Note: This film guide is part of a collection of film guides on history, politics, and war.
Miklós Janscó Hungarian director, born 1921. Studied law, doctorate in 1944. Graduated from Budapest Academy of Dramatic and Film Art 1950. After war makes newsreels, documentaries in China 1957. First feature length film 1858. Active in theatre in early 1960s. International recognition as film director in 1966 when "The Round Up" is shown at Cannes film festival.
Literal translation of Hungarian title "The Poor Young Men" (or "The Hopeless Ones"). Set in 1869 following the defeat of the 1848 revolution against Habsburg rule in Hungary. Hungarian revolution put down with assistance of Russian army in 1849. Echoes of Russian invasion of 1956 to suppress reformist uprising against Stalinism. Hungarian General Arthur Görgey forced to surrender to Russian troops in August 1849. After his announcement to his 160,000 troops:
Men wept as they piled their guns into pyramids, while some of the cavalry shot their horses rather than let them be taken. A few cavalry galloped away to the great plains before they could be caught - perhaps to join the robber band of General Rósza Sándor, who was not caught until 1857. (Priscilla Robertson, Revolutions of 1848).
490 Hungarian officers court-martialled, 386 imprisoned, many stripped of rank, 13 executed. Retribution also carried out on civilians - 114 death sentences imposed, 75 others on exiled rebels. Women who had stood up for the rebels were punished by being stripped and flogged. The Austrian General Haynau threatened to burn to the ground any village which showed any sign of rebellion. The death penalty was decreed for anyone who wore any revolutionary emblem or who insulted an Austrian soldier.
After the defeat of the Hungarian revolution the country is invaded by bureaucrats from Vienna to impose order. They are supported by the black-coated gendarmerie organised in 1849 whose task it was to pacify the puszta or the plains of Hungary. The bandits who existed on the plains were viewed as both threats to law and order and revolutionaries. Possible to compare Rósza Sándor and Robin Hood - hero of revolution and attacks on repressive authority (landlords and gendarmes) won some support from the peasantry.
The army is sent to crush the last hold-outs of the revolution, especially the guerrilla leader/bandit Sándor Rózsa, deputy of Kossuth. They are there to "round up" those suspected of being republicans or democrats from 1848. By the time in which the film is set most have been rounded up. Under the leadership of Count Ráday the army uses a mixture of intimidation and deception to winnow out the revolutionaries who have sought refuge among the peasants on the broad Hungarian plain. Suspected political prisoners kept in "The Earthworks" - a forbidding fortress cum prison. Arbitrary power of the army to interrogate, torture, imprison, even kill the suspects. Pressure exerted on local peasants to identify and betray revolutionaries hiding amongst them. Raises perennial problem of guerrilla war and relationship with local people - at what cost do the people support guerrillas or rebels?
The critic Robert Vas argues that MJ is more concerned with:
the murder of the human spirit; with submission, betrayal; with the muffled psychological process of oppression, and its insatiable, parasitic hunger for more and more victims to keep the machinery going.
1. film opens with Austrian national anthem (composed by Haydn)
2. execution of accomplice of revolutionary leader Lajos Kossuth (smuggled K's papers)
3. image of freedom fighters as criminals (parallel with "freedom fighters" of failed 1956 uprising against communism) - Hungarian history shown to be a series of political purges
5. absence of heroes - the military power always wins, the guerrillas always seem to lose. A cat-and-mouse game played between oppressor and oppressed.
6. barrenness of political repression like barrenness of Hungarian plain - central image that of "figures wandering or riding, singly or in groups, on the airless, endless Hungarian plain" (Eric Rhode, A History of the Cinema, p. 603).
7. women suspected of being a revolutionary or accomplice of revolutionaries forced to run gauntlet naked. One of most harrowing scenes in film when rebels throw themselves off the walls of the prison to their deaths in act of rebellion, sympathy (?) with women, suicide, or to avoid further persecution of innocent people.
8. suspected informer (to military of rebels) summarily executed in his cell. Classic depiction of problem in game theory and economics - the "prisoners' dilemma". Separating two prisoners - what is the best strategy for each prisoner to follow - inform or keep silence?
9. rebels deceived into believing amnesty has been granted by Emperor. Invited to join army because of their cavalry skills. Rebels expose themselves by singing revolutionary songs about Kossuth and Hungarian liberty.
10. brilliant use of tracking shots (moving camera) which weaves between and among individuals and groups - depersonalisation of characters by absence of speech and camera movements.
11. to whom does the title "The Hopeless Ones" refer? - perhaps to both the defeated and oppressed revolutionaries as well as to the Habsburg oppressors.
12. idea of "heroic suicide" - hopeless resistance to tyranny, whether following 1849 or 1956, against much more powerful opponent (Habsburg and Russian army; Russian tanks). Hopelessness summed up in shot of man running towards horizon, overtaken by men on horseback, shot down.
13. coldness and impersonal feeling of film. MJ has said that "it is not the person of the executioner that is interesting, but the mechanics of the system itself".