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Notes on the Heroic in Cinema

No, not the superheroic, we’ve had enough of that in movies for one mortal lifetime. In drinking in Jan Troell’s Everlasting Moments (superlative-packed review to come), I thought back to one of my favorite films, Troell’s The Flight of the Eagle, which had a brief release in this country (cut) in 1983 and hasn’t yet made it to DVD (at least Region 1 DVD). Max von Sydow plays the late nineteenth-century Swedish engineer and balloonist S.A. Andrée, who’s determined to be the first man to reach the North Pole. We know he won’t make it because the movie opens (this isn’t really a spoiler) with actual photos of the actual bodies of Andrée and his crew, found three decades later, frozen where they died. Yet for the next three hours, from the bad balloon landing to the wrenching failure of one seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time scenario after another to the final moments in which Andrée rages against the stark white landscape, there wasn’t a second — not one second — that I didn’t look at Von Sydow’s avid face and think, “Maybe he’ll pull this thing out.” What is it about Troell’s framing — and conception of human nature — that gives his films this luminous openness of spirit, even when his characters are (as Beckett put it) “born astride a grave?” And can he pass it on?

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