Writer Henryk Sienkiewicz's mighty trilogy of 17th-century Poland finally reaches cinematic completion in "With Fire & Sword," reputedly the largest production in Polish film history.

Writer Henryk Sienkiewicz’s mighty trilogy of 17th-century Poland finally reaches cinematic completion in “With Fire & Sword,” reputedly the largest production in Polish film history. An all-time record-breaker on home turf, with a claimed 6 million admissions since opening in February, the $8.5 million, three-hour widescreen movie will delight auds who pine for the days of Central Euro historical blockbusters, even if they’ll be bemused a lot of the time about what is actually going on. Complex story of love and strife between Poles, Cossacks and Asian hordes reps a difficult sell nowadays in mature markets; more business is likely to come the way of the four-hour miniseries version, lensed separately.

The only literary trilogy to be filmed backward, Sienkiewicz’s work has had an extraordinarily elongated journey to the screen. Vet director Jerzy Hoffman, 67, made his name with the last tome, “Colonel Wolodyjowski,” in 1969, following that five years later with the middle volume, Oscar-nomed “The Deluge.” Hoffman waited an additional 25 years to get the first part, “With Fire & Sword,” on to the big sheet. (An Italian quickie had been shot in 1961.)

First published in 1884, the story of “Fire” covers only two years, 1647-49, but it’s a mighty complex era, with Poland a web of competing nobles, the ornery Cossacks restless on the eastern border with Ukraine, and the Tartars and Turks eyeing Europe. Emotional center of the movie should be a simple amorous feud between Pole Jan Skrzetuski (Michal Zebrowski) and Ukrainian Bohun (Russian thesp Aleksandr Domogarov) over the hand of beautiful noblewoman Helena Kurcewicz (Polish-born Bond babe Izabella Scorupco), but the love story tends to get a little lost among the horses, swordplay and siege engines.

Jan first meets Helena when he whisks her out of her waterlogged coach, but unfortunately she’s already promised to Bohun, who goes nuts when Helena’s aunt reneges on the deal. While Jan is busy fighting the Cossacks in Ukraine, Bohun tries to kidnap Helena, but she’s saved by Jan’s trusty henchman, Zagloba (Krzysztof Kowalewski), a kind of Polish Obelix, who spirits her away to the Castle of Bar.

Bohun storms the castle and takes Helena off to a secret hiding place, whereupon Jan — with the help of his servant Rzedzian (Wojciech Malajkat), fencing maestro Wolodyjowski (Zbigniew Zamachowski) and the Don Quixote-like Longinus (Wiktor Zborowski)– sets out to find her. As if their troubles weren’t enough, the Cossacks have meanwhile allied with the Tartars and are rampaging through the country.

In adapting what is basically his country’s “War and Peace,” Hoffman takes a lot for granted with foreign viewers who aren’t intimate with the original novel. Though the script concentrates on the main characters, it’s still an often confusing, largely fragmented ride, with Helena mostly kept looking luscious on the sidelines, Jan disappearing for long intervals and the second half taking on a much more knockabout tone as Jan’s four friends, and especially the giant Zagloba, dominate the action.

Dateline captions help a little, but give no clue as to where the places are in relation to one another.

Still, the solidly commercial pic at least has no pretensions of being an art movie, and for viewers content simply to sit back and enjoy the costumes, battles (lavishly staged) and manly horsing around, the running time is no stretch, with every cent of the budget up on the screen. The widescreen compositions are always filled with detail, Krzesimir Debski’s choral-symphonic score sweeps the visuals along (with exciting use of massive Cossack drums), and Helena’s wardrobe alone is worth the price of admission.

Top-billed Scorupco (“GoldenEye”) makes a classy female lead when she’s given the chance and has a poise that faintly recalls Sophia Loren’s in “El Cid.” As Jan, Zebrowski is colorless compared with the wilder Domogarov as Bohun; and both are overshadowed by Kowalewski’s beefy, lusty Zagloba and Zamachowski’s dilettante swordsman.

With Fire & Sword

Polish

Production

A Syrena Entertainment Group release (in Poland) of a Zodiak Jerzy Hoffman Film Prod. production, in association with Telewizja Polska, Komitet Kinematografii Poprez Agencje Produkcji Filmowej, Okocimskie Zaklady Piwowarskie. (International sales: Zodiak, Warsaw.) Produced by Jerzy R. Michaluk, Jerzy Hoffman. Executive producer, Jerzy Kajetan Frykowski. Directed, written by Jerzy Hoffman, based on the novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor prints, widescreen), Grzegorz Kedzierski; editors, Cezary Grzesiuk, Marcin Bastkowski; music, Krzesimir Debski; production designer, Andrzej Halinski; costume designers, Magdalena Teslawska, Pawel Grabarczyk; sound (Dolby Digital), Piotr Knop, Krzysztof Wodzinski; CGI effects, Artlogic; weapon and military designer, Tomasz W. Biernawski; historical consultant, Wladyslaw Serczyk; stunt coordinator, Lech Adamowski; assistant director, Adek Drabinski. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (market), May 18, 1999. Running time: 183 MIN.

With

Helena Kurcewicz - Izabella Scorupco Jan Skrzetuski - Michal Zebrowski Bohun - Aleksandr Domogarov Prince Jeremi Wiszniowiecki - Andrzej Seweryn Bohdan Chmielnicki - Bohdan S. Stupka Jan Onufry Zagloba - Krzysztof Kowalewski Michal Wolodyjowski - Zbigniew Zamachowski Longinus Podbipieta - Wiktor Zborowski Rzedzian - Wojciech Malajkat Old Princess Kurcewicz - Ewa Wisniewska Horpyna - Ruslana Pysanka Tuhai Bey - Daniel Olbrychski King Jan Kazimierz - Marek Kondrat Kisiel - Gustaw Holoubek
With: Andrzej Kopiczynski, Maciej Kozlowski, Adam Ferency, Gustaw Lutkiewicz, Dmitri Mirgorodski.

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