Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
R. O. Blechman has a distinctive drawing style we all know from television commercials and magazine
covers; he founded an animation studio called The Ink Tank and made some news with a clever
short subject in 1977 called Simple Gifts (included as an extra on this disc). This 1980
PBS special is a fully animated realization of a famous musical fable composed by Igor Stravinsky
while in Switzerland during the Russian revolution. It's emotionally affecting in addition to
being a showcase for Blechman's unique style.
A soldier (voice: Dusan Makavejev) gets leave to go home after over three years
in arms and while walking down the long road dreams of the welcome he'll get, especially his
marriage to the promised girl of his dreams (Galina Panova). But he's distracted by the Devil
(Max von Sydow), a slick-talking fellow who gets him to trade his beloved fiddle for a
business that will make him rich and his bride-to-be happier. The soldier achieves his goals
but discovers that he's been delayed far too long - when he gets home the townspeople treat him
like a ghost. Worse, his beloved has married another and now has a child. Trading his riches
back to the devil to regain his fiddle, The soldier travels to a kingdom where the princess has
fallen into a trance. He bets his life that he can revive her with his music ...
The Soldier's Tale is a darn good animated film; it complements the music so well, it's
easy to see Stravinsky's piece as a specially composed score. The frequently sinister story
is the tale of a nice-guy veteran who just wants to live, bu wastes his years fighting and following
a devil-inspired quest for material wealth. It's a moral fable that doesn't have an
obvious solution for the hero's problems and is thus a kind of downer. Although he makes some
serious personal mistakes, the devil's enticements seem to come outside - unless one interprets
demonic influence as the character's inner psychological flaw. The world seems prone to break up
into chaos unless one treads a narrow line, and the wild torment of the ending is a terrible
fate that doesn't seem deserved. 1
The saving grace of The Soldier's Tale is a prevailing feeling of grace and beauty. The
soldier picks a flower and his imagination runs ahead over the hills to picture an idyllic future.
Without slavishly following each note of the music, the animation expresses its tone perfectly -
as when the soldier's wedding procession is jostled by gusts of wind. Since it's a subjective
fantasy, the wind reveals that the soldier already has hidden doubts.
R. O. Blechman's style at first looks like a bunch of squiggly lines, but they soon reveal themselves
as being just as expressive as something more finely drafted. Writer-director Blechman is the
overall designer and the film carries a long list of artisans who did the real animation. The
insubstantial line images are often backed by grey shadowings that make the simplest shapes evoke
people with personalities. The devil is consistently threatening, without doing much of anything
overtly evil; the voicework of Max von Sydow helps here. When emotions become intense the
semi-realistic images sometimes break up into abstract chaos. The taste and discretion employed
is remarkable - The Soldier's Tale makes a good animated film like
Allegro non troppo look as if it's
working too hard.
Although it has a lot of politicized imagery, The Soldier's Tale doesn't have a
particular ideology to sell. The soldier is Russian, and the main evil seems allied with capitalistic
success and luxuries associated with the west, but the story places its value not with some alternate
system but on conventional virtues like music from the heart and loved ones at home. The castle and
kingdom subplot in the last act almost doesn't fit, unless the soldier is trying out a monarchical
path. There's no political content, just the clear message that straying from one's heart's
path is a grave mistake. The messages in folk tales are often ambiguous ... this soldier doesn't
seem to have much of a real choice in anything. What holds our attention is the beautiful
way Blechman's images and the Stravinsky music go together.
Koch Lorber's DVD of The Soldier's Tale is a mostly good transfer that appears to be taken
from an older video source in good shape. The titles are contrasty and show some distressing video
flaws, but the body of the show is in fine shape. The show is acceptable, although a new transfer would
surely have been an improvement.
Of special note are the extras, a lengthy selection of Blechman's short films and television
spots. Even if it doesn't seem familiar, we all remember his clever talking stomach in an antacid
commercial, the one with two ducts coming out of the top of its head like wayward hair. The best
piece in the group is Simple Gifts, a gentle satire of the birth of Christ. There's also a
selection of magazine covers and a short photo and text piece about the debut of Stravinsky's
original music composition at a private salon.
The disc confuses the exact date of the film. Both the IMDB and the box cover indicate 1984,
but the package text on the back says it won awards in 1980.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Soldier's Tale rates:
Video: Good -
Supplements: Short films by R.O. Blechman
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 14, 2004
1. The basic story of
A Soldier's Tale is probably universal, but it reminds me of a variation on the first episode
of the horror film Kwaidan, with a greedy samurai returning to the loving wife he abandoned
years before. He's received with open and forgiving arms, but something is amiss.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson