing which lets the period feeling down is the screenplay which is sometimes disappointingly modern in its use of language, particularly where the young lovers are concerned. They talk in trite phrases which speak more of 1969 than the 14th Century. Elsewhere, the language is better particularly when Robert Lang’s insane evangelist is talking about God’s wrath and trying to persuade Heron that he should “surrender his manhood”. Indeed, the supporting cast get some good lines, none more so than John Huston as Robert’s father, a loyal soldier of the King who has taken the road of pragmatism and joined with a peasant army.
The biggest problem the film faces, however, is the central casting of the lovers. As Heron, Assi Dayan is fresh-faced and handsome but very wooden, incapable of investing his character with the requisite emotional force – he lacks, in a word, passion. Anjelica Huston, in a film which proved so trying for her that she retired from acting for over a decade, is better but her haughty declamatory style is distancing and unsympathetic and she rarely suggests the price she has paid in losing her home and her father. In the final moments, Huston and Dayan suggest two innocent children playing house and married couples and, for a minute of two, their performances ring true and have the power to move. But it’s a long haul.
Still, A Walk With Love And Death has a definite something, a quality which is hard to define but is very unusual in American cinema – it’s the same evanescent beauty that lit up Reflections In A Golden Eye, another one-off from this remarkable director. It’s certainly slowly paced and some of the acting is uncertain at best but I can’t think of anything else quite like it. That should surely be a recommendation in itself.
It’s wonderful to finally have A Walk With Love And Death in a decent transfer framed at the correct ratio. The 1.85:1 image has been anamorphically enhanced. The transfer is plagued with occasional but noticeable print damage in the form of small scratches. However, the quality of the detail is highly impressive, giving very good definition despite the deliberately soft quality of the photography. Colours are beautiful and accurate throughout and although there is a lot of grain in places, it’s not unduly distracting. The mono soundtrack is eminently clear throughout, giving due weight to both dialogue and Delerue’s memorable music score.
The extras are limited but interesting. As usual, the BFI provide us with a booklet which this time contains two pieces from the February 1977 issue of the Monthly Film Bulletin. We also get the original theatrical trailer. Best of all, however, is an 11 minute behind-the-scenes piece which was made in 1969 by Paul Joyce. This contains an intelligent commentary and lengthy scenes of Huston at work, revealing both his gentle and bullying sides. The image quality of this featurette is fairly poor but certainly watchable and it’s nice to have it on the disc in any condition.
The film has optional English subtitles but the extra features do not.
Fans of John Huston will be delighted to have one of his more obscure films on their shelves but other viewers may well find this unusual and rather beautiful piece of work rewarding. The BFI have presented the film very nicely and this disc does nothing to sully their admirable record and enviable reputation as purveyors of quality DVDs.
It's worth mentioning that this DVD is available at £12.99 which is considerably cheaper than most BFI discs. This only adds to the attractiveness of a very pleasing release.