FILM / Films that should come back from the dead: Independent riters campaign for the return of four classics: John Lyttle on A Walk with Love and Death

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The Independent Culture
With some directors it's the contradictions which excite. John Huston's A Walk with Love and Death (1969) desperately courts the youth audience wooed and won by Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet in 1968. Still, he can't help slapping at the ideology of the age: 'All You Need Is Love' ? Not here. Like R & J, Walk may be costume drama with a contemporary feel, yet its identikit plot - teenagers doomed by a cruel adult world - yields darker truths. Love alters nothing. Life passes unmourned. Only greed - a hardy Huston theme - endures.

Where Zeffirelli sees the past as baroque visual spectacle, Huston imagines medieval France as grim tableau. The conflict under consideration isn't trival, as with differing generations. It's a One Hundred Years class war; the peasants rebelling against the landed gentry. Claudia (Anjelica Huston, her debut) and Heron (Assaf Dayan, son of then Israeli defence minister, Moshe Dayan) are a nobleman's daughter and a wide-eyed student dragged to their fate, not by crossed stars or parental interference, but by bloody social upheaval - the sort the Sixties generated. Nothing can save them. Not the church, which refuses to marry them, nor Claudia's uncle, who joins the peasants who killed her father and who finally throws the lovers to the wolves.

Despite this, A Walk with Love and Death looks upon its puppets with compassion, and without being lofty: a miracle of tone. As actors, Huston and Dayan are coltish, awkward and dumb, which is perfect. You want them to embrace their moment of happiness as the tides of history roar. When the couple's time inevitably comes, and the director juxtaposes their exposed flesh with the glint of the weapons that will rend that flesh, detachment evaporates and the picture is overwhelmingly poignant. It's brutal and great too: the neglected work of a cinematic master.

What the critics said: 'The slow pace and gloomy atmosphere tend to dull viewer interest.' Variety

'Huston and Dayan have the embarrassed stiffness of high schoolers performing before an audience for the very first time.' Charles Champlin

'There is a perfectly blank, supremely inept performance by Huston's daughter, who has the face of a gnu, the voice of an unstrung tennis racket, and a figure of no discernible shape.' John Simon

'As the lovers become more committed, the film grows less certain . . . Huston is far too sceptical and knowing to believe in his subject.' Chris Petit

Availability: Out of circulation. Surfaces very occasionally at Huston retrospectives.

(Photograph omitted)