The Legend of 1900

After delighting audiences worldwide with the Oscar-winning Cinema Paradiso (1988), director Giuseppe Tornatore is cast adrift in a sea of Europudding with his latest effort. A bit of goodwill carried over from the earlier film may allow The Legend of 1900 to coast for a while; unfortunately this good-looking but flawed production eventually wears out its welcome.

The story sounds intriguing. A baby is abandoned aboard a luxury liner which shuttles across the Atlantic in the early 20th century. A stoker in the engine room (Bill Nunn) adopts him. Kept on board to protect him from landing in an orphanage, the boy grows up in the bowels of the ship, depicted in some handsome shots from cinematographer Lajos Koltai. We next see the boy, named 1900 to match his birthdate, discover an innate genius at piano playing, a genius so amazing that the captain of the ship is awakened in the middle of the night to hear this young Mozartean prodigy (who sounds more like Richard Claydermann). This premise is one of several that are constantly being pushed in the audience`s face. As if fearful the image didn`t convey it, the characters shout every five minutes, literally: Hey! This is a really amazing story! Hey! this guy is really a genius. If it`s all so wonderful, we should be left to reach this conclusion ourselves; any attempt to build an affection for the story or the characters is spoiled.

The grown-up 1900 (Tim Roth, who gets to give the best performance because his lines in the embarrassing script are so few) now has a reputation as a musician which goes beyond the ship. Yet he never goes ashore. Earlier, as a child with no papers, it was logical that he couldn�t get past customs. But the years roll on, and only once among the many passengers does he encounter a Girl (Melanie Thierry) pretty enough to turn his head. He considers going ashore to meet her, but makes it only half way down the gangplank.

The lures of fame and commercial success don�t seem to impress him much either. A record executive cuts a test record on ship, which 1900 promptly destroys because his music was intended for the Girl only. He does rise to the challenge of a shipboard duel with Jelly Roll Morton, (Clarence Williams III hamming it up) and here, for once, the music works well with the story. The credits indicate that original Morton recordings are used, as opposed to the Morricone compositions through much of the film which recall 1970s European soft-core porn (e.g. Emmanuelle) soundtracks.

Max (Pruitt Taylor Vince), a trumpet player, has been telling the story in flashbacks, but loses track of 1900 after leaving the ship. Down on his luck at the end of World War II, Max discovers 1900’s one and only recording in a pawn shop and suddenly has the urge to seek out his friend, certain that he is still aboard the ship, which is now a rusted hulk waiting to be scuttled. He tries to lure 1900 ashore, but 1900 says he is incapable of dealing with the vastness of a city and what lies beyond. Max respects his choice to remain aboard and die, which seems more pointless than heroic. We could be spared much of the film�s absurd plot if the lead had sought counseling for agoraphobia during an earlier reel.

Despite Koltai�s beautiful photography, marred by radical cuts (the version shown in German release was cut forty minutes), a more serious mistake was made in shooting this film in English. Remnants of the original story, an Italian theatrical monologue, 1900 by Alessandro Barrico, are apparent, but Tornatore is obviously winging it with the awkward English supporting dialogue, such as that in the early scenes when the stokers in the engine room use ludicrous amounts of ungrammatical profanity. Strange accents creep up everywhere, including a New York reporter obviously being played by a Ukrainian on the budget-saving docks of Odessa.

If The Legend of 1900 is even moderately successful in its first run internationally, which doesn�t seem likely, a restored version might do this production more justice.

– Tim Cassidy