Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Kingdom in the Clouds

Directors: Elisabeta Bostan, Nicolae Codrescu
Writer: Elisabeta Bostan
Producer: Nicolae Codrescu
Cast: Mirceau Breazu, Ana Szeles, Ion Tugearu
Year of release: 1968
Country: Romania
Reviewed from: UK festival screening

There was no way that I was going to miss the first ever British screening (from a 16mm print, courtesy of Gerald Price) of a 1968 Romanian children’s fantasy. Fortunately, when Gerald showed this on Sunday morning at the 2003 Festival of Fantastic Films, the other rooms were showing Kiki’s Delivery Service (sorry but anime leaves me stone cold, and this is not an invitation to try and convert me - the only thing I hate more than anime is evangelical anime fans) and the truly execrable Supernova.

Actually this is the 1971 American dubbed version of the film, copyrighted to - bizarrely - the Xerox Corporation. How close it is to the original Romanian script I don’t know - but it’s probably an exact copy! (Please yourselves...)

A young man - who is never given a name so let’s call him Kevin (Mirceau Breazu) - sets out to seek his fortune, specifically to find the Kingdom of Eternal Youth which is high above the clouds. This is because he has often heard of people in stories living ‘happily ever after’ and he likes the sound of the ‘ever’ bit. The first person he encounters on his travels is an old giant, Father Time, who constantly winds an infinitely long rope onto a wooden wheel. This is the Wheel of Time, and he cannot slow it down. but he wishes Kevin good luck on his quest.

In a forest, Kevin encounters a talking sunflower which begs for a drop of water. This the young man kindly gives and the flower turns into a beautiful princess (Ana Szeles) who thanks the young man for his kindness by giving him a horn, on which he may blow to summon her when he needs help, but no more than three times. He wastes the first blow, using it to summon her back immediately so that he can see her face again.

Further into the forest he encounters the Queen of the Forest Birds, a large white dove, who is pleading for mercy from the Prince of Liars (Ion Tugearu), a half-man-half-crow being who has imprisoned all her subjects in a large cage. Here I’m sure that the English sub divulges from the original because the Queen says that she has been turned into a ‘mechanical dove’ but I think she’s just meant to be a large, magical bird. (She is animated in a few shots through stop-motion.) Kevin fights and defeats the Prince of Liars, pulling off his mask and saying, “You’re not a bird! You’re a man!” The caged doves are set free and Kevin pushes the evil prince into the cage instead, which he then drags to to edge of a nearby cliff before pushing it over. On hitting the rocks below, the cage explodes! (I half expected to see a single wheel come bouncing out of the pillar of black smoke.) The Queen of the Forest Birds gives Kevin a magical feather in gratitude.

Eventually he reaches the Kingdom of Eternal Youth where he must complete three tasks before being allowed entry. First he must retrieve the ‘golden rod’ (actually a large ear of corn) which is held by a witch so consumed with jealousy that she has turned green. The witch lives in the Land of Fire and Decay and demands of Kevin that he turn the place into an oasis, which he manages to do surprisingly quickly, clearing the rubbish, dousing the fires and sprucing up the witch’s cottage and windmill. At the same time, he fetches water for a nearly-dead magic horse which belonged to a previous unsuccessful applicant.

The witch reneges on her word, but Kevin uses his magic feather, which turns into a flute which, when played, causes the witch to dance uncontrollably and so somehow releases the golden rod from her possession.

Next is a quest to retrieve the golden apple from the Kingdom of Liars, the location of which is revealed to Kevin by the princess when he summons her. This land turns out to be inhabited by lots of really scary looking men in black costumes and oversize masks who dance around and eventually ensnare Kevin. They are led by the Prince of Liars who somehow survived the exploding cage. Kevin uses a magic leaf to lull his guards to sleep, steals the King of Liars’ magic ring and uses it to open up a wall in a cave wherein lies the golden apple, while fighting off a small army of black-clad soldiers.

The final quest is to retrieve the golden key (the film’s French title was Le Clef d’Or) which will unlock the book of wisdom owned by the King and Queen of the Kingdom of Eternal Youth, who for some reason throw their daughter’s hand in marriage into the reward - a daughter who turns out to be none other than the princess with whom Kevin is in love. The key is in a tower on the edge of the sea, but the Prince of Liars overhears this and sets off for the tower too. Once there, he claims to have repented his evil ways as the only way up the doorless, windowless tower is for him to work with Kevin. However, once he has the key - boo! hiss! - he leaves Kevin stranded inside the well of the tower with no rope while he hightails it back to the Kingdom of Eternal Youth. But Kevin escapes by answering three riddles posed by the old giant from the start of the film, and also obtains the genuine key which he brings back to the King and Queen just in time.

While that bad old Prince of Liars is suitably punished, Kevin weds the Princess but is warned by the Queen never to drink from the magical brook or he will lose his new-found immortality. Of course, this is the first thing he does but the Princess loves him so much that she drinks too so that they will grow old together. Ah, bless.

What a magical film! Did I mention that the Kevin’s steed which he acquires in the Land of Fire and Decay can not only talk but also fly? Or that the Kingdom of Eternal Youth is reachable only by crossing a rainbow bridge. All the effects, whether physical or created using blue-screen, are excellent for the age and origin of the film. It looks quite expensive with big sets, plenty of extras and an exciting horseback chase as the King of Liars’ soldiers attempt to retrieve his magic ring.

People leaving the screening were heard to compare this to The Singing Ringing Tree but that’s only because most people have never seen any other East European fairy tale movies and have no idea of how prolific a genre it is. The story this most resembles is actually the Monty Python tale about Prince Walter and Princess Mitzi Gaynor which was included in the 1972 German episode. It’s clear that the Pythons were spoofing not fairy tales in general but specifically East European film versions (The Singing Ringing Tree was East German, but Kingdom in the Clouds is Romanian and there was a long tradition of such films throughout the Soviet Bloc).

Writer/director Elisebete/Elisabete/Elisabeta/Elizabet Bostan made 25 films from 1956 to 1991 including The Hoopoe on the Lime Tree and Recollections from Childhood (both based, like this film, on stories by 19th century Romanian writer Ion Creanga). Her short silent films about an eight-year-old peasant boy called ‘Naica’ were edited together into a feature entitled The Adventures of Naica which won her a Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival and a special mention at Cannes.

Of course, Romania is now a popular location for western film crews and one of the other cast members, Emanoil Petrut, recently appeared in Donald F Glut’s softcore monster flick The Mummy’s Kiss! The original Romanian title of Kingdom in the Clouds is apparently Tinerete fara Batrinete which roughly translates as ‘eternal youth’.

MJS rating: B+
review originally posted 29th November 2004

No comments:

Post a Comment