Warner Bros. // 1959 // 126 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Josh Rode (Retired) // June 24th, 2012
Trapped on the border between freedom and tyranny.
Warner Bros. continues to clean out its archives by dusting off a cold war relic. The Journey attempted to capitalize on the popularity of the The King and I by casting Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr, the stars of the Oscar-winning musical. Can't blame them for trying.
In 1956, Hungary attempted to wriggle itself out from under Soviet control, by staging a violent coup that was quashed in just a few bloody months. Stuck in the country in the midst of the conflict are Englishwoman Diana Ashmore (Kerr) and her mysterious traveling companion Paul Kedes (Jason Robards, Tora! Tora! Tora!, in his first film role). They and their fellow international refugees desperately want to cross the border into Austria, but are held up by Soviet Major Surov (Brynner), who insists on checking out every detail of their stories. The film would have you believe he has ulterior motives.
Ostensibly, The Journey is a romantic thriller. Indeed, it's supposed to be two romances rolled in one, as Diana is caught between two potential love interests. The problem is no part of either "love story" feels all that romantic.
Brynner and Kerr may have had great chemistry in The King and I, but that didn't carry over to this film. Surov's true reason for holding up the bus is stated explicitly: he is infatuated with Diana. Brynner does a great job of acting like an officer who suspects the refugees are not telling him the complete truth. Surov manages a good cop/bad cop routine quite effectively all on his own, as he wines and dines his "guests" one day and threatens them the next. If the film had left it at that, it would have made for a slow-paced but intriguing look at an officer trying to ferret out a spy, and a woman trying to stop him. Alas, the film wants another layer, and that's where Brynner and Kerr fall flat. From the time the two meet until the time Surov kisses Diana, there isn't a single romantic spark. Are we truly meant to believe that Diana secretly has a thing for the Major? If so, the film fails completely. Even if that's not the case, Brynner's inability to show that Surov had these feelings all along makes that key scene thud like a lead brick.
Diana's purported romance with Paul is just as bad. It's clear from the beginning she feels protective of him, but the moments between Diana and Paul feel like a nurse and patient. There are no tender touches or copulatory gazes one would expect from a couple in love. The only clue there are romantic feelings between them is from the back of the DVD case, which refers to Paul as Diana's lover.
It's hard to decide where to place the blame for The Journey's rampant lack of chemistry. Certainly some of it goes to the screenwriting, which includes plenty of banter but lacks the wit to make it fun or engaging. The characterization and direction also offer hindrances; Diana spends all of her time in desperation mode as she keeps a constant eye out for ways to protect Paul. This kind of one-track focus does not lend itself to thoughts of romantic interludes. Everyone is kept at arm's length, so no one feels close.
The other problem is this "thriller" isn't at all thrilling. Paul spends all of his time in bed and the great escape plan falls apart because the writers suddenly decided to make the up-till-this-moment-fairly-intelligent Diana so stupid that she won't stop talking when their boat is right beside a Soviet watch detail. It isn't much of a scene to begin with, and becomes anti-climactic before it even begins.
Take away the romance and the thrill from this romantic thriller, and The Journey disassembles into a plodding anti-Soviet cold war propaganda piece which lobs easy-to-refute political rhetoric so the audience can feel superior. "Why do [the Hungarians] hate us so much?" asks the Major. "We're trying to protect them." "Because you're holding them in bondage, jackass!" the knowing audience responds.
Presented in standard definition 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, the transfer is decent with occasional grain and colors which don't look completely natural. Then again, the problems aren't significant enough to hamper your view. The Dolby 2.0 Mono mix is certainly enough for a film full of talking (with occasional Russian singing). I would have liked to have seen a commentary or at least a little something about the actors, but there aren't any extras whatsoever.
Okay, The Journey is not as bad as I'm making it sound. The acting is good. Aside from the romantic efforts, everyone feels fairly natural, and since it was filmed on location, the sets fit the story nicely. If you pretend the whole "Surov makes his move on Diana" scene didn't happen, it's not a horrible film, and Brynner's deep voice is always a pleasure to listen to, especially when he speaks in Russian.
If you're a fan Brynner and Kerr, you'll probably want The Journey for your collection, but this slow-paced affair fails to deliver on both its romantic and thriller premises.
Guilty of a complete lack of chemistry.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 126 Minutes
Release Year: 1959
MPAA Rating: Not Rated