The Peripatetic Reviewer
THE film studios at Leningrad were a large quadrangle in the conventional ocher stucco. We were expected, and after a moment’s pause were shown into the conference room of Yuri Nikolaiv, the boss producer, a powerful man with a genial smile and fine dark eyes. The room itself was unlike anything in Hollywood: a flat-top desk by the windows, a fireplace with a portrait of Lenin hanging above the mantel, a large baize-covered table with a carafe of water and a single glass, and, opposite the fire, a cabinet of rather fine inlay — a gray-green room as efficient-looking as our host. He had with him an elderly gentleman whom he introduced to us as Mr. Ivanofsky, the famous producer (I noticed that he wore a decoration), five of whose films had been shown in America. Then we settled down at the table for our talk. Nikolaiv told us that he had been thirty-six years in pictures, twenty years as a cameraman. Paddy Chayefsky began the questioning for our side, and before replying, Nikolaiv wanted to know whether he should go into technical details or whether looking toward Alfred Kazin and myself — he had better keep to generalities. “Well,” I injected, “sometimes we take Paddy with us when we have our meetings with Russian authors; I think you can trust us to understand.
The Russian grinned and got down to business. They produced, Nikolaiv said, an average of eight pictures a year, and he personally was responsible for all of them. Was there any board of censors, we asked, to warn him if a film came close to the trouble line? No, the decisions were his, he said. We tried to probe into this question of censorship, but without any different result. Paddy asked about the filming of his big ones, and Nikolaiv mentioned The Cranes Are Flying, which was then showing, and the two earlier pictures, the opera Eugen Onegin and, on the wide screen, Don Quixote. He said he would give us a private view in his projection room two days later and at that time introduce us to the directors and the cameramen who were responsible for each. Then he rose and led us backstage.
On our way to the sets we passed some remarkably beautiful women in oriental make-up. “ The nicest thing about our business,” said Paddy, “is that you get to meet the prettiest girls.”Nikolaiv laughed aloud and patted him on the back. For a moment we paused at the make-up room, where a cast of bearded Victorians in black broadcloth and stocks were being beautifully aged for the next scene in Chekhov’s story “ The Lady with the Dog.” Then we went on to the larger set where the rehearsal with sound of a dramatic Kirghiz ballet was in progress. The story was the old folk tale of the enchantress who turned her lovers into stone, and we arrived at a moment when the male ballet, Mongolian, slant-eyed, were whirling like dervishes with their swords and spears an everpresent danger. Nikolaiv placed us safely among the cushions of what looked to be a throne, for, as he knew, this was to be the focal point where the ballerina and the warriors would make their final and striking obeisance.
On our return visit two days later, Nikolaiv took us to his private projection room, and here we were to see two ballets, four reels of Eugen Onegin, then a contemporary, The Last Inch, and finally a circus comedy, The Woman Who Tamed the Tiger. I was particularly impressed by the beauty, orchestration, and costuming of Tchaikovsky’s opera, which had been filmed in the palaces of Leningrad, with the duel fought in actual snow and the country scenes acted on some princely estate. The music and the color seemed to me superb, and I was dismayed to hear that it had been offered for presentation in America but turned down by Mr. Skouras on the grounds that many would find it long and boring.
In general, the acting and the photography were first class, but the Russians have a tendency to drag out the anguish and to vault over or accept by inference alone small points of realism which an American director would take pains to clarify. Thus, in The Last Inch, when the skin diver, who has been wounded by sharks, is dragged painfully up the beach by his ten-year-old son, there is the question of how together they can find the strength to pull him into the cockpit of the plane. The boy solves this by producing a board which will serve as a ramp, and the next thing we know both of them are strapped in and the plane is airborne. “Whoa,” shouted Paddy, “how did all that happen?”
We moved to still another projection room, the one with the wide screen, to see a number of the scenes from Don Quixote, directed by Kozintsev, the English-speaking director who told us that he had spent six months preparing for the picture, which was shot in the Caspian country, and had been given another year in which to complete it. I remember the striking contrasts of black and white and scarlet and gold, the superb acting of the long, lean knight, and the broad farce of the squat Sancho Panza. Nikolaiv told us that Spain had purchased the picture, had shown it once officially, and then had buried it in the archives. I think we could do better than that if it ever should come our way.
THE SPANISH CRESCENT
In the Preface to his splendid book, THE ARMADA (Houghton Mifflin, $6.00), GARIIETT MATTINGLY, professor of European history at Columbia University, explains how he became immersed in his subject. In 1940 he contemplated a short volume depicting the naval duel between Spain and England, but before he could write it he was himself drawn into the Navy and exposed to “some aspects of naval and amphibious operations” in the very waters through which the Armada had sailed. When he returned to the project, action and reflection brought into fresh focus the first great international crisis in modern history.
