“Not to know what happened before you were born is to be a child forever,” quoth Roman philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero. The turning wheel of time on which the master orator predicated this assertion is one that is palpably intertwined with the viewing experience of Aleksander Ford’s bombastic Knights of the Teutonic Order (1960), Poland’s first blockbusting epic which still remains the most viewed film in the country’s history. Based on Henryk Sienkiewicz’s novel of the same name it is medieval pomp in glorious Eastmancolor, set against the backdrop of Poland and Lithuania’s decisive conflict with the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Grunwald in 1410.
Sienkiewicz was originally writing at the dawn of the 20th century, seeking to encourage national confidence during a time of Germanification (in which ‘Poland’ did not exist as a country) by evoking the memory of this rousing victory. Ford’s adaptation utilises the same iconography – of the aggressive German antagonists – with the cathartic aim of exorcising lingering demons of the far more recent trauma of Nazi occupation. Those contexts provided significance, of course, for a specifically Polish audience. Modern viewers may strangely find themselves bringing their own baggage, particularly given the representation of a movement corrupting the meaning of religion for its own militant aims. History’s elliptical nature may see the story endure but it is Ford’s direction which makes Teutonic Order so compelling.
The vivid colours and pageantry call to mind the familiar aesthetic of Hollywood’s early colour spectaculars but there is far more of a Soviet influence evident, with recognisable compositions in the cinematography of Mieczyslaw Jahoda, who would go on to lens The Saragossa Manuscript five years later. Some of the most impressive visuals – though they are littered throughout – come to the fore in the climactic battle sequence which marries the appropriate grandeur with tense close-up in which weapons and limbs crowd the screen and the warriors. Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938) is also a commonly-mentioned touchstone providing legacy to the images and sharing, as it does, a narrative involving resistance to the Teutonic Knights. Ford’s narrative is perhaps the area that most lets Knights of the Teutonic Order down, beginning and ending very strongly it shifts of pace and tone throughout can feel abrupt and lackadaisical at different times.
Though the story is centred largely on one young knight, Zbyszko (Mieczyslaw Kalenik), the various threads can feel messily intertwined and are perhaps the greatest indicator of the film’s roots in literature. One tale which is perfectly judged, however, is that of Jurand (Andrzej Szalawski) a thorn in the Teutonic side who not only shows great courage in facing them after they’ve kidnapped his daughter, but is the focus of its most humanistic resolution when he refuses vengeance on the man who tortured and brutalised him. Ford manages to weave the downbeat and the flag-waving into Knights of the Teutonic Order’s epic yarn: one that seems to remain relevant and certainly remains entertaining.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson