A Walk with Love and Death

(John Huston, USA, 1969)


For a long time I have been eager to revisit this John Huston film, which, viewed on TV, made a deep impression on me near the beginning of my teenage cinephilia in the mid 1970s. Beyond an overall agreeable mood, a mingling of romanticism and melancholia well keyed to adolescence (mine, and in some sense the characters’), there were two moments that especially affected me back then. One is a shot that I have retained a crystal-clear and perfectly accurate recollection of, as if the frames had imprinted themselves on my unconscious; the other is a passage that I hadn’t retained at all, but which returned to me with all the emotion I must have originally felt when seeing it.


The shot I completely recall is superb in any context – it takes pride of place in the imaginary cinémathèque or histoire du cinéma of my mind! The young hero, Heron of Fois (Assi Dayan, here credited as Assaf), has just sat down in the grass to write (probably “versify”) in his journal. He looks around. Cut to a dog; the camera pans screen-left with its rapid movement, and then screen-right, arriving a little further along from the initial starting position, in order to reveal the standing figure of Claudia (a teenage Anjelica Huston). She materialises as if in Heron’s dream – as indeed, she has already appeared for a moment, staring at his reclining figure from a balustrade above as he awoke (in a castle) from his recurring dream of the glittering sea he longs to reach. When Claudia reads Heron’s poem, this entire configuration of Lady, dream and dreamer will be clinched, to serve further duty at later points. Here as all throughout, the DeLuxe Color used by DOP Edward Scaife (who worked with Huston often in the ‘60s) exudes a warm glow – another material attribute that stayed burnt into the sensory circuits of my young brain.


Every reviewer of the time seems to have recognised that Huston’s rendering of Dutch writer Hans Koningsberger’s popular 1961 novel was less about the Middle Ages than about the 1960s, and specifically the post-’68 climate – the casting of the two leads, not entirely purged of their “modern youth” mannerisms, declares as much at the outset.


The first (off-screen) plot event is of Heron “the student” walking away for good from his classes; he seeks freedom, love, the sea, release from all dogmas and doctrines … Alas, during this Hundred Year’s War raging between the British and the French, new dogmas and doctrines of weird and wonderful kinds emerge, just like the proliferation of nascent New Age cults ushered in by the Age of Aquarius: a blind guru preaches a bizarre code of mortification, while travelling players hunker down with their hedonism, the various religions harden their creeds, and dodgy salesmen on the road try to sell fake spiritual relics … Even a nobleman Dad, played by Huston himself, decides to switch sides to join the peasants. (It’s fun to watch Huston’s decisive gaze-shifts designed to anchor the découpage – a general craft skill for which he receives insufficient due.)


As to the love story, the main philosophical concern is the distinction between Pure and Earthly Love. Claudia, at first, holds out for the supremacy of the former, but eventually comes around to the delights of the latter (which Heron, as he proudly boasts to the unseeing guru, has already tasted). The discreet long shots of glistening DeLuxe naked bodies, rendered even smaller on the TV screen, doubtless worked their suggestive magic on me as a kid. It’s the sensuality of a certain soft-focus, romantic era of quasi-art cinema, firmly stamped onto my then-impressionable sensibility: Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (1968 – for which Anjelica H. had been considered for the lead part), Bo Widerberg’s Elvira Madigan (1967) … all films that attracted the “hippie” finger-point from critics. For the musical accompaniment in that network, you can choose between Nino Rota (Zeffirelli), Georges Delerue (Huston) and Mozart (Widerberg); for my personal remix, there’s also Crosby, Stills & Nash’s medieval-ish “Guinnevere” (1969, on the first vinyl record, an EP, that I ever bought as a kid), recycled by Alex Garland in an episode of the dreamy-multiversal TV series Devs (2020).


However, when it comes to those aforementioned “peasants” – code for 1960s revolutionary workers – the film unambiguously takes a reactionary side. This uprising of the people, known historically as the Jacquerie, is depicted as mindlessly violent and animalistic: indeed, Huston returns several times, in visuals and dialogue, to the metaphor of hovering, gathering and devouring crows. So much for the workers! Which is not to say that soldiers or other officials behave any better; the only alternative to the bestial contagion of violence posited here is the Love & Peace code embodied by our young hero and heroine. In his damning May-June 1971 Cahiers du cinéma review (no. 229), Pascal Kané referred to the “bland timidity of its hippie-ish progressivism” (just as Edgardo Cozarinsky derided Elvira Madigan for breathing the “hippie mid-‘60s”, with the adventures of its “drop-out” characters inviting “several contemporary readings effortlessly”).


On other levels, I feel that Kané’s account misses the mark entirely. He criticises the film, in relatively classical terms, for lacking a “genuine work of inscription”, i.e., any dynamic dramatisation of its themes and conflicts. Each person who passes by the camera (often literally so, in parade) is an emblem of some value-system, lifestyle or social position – a mode that Kané finds altogether too “readable” and schematic, reaching for an “absolute transparency of the carried message”.


