Entertaining, if mostly fuzzy, Cold War adventure/romance. Warner Bros.' own M.O.D. (manufactured on demand) service, the Archive Collection, which caters to movie lovers looking for hard-to-find library and cult titles, has released The Journey, the 1959 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer drama reuniting The King and I stars Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner, with Robert Morley, E.G. Marshall, Anne Jackson, Kurt Kasznar, and in his movie debut, Jason Robards, Jr., along for the ride. With its Hungarian Revolution of 1956 context simplified and romanticized, don't look for a history lesson here. However, the lead performance by Yul Brynner is quite good amid producer/director Anatole Litvak's impassive yet assured direction.
Budapest Airport, fall of 1956. As the popular people's uprising against the Soviet-controlled, repressive Hungarian government builds, a disparate, international set of travelers finds itself stranded when Soviet jets and tanks begin their march on the country. Sophisticated English rose Diana Ashmore (Deborah Kerr), separated from her diplomat husband, seems curiously devoted to ill "stranger" Paul Kedes (Jason Robards, Jr.), a mysterious man traveling under a British passport...while hiding a nasty bullet wound. Blustery BBC producer Hugh Deverill (Robert Morley) runs in the same circles as Lady Ashmore, and suspects more than friendship with Kedes. Harried, friendly American oil executive Hugh Deverill (E.G. Marshall) has his hands full with his two rambunctious boys, Billy and Flip (Ron Howard, in his movie debut), as well as his sharp, willful wife, Margie (Anne Jackson). Simon Avron (David Kossoff) is an Israeli professor. Von Rachlitz (Siegried Schurenberg) is an "Ethiopian" airline president...and former Luftwaffe commander. And French Jacques Fabbry (Maurice Sarfati), Japanese Mitsu (Jerry Fujikawa), and Arab Teklel Hafouli (Gerard Oury) are businessmen/tourists. When all civilian flights are grounded by the invading Russians, the travelers are ordered to take a bus to neutral Austria's border, but at the village of Mosan, five miles from freedom, the bus is waylaid by a change in orders: all civilian passports of departing travelers are to be collected and sent to Moscow for final clearance. Occupying commandant Major Surov (Yul Brynner) takes a "friendly" interest in the tourists...but concealed passions and resentments boil beneath his surface, and threaten the safety of the frightened group.
A long, glossy, then-"hot topic" romantic drama that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer must have thought was a sure-fire winner, The Journey didn't exactly set the box office ablaze when it premiered in 1959, although critics treated it a bit more kindly. Hoping to recreate some of the magic of a Brynner and Kerr rematch along the lines of their 1956's Oscar-winning hit, The King and I, while also minting some coin after the fashion of director Anatole Litvak's and star Yul Brynner's big, big romantic hit from that same year, Anastasia, The Journey seems to have all the ingredients for a superior soaper, with some thoughtful political discussion thrown in as a bonus. And to be fair, it can't help but be entertaining on a basic level with those stars, and with a story that at least promises some intriguing, complex political and sexual dynamics.
Unfortunately, those "promises," no matter how intrinsically appealing they turn out to be, don't equal a fully satisfying moviegoing experience here. The opening title card may stress the tragic historical context of this fictional drama, even promoting the filmmakers' commitment to verisimilitude by shooting second unit work near the Austria-Hungarian border, but The Journey isn't really interested in politics or history. Today, one can make an excuse for screenwriter George Tabori (I Confess, Secret Ceremony) not going into any background or detail involving the history of Hungary and Russia at this point in the Cold War; perhaps he assumed that in 1959, most informed viewers were already well aware of that particular political situation (of course that leaves today's viewer, who may not have that history readily at hand, at a disadvantage). Still, Tabori's refusal to anchor The Journey in historical specifics ultimately weakens the central drama. Anonymous partisans, led by the most glamorous freedom fighter I've ever seen, Anouk Aimee, hate Brynner, and he hates that they hate him ("Aren't we supposed to be friends?" he ridiculously laments), while all the Westerners fear and hate him, and he hates that they fear and hate him, too―that's how deep The Journey goes into the Cold War political context of this all-too real, tragic historical event. One could easily switch around a few names and places, and with the movie's studio-bound "European grunge" look (that second unit location work does nothing to loosen up the cramped visuals), The Journey could just as easily be a WWII romantic drama, with Brynner a complex, dangerously attractive Nazi rather than a complex, dangerously attractive Rooskie (all those Grand Hotel supporting characters are completely ignored here, as well, leaving out potentially interesting conflicts, such as the Jew and the former Nazis interacting against the Commie).
