A BRITISH INVASION OF AN AMERICAN
by Gil Dawson
published December 19, 2007
Hands Across The Sea
distributed by Kultur International
Color; 84 minutes
Nestled in an expansive English countryside
along the banks of the Glyme river just a few miles northwest of Oxford sits Britain's greatest palace, the majestic Blenheim Palace, the
ancestral home of the Duke of Marlborough and the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill. Designated
today a World Heritage Site for its stunning architecture and cultural heritage,
Blenheim Palace and its surrounding Blenheim Park are open to visitors from mid-February to early December. It is in this setting, although apparently on a day without visitors, that over a hundred young men of the
Grenadier Guards gathered to play John Philip Sousa marches and march, dressed in the finest red and gold uniforms and black bearskin hats, up
and down the square.
Twenty-six Sousa Marches, including his
very familiar Semper Fidelis, El Capitan and The Washington Post, and, of course, America's favorite Stars and
Stripes Forever, plus a deliciously formal fanfare and two bugle calls, are performed in the splendor and pomp of the courtyard and halls
of this grand old palace. To an American ear, the 112 beat-per-minute tempo of the British
marching band seems at first a little ponderous when compared with the American standard 132 beats per minute. But what the Brits might lack in sheer pace is more than made up in precision and splendor. These guys have removed the furious obsessive-compulsive anxiety of military music and replaced it with a
steady determination to perform flawlessly yet easily the timeless mathematical beauty of Sousa marches and close-order drill.
Technically, the film is
outstanding. Lighting, sound and editing are all first-rate. We rarely see a microphone and never a camera. Of particular
note is the feeling that, when the camera is close up on someone's face or fingers, the sound that he is making is the same as the sound that
we are hearing. Although the liner notes make no mention of it, getting all the footage for the
exciting closeups of the players and marchers may well have taken place over many days, possibly with multiple takes, yet the editing is so
precise that -- most of the time -- every finger, foot and embouchre matches the sound we hear.
The effect is thrilling.
During most of the film we do not see any
audience, giving the effect that the Grenadiers are alone in this huge palace. These handsome
young men have gathered in their grand uniforms to play and march together because they enjoy performing their art. This is borne out in the closeups of their faces, when we get to see the stoic Britsh aplomb, with the
half-lidded eyes, slightly raised eyebrows and slightly furrowed foreheads of young men without the slightest trace of anxiety proudly
performing an ancient ritual of their heritage.
This is a side of England we tourists
rarely see. The film is intercut with footage of various compatible scenes, among them scenes of
young soldiers in training. Although the exercises seem at first familiar, one realizes that this
is not the military training of our country, but another country's soldiers. The fields they run
about on are greener, and their field packs are worn lower. The individual men seem more people
than soldiers. In one shot, a young man slips, and his drill sergeant helps him get
up. That seems somehow foreign, as does the touching comeraderie of men waiting in
line. The notion that these people could one day be our enemies in war, as they have done
centuries ago, is both chilling and preposterous.
This film is not for
everybody. It has no plot, and, except for some accidental footage triggering the occasional
political observation, no point. It is a celebration of military marching band music performed
excruciatingly well in a grandly beautiful historic setting. It is gloriously Anglophilic and
celebratory. For those of us who sometimes weep when the band marches by, or who complain when
advertisements obliterate the half-time show, Hands Across the Sea is a sumptuous treat, a bit
like a whole tray of scones with strawberry jam and clotted cream all at once.
gildawson @ stageandcinema.com