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Tobias Seamon

Order of the Dragon

Order of the Dragon
L'ordre du Dragon
Starring Istvan Tabor, Janka Lenci, Georges Emmanuel, with Karim Sharif
Directed by Frederick Roka
(in French, with English and Hungarian subtitles)

The timing of this foreign release could not be more audacious, or strange. Who, in Europe or America, during the current barrage of wartime news, wants to see an artsy French adaptation of a barbaric Hungarian stage play about the real life Dracula, a sadistic, Ottoman-hating Romanian warlord known as Vlad the Impaler? The premise alone is suffocating, never mind that the movie was almost entirely filmed, in French with a combined Franco-Hungarian production team, from the proscenium of the magnificently restored Grand Opera House in Budapest. If ever a movie was doomed for the basement archives of American film schools, Order of the Dragon would seem to be it. Amazingly however, the movie succeeds in ways Hollywood hasn't dared to attempt since Apocalypse Now. The surreal savagery of the production is a tour de force of divided loyalties, religious iconography, familial politics, and betrayal of all in an anarchic, chaotic world. The Count, either in his vampiric guise or in his historically vicious persona would surely appreciate this version of his life and times.

The premise of Order of the Dragon is simple: a rising Romanian chieftain named Vlad Dracul (meaning "son of the dragon") is battling the encroaching Turkish armies with all his fury. Once a prisoner of the Sultan, Vlad is caught betwixt and between his ostensibly Christian allies and the overwhelming force of the Sultan's ever-expanding Muslim kingdom. Dracul belongs to the Order of the Dragon, a sect of eastern European royalty committed unto death to stopping the Sultan's plans for conquest. The Order isn't as cohesive as one would expect, and the Hungarian king has already murdered both Vlad's father and brother during his imprisonment in Istanbul. Nevertheless, it is the Turks who take the blame for the murders, as Dracul is incapable of accepting what his worm-ish brethren did in the past. The opening act is a battlefield scene, while the action in the second takes place at the Hungarian court, where Vlad is supposedly happily married to a Magyar princess. The third, again taking place on the wooded, corpse-strewn battlefield, plays out his disastrous adherence to the Order's vowed purpose and eventual death. Grim fare from beginning to end, but considering the script's origin, unsurprising.

Order was originally written for the stage in 1930 by an obscure Hungarian playwright named Jan Banhegy. The play, with all its gore, caught some attention from audiences as well as the security apparatus of Budapest. The work was deemed acceptable however, as the strident anti-Ottoman theme of the piece disguised the subterranean rebelliousness of the play. His personality made up in equal parts of misery and conceit, Banhegy toiled for years in complete anonymity, scorning both his family business (his father was a tailor to minor figures in the Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy) and his lack of success as a playwright. Poor at best with the scissors and measure, Banhegy used Svejk-like methods to elude combat during the first World War, much to his later shame. Eventually he left the confines of his father's shop and began work as a street sweeper in the Pest-side of the city. During this time he composed Order of the Dragon. A student of the Soviet experiment, he felt betrayed by Stalin's burgeoning powers while continuing to despise the Habsburg bluebloods still nascent in mittel-Europe. Banhegy wrote the play in a kind of red-faced fury, heaping corpses on the stage at night while sweeping the slums of the city during the day. Like Hitler, his seething dreams were corrupt with megalomania and bloodshed. Noticed by a few of the literary figures of the time, the production was met with a combined form of awe and contempt: after reading the script, Mikhail Bulgakov pronounced the play, "ludicrous, horrific, unviewable, and true" while Isaac Babel sneered, "It is the nightmare of history, and nothing more." The production ran for 6 months and earned Banhegy a bit of financial breathing space, but his next play was a disaster. Entitled "The Blue Ants" the work was an anarchic attack on the status quo, and the play was closed by the polizei on opening night. Professionally ruined, Banhegy himself was dead of pneumonia and drink within two years.

If ever there was a director suited to revive Order of the Dragon, Frederick Roka would be it. The son of a Jewish Hungarian publisher and a French writer of travelogues, Roka's family barely escaped the Anschluss of 1936, departing on one of the last trains from Vienna before Hitler's goons took over. Roka, only five at the time, remembered the experience vividly, and it has tinged all of his movies, from underrated surrealist piece Bulls of Limoges to his sexual farce The Clockwatcher's Daughter. His actors are always on the move, either too early or too late for their destinations, while seemingly being followed by unstoppable forces. Whether the forces are lust or time or a combination of both, Roka has certainly made it clear either one gets out of the way (impossible) or is overwhelmed (unlivable.)

