I might never have watched this powerful, majestic film if not for reading Dana Steven's review of it in SLATE five days ago. Very possibly, I might STILL not have got around to watching it, if I hadn't happened to check Netflix to see if they had it as a streaming option -- which they DID. The review talks about a sumptuous though overlong sequence early in the film of Harvard graduates waltzing, so I thought I would just take a peek. I do that with films often enough, watch the first few minutes to get a sense of its texture before deciding that I don't want to invest any hard-core time. With this one, I watched it begin, then I watched the entire waltz sequence and then I -- what can I say? -- was caught and mesmerized for the rest of the trip.
It's a very long movie, three hours plus, and I allowed myself to see it over the course of three days. But I remained engrossed all the way through.
This IS surprising because I am not especially interested in "frontier" films, in period dramas of the American West, or in an obscure battle between rich cattlemen and the wretchedly poor East European immigrants who came into conflict with them. The power of the film lies in its documentary feel -- the grit-in-the-eye chuffing of a real steam-engine, the glorious chaos of horses as the primary source of transport, the dirt and squalor of the past, with its outhouses and open fields and untarred roads -- it had an authenticity and a poignancy that punched the breath out of me. Wow. A hard, sad, angry film telling a story that no-one wants to hear.
Who makes such films any more? No-one. Apparently, because of its epic failure (the only thing I knew about the film was that it was such a vast disaster that both the studio -- United Artists -- and the director, Michael Cimino -- never recovered from it) the lesson everyone learnt is that (a) big budget films are only worth making if they're aimed at simple-witted jingoists who want to cheer and thump their chests at every opportunity and (b) cinematic beauty and artistic rigor is only acceptable if it's underwritten by conservative values, such as romantic fidelity, monotheism and patriotism.