No, The Journey's main focus seems to be the love triangle between Robards, Jr., Kerr, and Brynner...but even that is mishandled. Critically (I think casting is the main culprit), we never buy any strangulated, passionate love from Robards, Jr. towards Kerr―although Kerr, as always, is believable when she declares her devotion to him over and over again. As for Brynner's Cossack yen for noblewoman Kerr, there are times when director Litvak (Mayerling, Confessions of a Nazi Spy, All This and Heaven Too, The Snake Pit, The Night of the Generals) elicits from Brynner some compelling contradictions in his pursuit/hatred for the well-bred Kerr. Brynner's character―the proud, self-aware, self-loathing "enemy" combatant who tragically, romantically knows he's on the side of wrong―isn't exactly original, particularly in romantic fictions like this, where the cliché of the highly-educated, sexually dangerous enemy presents a tantalizing, deliciously impossible moral dilemma for the alternately disgusted/panting heroine (Brando's role in The Young Lions wasn't too far different).
Except...in The Journey, Kerr doesn't appear to want Brynner. Ever. From the start, Kerr declares her willingness to die for Robards, Jr., and that sticks throughout the movie. And all the times that Brynner tries to entice/force Kerr into bed, she makes it plain she doesn't want to. Nowhere in her performance (or in the script) do I see her giving out a subtext of wanting Brynner. Indeed, at the end, when Brynner keeps insisting that Kerr secretly wanted him, she's quite insistent (and believable) that she didn't. This one-sided erotic charge could have been interesting, particularly since it originates from Brynner and not Kerr. Brynner is excellent when he's confident enough to be polite with his "guests," extending them courtesies of civilities they don't extend to him (understandably). We keep expecting him to be a barbarian, but he's not, and we're hooked. Later, when he begins to taunt and tease the travelers, it gives The Journey a real edge as we await his explosion of self-hate and self-loathing (his frequent, unasked-for, "Did you say something?" challenge to the silent guests is delivered well). He knows he's on the wrong side of history, and he wants condemnation from those he simultaneously admires and hates―particularly from Kerr.
However, this potentially fascinating angle is never fully developed once Brynner goes into "exotic" mode, grunting and singing gypsy songs (well), and manhandling Kerr, telling her that it's always been "about her," possessing her refined culture as much as her refined skin―a primitive, sexual obsession―until the air is let out of the whole show. Once Tabori and Litvak let Brynner's character off the hook intellectually, The Journey becomes thoroughly predictable, right down to the SPOILER ALERT "did she or didn't she" finale and Brynner's thinly-motivated self-sacrifice. I'm guessing most viewers will believe Kerr slept with Brynner to get them all released (after the group basically told her to do so), but director Litvak deliberately keeps that sequence with Kerr and Brynner vague. It's not an artistically ambiguous choice, but rather a decision born out of box office consideration and the censors, most likely. With this kind of ending, the filmmakers probably thought they could please everyone. Depending on your moral outlook, Brynner either "has" Kerr and then develops second, honorable thoughts about what he did, thereby releasing the group, or he doesn't sleep with her and has second, honorable thoughts about the way he treated Kerr and lets them go...while either way, Kerr is a saint and/or a slut―take your pick. Unfortunately, it's a choice that doesn't shore up The Journey, but rather illustrates more clearly its own compromised nature.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.