While Roka's choice for a comeback vehicle (he hadn't made a movie in over 15 years) could be questioned, neither his casting nor his cinematic skills should be. Istvan Tabor, a kind of Hungarian Christopher Lee, has been haunting European horror films for decades, and the combination of his immense height, gaunt features, and corkscrew eyes is a perfect fit for the twisted and tortured Dracul. The Impaler's love interest is played by Janka Lenci, fresh from her triumphant turn as Regan in a Prague revival of Lear. The luminescent, blond bloodlust of Lenci's Regan is toned down but still present in Order, as she's alternately aroused then dismayed by Dracul's combined sadism and ideals. Lenci's Shakespearean experience is more than evident, as without ever mentioning a dagger or murder, she is the soul of Missus MacBeth. In her dragon-embossed crimson skirts, plunging neckline, and impressively-muscled shoulders, Lenci is far more vampirical than Dracul ever appears to be, and it will only be a matter of time before Janka Lenci is sending American moviegoers (and actresses) into fits when her mere force of presence upstages anyone in the vicinity.

Despite such formidable personnel, the director somehow then manages to contain them within both the stage and the lens, never quite allowing Banhegy's megalomaniacal script to undermine Roka's own intentions for Order of the Dragon. For one, all of the action was filmed live on an actual stage, before an actual audience, in the beautiful expanse of the gilded Grand Opera House of Budapest. Instead of allotting his budget towards the more current cinematic methods, Roka staged Order using one of the most demonically impressive sets ever raised. The curtain opens on a scene of utter destruction and personal triumph for Dracul, as he stands, black armored and bloody, atop a mound of Turkic corpses. Spears, serving as a prequel for the monstrous third act impalings, are embedded in the ashen set at all angles, in a kind of cage around the warlord. The backdrop is immense, seeming to stretch backwards for hundreds of leagues, like a magnification of one of Breughel's more demented landscapes. The hills themselves writhe with fires and battle, as flickering torches alternately flare and die down behind the scrim. The landscape is as war-tormented as the actors, and the sheer expanse of the set is literally and audibly breath-taking: the audience can be heard gasping and gaping at the moment the curtain lifts. The movie audience, however, has already seen (suffered?) through their own opening shot, as a camera above the stage has zoomed ferociously down on the action to the accompaniment of a screaming horse. It is like being at the tip of a falling bomb, to emerge like the actual audience upon a scene of utter carnage. Even as the actual audience gasps, the shot seems to come back out of the cage of spears, next to the victorious yet monstrous Dracul. The whole thing is too much- too much landscape, too much sound and desolation, too many corpses and spears and war, and in the center, too much Tabor as the leering, leery, blood soaked Dracul. Simply put, it's one of the most unpleasantly impressive opening's I've ever watched.

From there the tragedy, if it can be called that considering the protagonist, plays out on the proscenium. Dracul confers with lieutenants, grouses about losses, kicks heads around, kills one underling for delivering bad news, and generally curses the world in general. Roka has cut the admittedly weak script down to shreds, and thereby added a kind of stream-of-conscious poetry to the dialogue. Only the most crucial lines have remained, and recited in a deliberately stiff manner by Tabor, Banhegy's previously awkward phrasings become sublime with power, resignation, and yes, madness. The contrived, at times un-cohesive sentences, only emphasizes Dracul's war-weariness and exhaustion with the world he lives and battles with all the time. The Count knows he will never have the numbers to effectively stop the Sultan, but he is determined to try. He has sworn to do so. Along the way, he is in full understanding that his own successes will only alienate his already-untrustworthy Christian allies, the same ones who murdered his family and fear him as a rival. Also, through brief moments of memory of his childhood captivity to the Sultan, he remembers the foreign yet despicable ways of the Sultan's court. He takes time to give a litany of the miracles of the Sultan's house, then punctuates the list with memories of the tortures he suffered in the dungeons when they occasionally attempted to convert him. By the completion of the first act, Dracul is ready to forsake war for a marriage offer in the Hungarian royal house, and declaring essentially that he will go into retirement, Dracul actually looks up directly into the high camera and announces his peaceful intentions to the movie audience, God himself, or Roka's bomb-shell lens, you choose which.

