" Get all the good you can outta 17 ‘cuz it sure wears out in one helluva hurry. "
— Paul Newman, Hud

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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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One of the things I learned while watching Steel Legacy is that when you die and go to heaven, you can’t take your cavalry sword with you through the pearly gates. Let me be specific. That is the “Farmer’s Heaven” with the no-sword policy, not the “City Heaven” which is just across the way and, well, you know how city folks are, they might just let you take your sword in with you. The film is not clear on that point.

I gleaned that tidbit from one of the many fanciful scenes in Polish director Jan Jakob Kolski’s Steel Legacy (a curious title as the literal translation of “The Commandant’s Saber” seems to me more to the “point”).

Saber, Truth, Angel

... no time for that now boys, I've got to have a grandson
... no time for that now boys, I’ve got to have a grandson

Kolski is known in Poland as the creator of an idealized rural Polish landscape called “Jancioland” or “Johnnieland” (taken from another Kolski film Johnny Aquarius) that put me in mind of a sort of Polish Lake Wobegon. It’s a magical place populated by a colorful and good-natured assortment of characters such as old Jakubek (Bronislaw Pawlik), a veteran of the Polish-Bolshevik War of the 1920’s (the film was made in 1996). Jakubek and his three comrades have survived to old age to become a sort of Over the Hill Gang of Polish-Bolshevik War veterans.

But the woman who was Jakubek’s great love was “killed by a stray Bolshevik bullet” (such is life) and has been waiting over 50 years in heaven for him to join her. In fact, Jakubek begins his day by first mourning the loss of the Great Love, and then apologizing to the photo of his dead wife, saying “I’m sorry, though I lived with you for 50 years and only knew her for 50 days, she was the one I truly loved.”

Jakubek has had two goals all his life. The first is to someday join his true love in heaven and the other is to hang on to his cavalry saber given to him by his Commandant. He was ordered never to surrender it except only to his grandson. Jakubek’s only son, Janek (Wojciech Malajkat), isn’t married, has no romantic prospects and therefore no progeny. You can see we are headed for a conflict of interest when Jakubek dies and tries to take his saber with him to eternity. The only possible solution, as worked out at the gates of heaven, is for Jakubek to go back home and get Janek to produce an heir to take the saber. Exactly what I thought too.

The Fruits of Romance

So Jakubek returns from Farmer’s Heaven in time to meet his friends on their way to his funeral, and says,”... no time for that now boys, I’ve got to have a grandson.” Farce ensues. But it’s farce without the preceding magic which makes it a strange mix of predictable slapstick and only mild humor. Jakubek and the boys find the wrong woman for Janek. Meanwhile Marianna (Grazyna Blecka-Kolska), who is the right woman for Janek, finds him, and he in turn falls for her.

Janek, by the way, is an earnest but nerdish and overeducated young man dedicated to developing super fruit. Apparently this is what his university education has prepared him to do. He’s made a plum the size of a small football by crossing it with a pear, but as he complains, “It looks like a plum but still tastes like a pear.” As a comic aside, his father Jakubek has some apple trees that produce apples bigger than Janek’s plum/pears but unimaginatively are still simply shaped like apples (Jakubek never went to college you see).

When Marianna catches up to him, there is a charming and picturesque courting sequence, they get married and the next thing you know there’s the grandchild. (Oh come on, did you think anything else could happen? ) Actually there is a twist at the end, and then a twist on top of that one, but you’ll have to find out for yourself what that’s all about.

Steel’s Promise

Farmer’s Heaven was my favorite part of the film and Kolski is at his best when he’s doing his trademark magical realism. Take for instance a rustic St. Peter slinging around a dead fish like a fashion accessory... what’s up with that? Then there are the fruit so large that they can be carried only one at a time to the wagon, and falls from a strawberry can be fatal. I could see Steel Legacy as a pilot for a TV series with Johnieland being the setup and the action of getting Janek married simply this week’s episode.

Call me a cynical and jaded American, but I can imagine today’s Polish hipsters turning their noses up at Kolski’s dogged positivism and making him into a Polish Walt Disney. Or maybe he’s charmed the socks off of them all and he’s the talk of every bistro in Warsaw. I don’t know. But you have to wonder whether a film like this could have been made stateside in 1996. Nobody gets an ax in the head, and talk of war crimes is held to the bare minimum.

Sure there’s a happy ending, but don’t let that stop you from enjoying this pleasant and humorous glide through Johnieland. At last you’ve got a foreign film you can watch with your mom.

DVD Extras

There are no extra features (apart from English subtitles on/off) . This is just a straight-up video version of the film. Some notes on the war of 1920 might have been nice.

Picture and Sound

The video looks good, but then it’s taken from actual film. It must have been a real treat to see this in the theater, as the cinematography is great. The sound quality is good, if unremarkable.

How to Use This DVD

As noted, this is simply the video version of the film. Turn the English subtitles off if you want to brush up on your Polish.