Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 414
Inevitably, one approached a work so obviously personal [as The Saga of Anatahan] with certain associations and expectation. The subject itself seemed to give ideal scope for certain aspects of von Sternberg's past work: his eroticism, his sensationalism, his decorative flair. Part of the fascination of the film is that it satisfies none of these expectations—so much so, in fact, that it has an almost unconscious "alienation" effect…. Von Sternberg deliberately eschews violence, and most of the murders take place off screen; only in one set—a charming hut entirely hung with variously shaped shells—is there evidence of his mannered, personal use of décor. Instead, von Sternberg has attempted to treat the story of Anatahan as an epic of heroism and endurance. He has succeeded only in presenting a lame, shambling chronicle…. [The] events seem arbitrary and meaningless. There is no sense that time and isolation develop the characters in any way, enlarge or narrow their visions. In the same way, von Sternberg has failed convincingly to create the locale itself: the island remains a series of unrelated sets. (p. 34)
The failure, though, lies deeper. Von Sternberg has taken no consistent attitude to his material. At times, the film seems to be presenting a heroic picture of resistance and loyalty in the teeth of isolation; at others, merely a piece of detached observation on the effect of isolation on the sexual habits of those concerned—so detached that it might be dealing with some species of curious insects. This impression is heightened by the weirdly gnomic dispassion of the observations and the metaphors in the commentary…. [The] Japanese are extraordinarily potent [in their performances], physically and emotionally, and their impact is considerable enough to keep one's attention over stretches of the film. The very sketchiness of the characterisation capitalises on their raw, alien, energy, so that they appear not so much the recognisable human beings of [Kurosawa's] Rashomon, but vivid ubermarionettes projected from the mind of the garrulous old régisseur, giving force and life to his shallow conceptions.
It is difficult to find much else to praise in the film, with its slow, wandering rhythm, its haphazard construction. Perhaps the kindliest thing that can be said about this "tribute to the Japanese people and their art" is that it is, as they say, a collector's piece. (p. 35)
Tony Richardson, "Film Reviews: 'The Saga of Anatahan'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1954 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 24, No. 1, July-September, 1954, pp. 34-5.