Victor Sjöström was a giant of the early Swedish cinema. He was both a major director, who eventually worked in Hollywood for a few years, and a major actor, who amongst other things starred in Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957). I had previously seen his film The Outlaw and His Wife (Berg-Ejvind och hans hustru, 1918), which I found visually beautiful and dramatically compelling. So I popped the DVD with A Man There Was into my Netflix queue. The Kino DVD also includes an earlier film of his, Ingeborg Holm (1913), which I tried watching first. I gave up about halfway through, finding it utterly dull both visually and dramatically. I found A Man There Was more interesting visually, but for me it was still pretty thin gruel as a story.
The film is based on a narrative poem by the great Norwegian writer, Henrik Ibsen. It tells the tale of Terje Vigen (played by Sjöström ), a Norwegian man who during a war in 1809 tries to break a naval blockade to get food for his starving family and fellow villagers. (Wikipedia says this was an English blockade during the Napoleonic Wars, but I couldn’t tell. The film doesn’t seem to find the history important.) He’s captured by the enemy ship, and his pleas for the well-being of his wife and child are ignored by the commander. After five years as a prisoner-of-war, he is released, only to discover that his wife and child are dead. He lives an embittered, isolated life until one day a pleasure yacht is disabled by a storm just off-shore of his village. He sails out to rescue those aboard, only to discover the old enemy commander and his wife and child. At last Terje Vigen is offered the opportunity to take vengeance on the man who destroyed his life.
There are two action sequences that are attention-grabbing — the attempt to run the blockade, and the rescue mission to the yacht — but other than that the visual approach here wasn’t all that vivid to me except in spots. I have read the testaments of viewers who find the story gut-punching and gripping, but I couldn’t engage with it. Not enough dreaminess for the Dreamland Cafe, I guess. Not enough poetry, oddly enough. It does not earn the coveted Randy Byers tag of “recommended”!
I haven’t seen a lot of 1917 films, but Maurice Tourneur’s A Girl’s Folly is an example of something from that year that’s more my style — more lyrical, more varied, more layered, even in its truncated form, which is all that I’ve seen. Still, I’ll continue to explore Sjöström’s films as I get the chance. One of the intriguing disks released this year was The Phantom Carriage (Körkarlen, 1921), which looks at least somewhat more fanciful. I’m also curious about some of his Hollywood films, including He Who Gets Slapped (1924) with Lon Chaney (the perfect masochistic title for a Chaney film), as well as his adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1926) and probably Sjöström’s most famous film, The Wind, from one of the greatest years in Hollywood, 1928.