In the second act, Lenci steals the show as Dracul's young and beautiful wife. The act opens, this time not as a bomb, but as a view from the auditorium. The camera moves from a close-up of the gilded cherubim on the Opera House's ceiling down to the medieval chamber where Dracul, his Princess bride, her duplicitous father and an envoy from the Sultan plot, talk, and otherwise grow bored with themselves. Tapestry-covered walls are erected in front of the battle-scene backdrop, though the fires and smoke can still be seen through one small window above the Count's chair. The King, in a typically serpentine portrayal by Georges Emmanuel, is neither quite barbarian warlord, nor sophisticate politico, while the Muslim envoy is both. It's obvious why Turks will be victorious in their future, and brutally inhumane, conquest of eastern Europe. The King lacks Dracul's manic adherence to the ideals of the Order, while Dracul has none of the King's survivalist wiles. Between the two, and playing both off each other, is the Princess, who doesn't even bother to hide the obviously sexual feelings she has for her father. This is perhaps why she wants the King killed as well, and she plays on all of Dracul's ambitions and grudges, urging him to go back into the field of battle, to make his own great kingdom and ostensibly, return to slaughter her relations. Surprising or not, it is the Sultans' envoy who warns Dracul of the futile stupidity of such plans, saying only to the furious yet confused war chief, "You have a son, I see him playing, there in the court below. He could grow up strong here." Dracul, true to form, ignores the good advice and hits the road. Lenci's smoldering kiss and vial of blood from her own wrist are Dracul's goodbye to the supposedly-civilized world. The act ends with the camera slowly hazing over in red, panning with a touch of regret back to the cherubim above. Roka knows exactly what Dracul has left behind, for better or for worse.

The final act is pure Grand Guignol, and mercifully short. The opening shot is floor-level, gazing up into the open eyes of a dead Turk. There is a veritable forest of the dead within the forest on stage, as a few trees have been moved in front of the battlefield backdrop. Amidst the carnage again is Dracul, black-armored and insane, dining at a table in the center of the clearing. He is covered in blood, but this time the blood is his own, and his lieutenants are far fewer. He delights in death, but not in victory anymore. When the dying moan from their spears, he puts a hand to the ear and grins. He is drunk, and when the wine runs out, he drinks from the slit throat of a yet another hapless underling. The vampire legend is born even as a messenger announces that the Hungarian King has refused to send more troops to Dracul's assistance. Here, at the conclusion, Roka's influence is at his best, turning Banhegy's original, maudlin final speech inside out. Dracul, at his most vile, is also at his most sorrowful. Knowing the Sultan will enslave all he can reach, Dracul both mourns and curses the Order of the Dragon. Despising their self-interest, he also praises them, and himself, for their courage in the face of tyranny. The speech is relentlessly self-conflicting, and utterly touching, as the demonic Vlad the Impaler declares the whole world to be an Order of the Dragon, full of flames and traitors, hate and war, gold-hoarders, bastards and fanatics, some of whom, like himself, want mostly just to be free, free of history, family, and the all-consuming obligation of an oath taken many years before as a young man held captive in the dungeons of the Sultan. Like the first act, the speech is directed to the lens above. Roka knows when the sound of clapping is inappropriate, and in the stillness between curtain and applause, the shot goes black and silent, and the credits roll.

Unfortunately, L'ordre du Dragon is an achievement few will ever experience. The centrifugal depravity of the action, as well as the foreign direction, will confine Order to short runs in dingy art houses, and there is no American release date set. Perhaps though, in a few years, as audiences hopefully become more and more disenfranchised with the artless pabulum spewed from Hollywood, they will venture into the NYU basement to find a copy of Order. Americans then will be shocked, disgusted, and dazzled. While the film adheres to the same order that Dracul raves against at the last, the order is necessary to make Roka's blood-drenched and deliberately over-sized vision of history, ideals, ambition, and cultural conflict available, if not palatable, for digestion. It is a testament to Roka's hopes for the film that he needed both the camera and the proscenium to encapsulate his anti-war designs. Considering the current global circumstances, so savagely ludicrous with a future so unviewable, that alone makes this film such a feat.

Tobias Seamonís fiction and poetry have appeared at 3rd Bed, The Absinthe Review, The Adirondack Review, Cutbank, McSweeney's, The Melic Review, The Paumanok Review, and Poor Mojo's Almanck, with work forthcoming at The Blue Moon Review, Eyeshot, and the Salt River Review.

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