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This starts out as a rather tongue-in-cheek rendering of life in a camp for
displaced persons after the war in 1945 somewhere near the Austrian border.
There are many humorous incidents but eventually the film's message does
serious later on.
I'm amazed at the abundance of illustrious actors making up the cast -- David Niven as Major Burnside; Topol as the effusive interpreter; John Hurt playing the youthful but intense Lieutenant Pilkington; and Anthony Quayle as Brigadier Bewley.
There are moments of deep friction in the camp between British and Russian troops on various zoning matters including the fate of the interpreter who happens to be Russian.
Although there is a fair amount of drama and mature content throughout, I have the impression that this film has been an easy interlude for all these great, serious actors. Anna Karina as Maria the local girl is a lovely addition to the cast.
The scenery is fabulous of course, being filmed on location in Austria. It is somewhat of an offbeat script, however it does hold one's attention through to the end. This movie is one I missed out on all these years so am glad to have had to opportunity to finally see it. For me such good actors can't help but create an absorbing drama.
Chaim Topol's career seems to have dwindled into endless revivals of
his great role in 'Fiddler on the Roof' (cf Yul Brynner and 'The King
and I'). So it's piquant to reconsider his first big break in
Hollywood, two years before the film of 'Fiddler' catapulted him to
'Before Winter Comes' highlights the decline of another once-rampant talent, director J. Lee Thompson. It is a mildly diverting entertainment, notable if only for its unusual setting: not World War two but its chaotic and tragic aftermath in four-power-divided Austria, with refugees in camps or roaming the snowy landscape looking for a home.
The centre of the story is an uneasy love/hate liaison. In the blue corner, bored, stiff, combat-nostalgic British senior officer David Niven ('I am nobody's old boy!'). In the red corner, a wily, Schweik-ish ex-Soviet displaced person whose polylinguality recommends him as a go-between when the UK occupying power is trying to co-exist with Stalin's boys as 'firm friends-- friends but firm'.
Niven could by now play a uniformed part asleep, and occasionally seems to have taken that as an order. His career was in low water at the time. It is a quieter part than in most of the ghastly comedies and capers he was doing at the time, but his bland technique is unaltered. Topol is fire to the Briton's ice: winking, grinning, suddenly looking sober and all-business, but how much is sincere and how much the pedlar's spiel? He's adequate, but Zorba-the-Greekishly unidimensional. Perhaps he always wanted to be liked a wee bit too much.
The film begins as lightish comedy, and tries for a change of pace to gravity and Cold War ominousness after Anna Karina insinuates a disturbing element as the love interest. But the gears clash. It looks like an Alistair McLean international adventure with more laughs, sprinkling doughty British thespians generously (Anthony Quayle as a brigadier, an amazingly unravaged John Hurt as a green junior officer) amid the Babel of displacement. Ron Grainer furnishes a whistling-squaddies theme to make you think of 'Bridge on the River Kwai', but the film lacks Lean's dedication to detail in the service of its message. Ultimately any theme deeper than 'Can't we all just get along?' is elusive. Nor is there any 'Great Escape' element to up the suspense.
The script was by Andrew Sinclair, a curious import to movies (Old Etonian, Cambridge academic, author of satirical novels) who sporadically tried to adapt his sour view of Britain to celluloid. The film looks too much 1969 rather than 1945, with Topol heavily hairy and a plethora of flashy zooms from Gilbert Taylor, Thompson's regular collaborator. They had been together, with Quayle, on 'Ice Cold in Alex'... which, alas, shows what a difference eleven years can make.
After watching Before Winter Comes I'm still trying to figure out the
points it was trying to make and where was the humor. Such laughs it
had are the grimly ironical kind. As a vehicle for Topol it was quite
good for that.
David Niven was playing it serious for once. He plays a British army major who for trying a grandstand play during battle got a whole lot of soldiers killed. Now that World War II is over he's in charge of a displaced refugee camp. Under the strict guidelines set by Yalta he has some rigid instructions as to where to send refugees. No one wants to go to the Russian zone, but that's not his call.
As for Topol when the call goes out for camp interpreter Topol is ready to make himself useful. In fact he's almost too good to be true. Probably he is.
In this film that seems rather pointless Topol is the whole show. A bit of his Tevye from Fiddler On The Roof is here, but his character is more like something Danny Kaye might have done. The script doesn't help Topol, he has to mine some barren land for some laughs.
