Reviewed by Richard Porton

Yul Brynner as Major Surov

Yul Brynner as Major Surov

Produced and Directed by Anatole Litvak; screenplay by George Tabori; cinematography by Jack Hildyard; music by Georges Auric; edited by Dorothy Spencer; starring Deborah Kerr, Yul Brynner, Jason Robards, Jr. , E. G. Marshall, and Anne Jackson. DVD, color, 126 min. A Metro-Goldwyn Mayer Picture. Distributed by the Warner Archive.

For historians of the Cold War, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was one of the pivotal events of the post World War II era. Mainstream liberal and conservative commentators regard the events that ensued in the fall of 1956 as the first major fissure in the Soviet Union’s postwar hegemony in Eastern Europe—despite the fact that the Western European powers and the Eisenhower Administration, distracted by the Suez crisis and afraid of triggering nuclear war, failed to intervene on behalf on the rebels labeled “counterrevolutionaries” by the Soviet Union and their Hungarian surrogates and “freedom fighters” by the Western press. (Time in fact conferred their honor of the 1956 “Man of the Year” on the “Hungarian Freedom Fighter.”) The Soviets’ brutal suppression of revolutionary fervor proved life-changing for many well-intentioned Western Communists; it is well known, for example, that the late E. P. Thompson, one of the best-known left-wing historians of the late twentieth century, abandoned Stalinist orthodoxy after acknowledging that the Soviet Union’s invasion represented a betrayal of his naïve faith in the Party’s commitment to humanist goals.

Anarchist and libertarian socialist chroniclers of this era imbue their analyses with a sharply antithetical set of assumptions. Antiauthoritarian leftists believe that the revolution was not merely a precursor of the Soviet empire’s death agonies at the end of the twentieth century but also what Nick Heath terms “an alternative to the capitalism vs. Soviet Communism polarization,” an event that “galvanized towards genuine revolutionary politics.” A key component of this argument involves a conviction that the revolutionary movement was not, as some mainstream historians maintain, an appeal to adopt “reformist” measures in the Yugoslavian mode but an insistence on reviving the notion of truly self-managed “workers’ councils” that had briefly flourished immediately after the Russian Revolution and continued to be held up as a revolutionary paradigm by anti-Leninist Marxists such as Anton Pannekoek.

It’s true that much of this historical context seems ephemeral when considering the political implications of Anatole Litvak’s The Journey, a rather flimsy thriller enlivened by a few dollops of romantic intrigue. What does seem notable about this erratically entertaining star vehicle for Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner is the fact that, while the intricacies of the Hungarian Revolution are obscured by the usual penchant of historical films to use complex events as mere backdrops for sexier entanglements, the tone of Litvak’s 1959 film is far removed from the overheated anticommunist propaganda that suffused Hollywood movies during the early Fifties. Much of the film’s urbane tenor is no doubt attributable to the contribution of screenwriter George Tabori, a Hungarian who settled in London during the Nazi era (much of his extended family perished in the Holocaust) and eventually became a distinguished theater director in Germany and Austria.

In the true Grand Hotel manner, The Journey opens with an eclectic assortment of international travelers stranded at the Budapest airport as street fighting rages in the capital. Unable to flee the country after flights are canceled, a ragtag group of tourists are herded onto a bus to Mosen, a Hungarian town near the Austrian border. At the airport, we meet demure Diana Ashmore (Kerr), on the run from Budapest with her Hungarian lover, Paul Kedes (Jason Robards, Jr., in his debut film role)—a revolutionary traveling incognito with a British passport. En route to Mosen, British television journalist Hugh Deverill (Robert Morley), an acquaintance of Ashmore, suspects that there might be something “fishy” about her faux-British lover, a pale young man suffering from an untreated wound incurred during a Budapest street skirmish.

The bulk of the film consists of a standoff between the stranded travelers (a cross section of eccentrics in which a prototypically “normal” American couple played by E. G. Marshall and Anne Jackson are the anomalies) and the imperious Major Surov (Brynner), an unsmiling Soviet apparatchik. An ostensible martinet who seizes the visitors’ passport and becomes obsessed with unmasking Paul’s identity, Surov—played with relish by the Vladivostok-born Brynner—turns out to embody the film’s cleverest conceit, a superficially by-the-book bureaucrat who actually harbors intellectual aspirations. Not only does he make a perhaps inadvertently comic speech asserting that “tractors and Marxism are not the only things that Russians care for— there’s also music.” During the narrative’s semi-upbeat conclusion, his covert anti-Stalinism also comes to the fore.

In addition, it’s vaguely implied that Surov’s political change of heart is precipitated by Diana’s palpable sexual allure. During what is otherwise a fairly predictable denouement, there’s a hint of sadomasochism in the major’s simultaneously ardent and threatening advances towards the upper-class English woman. Of course, Brynner and Kerr were famously paired three years before in Walter Lang’s The King and I, another tête-à-tête between an authoritarian man and a woman whose grace and beauty softens his stern facade.

The Journey is ultimately little more than a historical curiosity. Litvak’s direction is surprisingly sluggish, especially when compared with his faster-paced achievements, most notably the lively gangster-boxing film City for Conquest (1940) and several of the best documentaries in the Why We Fight series. More restrained and sophisticated than might be expected at a time of heightened tensions between superpowers, this middling melodrama touches upon one of the most seminal political upheavals of the twentieth century without evoking it with passion or precision.

Richard Porton is a Cineaste Editor as well as an occasional contributor to Cinema Scope, The Daily Beast, and Moving Image Source.

To purchase The Journey, click here.

Copyright © 2012 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXVII, No. 4