With Fire and Sword

Jerzy Hoffman directed this three-hour adaptation of a historical novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz (Quo Vadis?), set in the mid-17th century when rival armies of Poles, Tartars, cossacks, and rebellious peasants battled for control of Poland and the Ukraine. The film is filled with brutality—impaling, hangings, torching of villages—yet none of it seems gratuitous; its epic battles recall the grand devastation of Kurosawa's films, and Hoffman never loses sight of his characters, the warlords who fancy themselves errant knights but behave like cutthroats. In true Hollywood fashion he also finds time for a romance, between the most beautiful princess in Poland and the only warrior who looks good wearing mud and a three-day beard. But he's much more interested in capturing the sweep of history and sketching its various players; his utterly absorbing epic succeeds as both historical document and ripping good adventure story.

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