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The Soldier's Tale

The Soldier's Tale
Koch Lorber
1980 / Color / 1:33 flat full frame / 51 min. / Street Date July 13, 2004 / 24.98
Starring Max Von Sydow, Dusan Makavejev, Galina Panova, Andre Gregory
Animators Fred Burns, Tissa David, Fred Mogubgub, Ed Smith
Film Editor Ernest Troost
Music Arnold Black, Igor Stravinsky from L'Histoire du soldat
Conducted by Gerard Schwartz
Written by
Produced by Chloe Aron
An animated film by R. O. Blechman

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:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good -
Sound: Excellent
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

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