With Fire and Sword
(Ogniem I Mieczem, 1999)

Review by Doc Ezra

Written by Jerzy Hoffman, based on the novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz
Directed by Jerzy Hoffman
Starring Izabella Scorupco, Michal Zebrowski, Aleksandr Domogarov, Krzysztof Kowalewski, Bogdan Stupka, Andrzej Seweryn, Zbigniew Zamachowski, and Wiktor Zborowski


Rating: NR, suitable for audiences 13+

Anamorphic: No

My advice: Rent it. History or war movie buffs might want to keep it.

Jan Skrzetuski (Zebrowski) is fresh back home from the Crimea wars, when he runs unwittingly into the middle of a brewing civil war between the Polish nobility and the native Ukrainian Cossacks. After having unknowingly released the most dangerous rebel leader Chmielnicki (Stupka), Jan encounters a few friends, and sets out to join the efforts against the Cossacks and Hussars. Along the way, he encounters one Helena Kurcewiczowna (Scorupco), and it’s love at first sight for both parties. Of course, it wouldn’t be a good movie without complications, and this one’s a doozy.

You see, Helena has been promised to another. Namely, Bohun Szyszko, an officer and a Cossack who has promised to keep Helena’s family safe when the revolution comes. But his rebellious sympathies don’t sit well with Helena, and she is immediately smitten with the dashing Jan. The family would rather she be married to a Pole than a Cossack anyway, so they say very little when it becomes plain that Jan wants to marry her. Bohun, perhaps understandably, is somewhat angered by this turn of events.

As this love triangle heats up, the conflict with the Cossacks moves from rumblings and minor rebellion into open war, and Jan finds himself called to action alongside his friends. What follows is a whirlwind of warfare, betrayals, and a cross-country flight by Helena to avoid the savage and bloodthirsty Bohun. Jan endures ruthless battle, injury, capture, and prolonged separation from the object of his affection. Throughout all, however, he remains true to his ideals, his friends, and his beloved, which in turn elevates his baser comrades to higher stature through mere association.

With Fire And Sword is a war epic on a grand scale. Broadcast originally in four parts, the total running time is right around three hours. The cinematography is sweeping, taking in massive battle sequences, but still deftly handled enough to keep all the scenes alive and interesting. Given the principle performances, that’s not so tall an order, but still. As to those performances, Scorupco, Zebrowski, and Domogarov all shine from beginning to end. The supporting cast is solid throughout, though special mention goes to Wiktor Zborowski’s Longinus, a pure-hearted knight of Poland, desparate to live up to his family name. Zborowski’s portrayal of Longinus’ innocence and absolute commitment to his friends was easily the most moving of the secondary characters.

The DVDs are nice enough, though the aspect ratio of the entire production is a bit off, like old cinemascoped Sunday matinees. This is a problem with the original film and is slightly distracting. Fortunately, with three hours of movie, it’s a small matter to get accustomed enough to the skewed perspectives and settle into the story.

The film’s production values are remarkable, employing a slew of extras and craftsmen to create historically accurate uniforms and weapons for all those extras. The end result is a picture that looks like it was beamed ahead from the 17th century, and the level of realism really adds to the immersive nature of the story.

The extras are minimal, which is a shame, but an import like this doesn’t have the kind of funding to throw at bonus material, so it’s a bit forgivable. I do wish they had made the text on their filmography and production notes a bit larger, as it is incredibly difficult to read much of the text presented. This minimizes the value of what features were included unless one has a huge screen TV to view it on.

Overall, I think everyone should give this one a rent, subtitles and all. The story is so essentially human as to render the differences of language and culture fairly insignificant anyway. Those that are suckers for such films (particularly the Braveheart crowd) might find this one a nice permanent addition to their collection.

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