However, I find Huston’s stylistic approach to this material more intriguing than that. It’s clear that he took seriously the idea of evoking a “medieval aesthetic for the project, and defined the parameters of that in filmic and narrative terms – those artworks underneath the credits are not just there to set the period and give a foretaste of its flavour. Whether he was aware of it not, Huston’s work here connects with predecessors (such as Robert Bresson) and forecasts later films by Éric Rohmer, Pier Paolo Pasolini (Dayan sometimes resembles, in look and gesture, Ninetto Davoli!), Walerian Borowczyk and Eugène Green, among others. Hence the pared-back minimalism of the shots and their arrangement, giving rise to breathtaking moments like the one with the dog described above – and such moments often constitute the vignette-content of an entire scene. Hence, too, the systematic placement (which so annoyed Kané) of Heron as the eternal witness, passively (for the most part) observing the pageant of the world and its types in these Dark Times.


“Neutral, socially un-inserted and available on every level” Heron may well be (as Kané protested), but it is hard to see how the dreamlike, romantic fable, Pilgrim’s Progress aspect of the story could have worked otherwise. Or how we could ever have reached the sublime ending in which the lovers, suddenly finding themselves all alone at dawn in a vast monastery (the monks and nuns have soundlessly fled in the night at the prospect of terror, it seems), throw together a makeshift bed on the floor – before, in the night (the vision out the window recalls the finale of Fritz Lang’s Moonfleet [1955]), knowing that their death at the hands of “enemy” soldiers is imminent, and just waiting for it to arrive (in a bookend gesture, again off-screen), without fear …


And here is the passage that I did not consciously recall, but which swam back to me on a tidal wave of unconscious emotion. It is a montage sequence 65 minutes in, a knitting-together of short scene-fragments done in the fleet manner of François Truffaut (and it will be immediately followed by an evident allusion, via the character of Robert of Loris [Anthony Higgins], to the merry two guy/one gal trio of Jules et Jim [1962]). As in Truffaut, the montage hangs on a thread of voices: they embark as a continuous conversation across discontinuous shots (Citizen Kane breakfast-scene style) but, at a certain, suppressed moment, switch to what seems like voice-over soliloquy – which then turns out to be a different conversation in a different place. And all that in just five shots!


Here they are: 1. At dusk, sitting on the grass, Claudia notes the transience of earthly time; Heron replies that “We’re within our own calendar”. 2. Distant shot of their naked bodies, forming an L shape. Their discussion continues, and the bodies move to embrace. 3. Frolic shot (more Truffaut influence!) in the outdoors, as a shift in sound ambience marks a new voice-track. Heron recalls their first meeting and his immediate love for Claudia, but admits he “hadn’t spoken the words”. 4. Interior medium-two-shot; from their bare shoulders we infer their nakedness. The dialogue continues, with Claudia exhorting him to at last  “speak the words” of love. They both do. 5. A Bressonian shot (worthy of Lancelot du lac, 1974) of hands: Claudia offers hers to the centre of the image, he places his atop hers, just before the shot ends end she swiftly places her other hand on the pile. During this action, they speak (again off-screen, as in shots 2 & 3); Heron asks whether she believes that they will reach the sea, as in his dream:


C: I believe that we shall reach the sea or we shall die. Either way I will have had my hour. [She kisses his hand]

H: And I, my freedom. [She places her other hand atop his]


Was it anticipated like this in Dale Wasserman’s screenplay, or knit together anew from bits and pieces in the editing? Probably the former (the effect of the accumulated repetition of earlier motifs – time, freedom, etc. – is strikingly precise), but we’ll likely never know. Especially as accompanied by Delerue’s plangent score (composed and orchestrated in a superb mimicry of medieval music), the montage resembles nothing so much as the most beautiful segments of The Soft Skin (1964) – something I also saw on Australian TV, dubbed, around the same time – or, later in film history, the great sequence of amorous encounter in Philippe Garrel’s Rue fontaine (1984).


Today, while reliving the emotion of such scenes every time I watch them – their brevity and use of ellipsis is poetically stunning, as they register the transience of things – I also marvel at the filmmaking logistics involved: so much work across days or weeks on different, short scenes in different locations, all to be ultimately strung together in a breathless montage movement, over almost as soon it begins. Some mystery of cinema is held there, for me at least.


Revelation from the opening credits: Argentinian surrealist Leonor Fini (1907-1996) did the wonderful costume design! The second of only two films to which she contributed, the other being the 1954 Romeo and Juliet. Oddest note from the end credits: Mauritanian filmmaker Med Hondo (1936-2019), today sparking renewed interest for his inclusion in Scorsese’s World Cinema Project, appears as one of the travelling players, right before making his first feature Soleil Ô in 1970.

MORE Huston: Wise Blood

© Adrian Martin 15 October 2020

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search