John Huston Michael Dempsey

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Michael Dempsey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

No historical data could explain the pervasive terror of that tiny fragment of the Hundred Years War that John Huston treats in his beautiful and under-rated A Walk With Love and Death….

Huston starts with the ordinary reality of this war—the bewildering way that enemies and friends become interchangeable—and works towards more universal overtones of doom and fear. His style is simple and low-keyed, but there is never any question of linkage between his medieval world and the modern zeitgeist. The lovers reject participation in the skirmishes, and society (embryonic as it is) in turn rejects them. The movie spurns conventional characterization for atmosphere and then spurns the conventional atmospheric devices used most expertly and facilely in films like Romeo and Juliet and Elvira Madigan.

Huston, trying for epiphanies, shows his hand immediately. In the very first scene, Heron strides buoyantly towards us from the far side of a deserted field. The day is fragrant with breezes, leafy greenness, sunlight. "Spring came on forever," he narrates, trying to crystallize the moment for himself—a freshet of an awakening season which the earnest student and hopeful poet translates as best he can into words. He stops to drink at a brook. The camera tilts down upon a body drifting downstream. The intrusion without warning of death, the gentle directness of Huston's staging, his refusal to show the actual killing—these qualities form a precis of the film. His technique is unobtrusively, yet precisely, cinematic; Heron's words set the mood as much through their sound and rhythm as through their literary content. The whole thrust is towards such simplification. (pp. 14-15)

Huston refuses the noisy violence that is obligatory to most war movies. Dealing with a foetal society shattering and reshattering itself through its members' blood-lust, the director rigorously curbs the blood, keeping if offscreen, filming it in long shot, or using fast cuts…. As a result, death and destruction, like happiness and love, seem, in that peculiar and upsetting manner which the movie dwells on ceaselessly, to start and stop virtually simultaneously. But whereas the editing and the set-ups make love appear gossamer and evanescent and beautiful because it is so, these same devices make death a stealthy force soundlessly savageing its victims, arriving from nowhere with little or no warning, as though it were dreamed. Both love and death are brief; but love is brief because it cannot withstand the hammer blows which death smashes against it, while death is brief because its power is too strong for love to resist for long. It is characteristic that Huston returns for just a passing second to the white horse, formerly a harbinger of courage and joy, now a carcass hacked open by starving people for its meat. (pp. 16-17)

The last few minutes of the movie [where Claudia and Heron are alone in the monastery] deserve special notice…. What many other directors would have made a pond of tears, Huston makes a definitive image of unassuming bravery. This ending, worthy of what [Robert] Bresson gave us in The Diary of a Country Priest, Mouchette, and Balthazar, makes questions about the connection between us and the Middle Ages seem laughable. We are not so swamped with good movies that we can afford to neglect this flawed, lovely vision. (p. 18)

Michael Dempsey, "'A Walk with Love and Death'," in Film Heritage (copyright 1971 by F. A. Macklin), Vol. 6, No. 2, Winter, 1970–71, pp. 14-18.