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Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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In his book The Good Soldier Svejk, Czech author Jaroslav Hašek struck a chord with the character of Josef Svejk, a simple man caught up in the ridiculousness of army life during World War I. While not so well known in the United States, the story of Svejk (also known as Schwejk or Schweik) has been adapted for film many times in the former Czechoslovakia and other European countries.

Facets Video has just released The Good Soldier Schweik (1956) and The Good Soldier Schweik 2: Beg to Report, Sir (1957). The movies are enjoyable and capture Hašek’s satire, but the uneven quality of the video transfer makes for a distracting viewing experience.

Call to Arms

Before Catch-22 there was The Good Soldier Schweik
Before Catch-22 there was The Good Soldier Schweik

The first movie opens with the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which sparked World War I. Meanwhile, in another part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the misadventures of Schweik (Rudolf Hrusínský) begin when some observations he makes about the emperor get him thrown into jail (the first of many jailings) for disloyalty. Eventually, Schweik gets drafted and becomes a “batman,” or officer’s servant.

Beg to Report, Sir picks up where the first movie ends. During a train trip to the eastern front, Schweik gets off to have a drink, a few drinks actually, and misses his train. He spends most of the rest of the movie trying to reach his unit on foot, while contending with various authorities who suspect him of being a deserter or a Russian spy.

The movies make clear Hašek’s distaste for authority figures in the government, army and church. Schweik’s first master is an alcoholic chaplain who loses Schweik at cards to a womanizing lieutenant. His new boss would rather gamble and party with whores than lead his men. The local authorities don’t come off very well either. The two police who arrest Schweik for deserting get so drunk while taking Schweik to jail, that he ends up escorting them.

The lead actor Hrusínský stands out in his portrayal of Schweik as a middle-aged man with an innocent, boyish quality. Like the authority figures who plague his life, Schweik has his contradictions too. Is he truly an innocent, drifting through the war like a 20th century Candide, or is he just playing the fool? Does he really spout whatever words pop into his head, or is he being a smart aleck? Even his fellow characters aren’t always sure. “I never know whether you just pretend to be stupid or whether you were really born that way!” says his lieutenant in exasperation.

The contradictions only serve to make Schweik’s character more intriguing. For those of us who had never heard of Schweik or Hašek, a trip to the library may be in order.

DVD Extras

The only extras on the two DVDs are galleries with behind-the-scenes photos and promotional materials. They also come with a booklet about the Schweik character and a “coloring book” with illustrations from the novel.

Picture and Sound

In both DVDs, the quality of the picture makes the movies hard to watch at times. In the first movie, the colors are washed-out and the image is choppy, as though the frame rate were set incorrectly at times. The second movie has much richer colors and less choppiness, but the film speed seems too fast at times. Towards the end, the characters’ voices sound sped-up and some of the subtitles flash by very quickly. It seems likely that the source material used in the transfer wasn’t in very good shape to begin with.

The yellow English subtitles are always readable.