Philip and his advisers dreamed of a great crusade which would wipe out heresy and impose on the world a Spanish Catholic peace. Elizabeth, Howard, and Drake, who knew full well that the Enterprise, as the Spaniards called it, was coming, dreamed of its defeat and of the expulsion of Antichrist from Europe. The conflict swept through the Netherlands and France; it involved great soldiers, the Duke of Parma and Henry of Navarre; great sailors, Hawkins, Frobisher, and Drake; a multitude of spies; and, for tragedy, the defeated commander, the Duke of Medina Sidonia.
It is Mr. Mattingly’s skill as a historian to be able to light up the action in half a dozen theaters and by the most lucid transitions convey the reader from one to another with a growing comprehension of the huge conspiracy. His story begins with the beheading of Mary Queen of Scots, the execution Elizabeth had so long avoided and one which finally flung down the gauntlet to Philip and the Pope. Next we follow Drake in his raid on Cadiz, where we watch him burn the shipping and, even more important, the vast quantity of barrel staves in which the water and provisions for the Armada were to have been stored. We see the costly, ineffectual fighting in the Dutch towns, where Parma’s veterans have the better of it, and then 1588, that “fateful year of wonders,” draws near. We feel the tension in England and the spurring urgency of Philip when, after the death of his old admiral, Santa Cruz, he presses the command upon the reluctant, courageous Medina Sidonia. Mr. Mattingly gives this humble outspoken servant a fairer appreciation than he has ever received before, and we have some idea of how much discipline he and the captains he trusted instilled in the variegated Spanish squadrons as we see the huge crescent of ships approach Plymouth and how stubbornly they held to that crescent formation through three of the four battles.
It is extraordinary how vividly he makes us share in the apprehensions of the Spanish seamen: their fear of the fire ships, their exasperation at not being able to board the faster English galleons, their desperate shortage of shot and water, their ignorance of the Irish Sea. I wish the author had told us in greater detail of what happened to the shipwrecked mariners in the aftermath, but that is only another way of saying that I wish other historians would write as beautifully as he has in his passages of action and in his characterization of men like Mendoza, Medina, Philip, and Drake. An exceptional book, to be savored slowly.
OUR VANISHING WILDLIFE
Our summer cottage twenty-seven miles north of Boston backs up to a rocky moraine once covered with dense pinewoods which concealed a scattering of great ponds. Each spring we used to look for the prints of the deer which came down to sample our flowering shrubs and for the raccoon which called to see if the garbage tin had been refreshed. Then Route 128 went bulldozing through; the trees that weren’t chopped down blew down, the rocks took over, and most of the wildlife fled.
WILDLIFE IN AMERICA (Viking, $10.00) is the first modern and comprehensive record of our wildlife, the vital story of the birds, fish, and mammals which were once indigenous here and of what the white man has done to eliminate them. To this book PETER MATTHIESSEN brings his knowledge of zoology and ornithology, his skill as a writer (he is one of the founders of the Paris Review and the author of two novels), and the anger of a young man outraged at the ruthlessness he has observed so often in his travels. He quotes the explorers and naturalists who wrote with delight or foreboding about the country when it was young, and his text is pointed up by the blackand-white drawings of Bob Hines, by color plates of Audubon, Fuertes, and Peale, and by photographs of the game and the hunters who wiped it out. So often this is the story of prodigality, of killing followed by remorse when there was too little left to save. We have already lost the passenger pigeon, the bison, the heath hen, and today we are in danger of losing the whooping crane and the bald eagle. Here is the effect of predator control, of the almost cynical pollution of our rivers and the blight which settles over vast valleys as they are flooded by our excessive construction of dams; here is the arrogant abuse of wildlife sanctuaries by the armed services. What saves this from being a bleak story of extermination is Mr. Matthiessen’s delight in the life that remains and the crusading spirit with which he argues against the extravagant use of insecticides and for the protection of the salmon, swans, cranes, the early inhabitants which once gave such character to this country.
THE CAMERA’S EYE
YOUSUF KARSH is a photographer par excellence who served his apprenticeship in Boston and who hung out his shingle in Ottawa. When the war brought Churchill and other leaders to the Canadian capital, Karsh embarked on the first of the portraits that have made him famous for his interpretation of men. His PORTRAITS OF GREATNESS (Thomas Nelson, $17.50) are studies of ninety-six celebrities of our time, exquisitely reproduced in sheet-fed gravure and each accompanied by a brief note explaining the mood of and the particular problems posed by each sitter.
As a rule, I prefer those portraits which are somewhat removed from the camera, especially the ones of David Low, Pope John XXIII, Martha Graham, Sir Jacob Epstein, Robert Frost, Igor Stravinsky, and Pablo Casals. The close-ups, like that of Dame Edith Evans, make me overly conscious of the skin; and those which magnify the pores and creases, as the portraits of Sandburg and Augustus John do, seem to me less than beautiful. Only rarely, as in the picture of Bertrand Russell, does the gleam of the intellect shine through and illuminate the marks of age.