Niven is not his usual charming self trying to carry a film on that. His character doesn't permit charm. He's in a situation he hates and wants to go back to 'fighting' regiment. But that says Brigadier Anthony Quayle ain't about to happen.
As a vehicle for Topol he proves he can play something other than Tevye, like Yul Brynner being someone other than the King of Siam. But the film really sinks into a bog of pretension in the final analysis.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I found "Before Winter Comes" to be a slightly uneven film; reflecting
perhaps over-literally the contrast between Janovic, the happy-go-lucky
racketeer, and Major Burnside, the unwilling and harassed camp
commander who cannot allow himself the trap of sentiment.
It didn't even occur to me that the film could be read as a comedy, and I was taken aback afterwards to find it billed as such in the TV guide. Most of the humour comes with fairly dark undertones, and from the start the script, with the luxury of hindsight, foreshadows the coming Cold War; in fact, the times when it falters are when it appears to be brushing over this dark strand for a too-easy volteface ending. It is to the film's credit -- and considerable benefit -- that it doesn't, in the end, adopt this 'Hollywood' line that rings so false with the tenor of the rest of events, but the suggestion seems out of place. Anyone expecting Topol in a chirpy comedy might feel distinctly short-changed.
What it actually reminded me of most were two WW1-set pictures, "Aces High" and "Dawn Patrol" (in which a young David Niven had actually featured thirty years earlier, alongside friend and co-star Errol Flynn). Both, at heart, deal with questions of duty versus idealism, class versus country, and the temptation to let personal considerations influence decisions. And both are based around the same issue that, it seems to me, lies at the heart of this surprisingly nuanced film -- that of a naive youngster judging his seniors against abstract ideals, and running against harsh reality.
For by and large the film does go beyond simply-delineated depictions of Right and Wrong. Janovic's actions are frequently illicit, at best against the rules and at worst cynically self-serving (as when he encourages Maria to seduce young Pilkington on the grounds that he may prove useful), and yet we are clearly encouraged to sympathise with him as an anarchic free spirit. The Russians are depicted as petty-minded and belligerent, but both we and the characters are also reminded that they too are human. Maria, who has lost everything but the inn which is her livelihood, will give her body to any man who can help her to keep it; but she is shown as no cheerful slut but a damaged, war-torn survivor. "After a war," as she says bitterly in contemplating the young officer's innocence, "no-one is a virgin."
And Burnside, who is at the centre of the film, is perhaps the most complex character of all. He is initially presented almost as a caricature of the English army officer, proper, correct, intolerant and obsessed with duty and military order to the exclusion of all human frailties; and if this were a Hollywood movie, it would probably be the story of how this repressed Brit learns to Get in Touch with his Feelings and bend the rules. Instead, he is given considerable psychological depth, and is perhaps the nearest thing the film has to a flawed hero. He is not rich, not public-school-bred, and is living with the cost of an earlier error of judgement, but he is dedicated to his job without fear or favour, while honest enough to admit that mistakes can and will be made. The refugee camp must be cleared before winter comes and armed conflict with the Russians avoided, or far more than the lives of individuals will be at stake.
Both David Niven and a young John Hurt (as the fresh-faced Pilkington) are outstanding in this conflict of moralities, and the story provides no easy answers; but the jocular Topol doesn't always seem to be in the same film, with the result that I couldn't find his activities quite as sunnily endearing as I think they were supposed to be. I kept anticipating inevitable disaster.
The upshot is a picture that is neither quite one thing nor the other: neither a "Journey's End"-style study of conscience in war nor a romp of heart-warming roguery. It's as if the director hasn't entirely managed to balance his elements into a harmonious whole.
It also helps if the viewer has at least a smattering of both German and Russian at his disposal with which to appreciate the accuracy -- and otherwise -- of the translations taking place; although obviously we can't all boast as many languages as Janovic...
When the film was released, Columbia booked it as a 2nd feature.
Personally, after trying to sit through it, the studio probably should
have shelved it, not necessarily for content, but because that use of
flashy zooms became so difficult to sit through that I headed for the
lobby more than four times.
In this instance zoom meant zooming in - cut - zoom out - zoom in-cut-zoom out all the way through the film.
The use of zoom lenses in motion pictures was a new tool for filmmakers at the time, but its application here made the film impossible to sit through, at least in a theatre. Until now, thought it had all but disappeared forever.
Not sure if time has changed any of this.
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