To see the gorgeous-looking reissue of "Fanfan la Tulipe" is to go back in time twice over: to the film's 18th century French setting and to the simpler international cinema world of more than half a century ago when this genial action farce was initially released.
A winner of the best director award at Cannes in 1952 for filmmaker Christian-Jaque and so popular around the world it was sold to some 50 countries, then a record for a French production, "Fanfan" is the type of conventional crowd pleaser that rarely gets reissued.
Called a "Louis XV western" by Pauline Kael, this is an example of the kind of handsome mainstream French costume drama that the New Wave directors rebelled against. Starring the go-to couple of Gérard Philipe and Gina Lollobrigida, it features duels, chases and low-cut costumes, all in glorious black and white.
It also has, courtesy of a voice-over narration read by the Comédie-Française's smooth Jean Debucourt, a bit of a tart antiwar message. When the narrator says of a particular European conflict, "his majesty's soldiers found the war so pleasant they made it last for seven years," you can see where its sympathies lie.
Though the Italian Lollobrigida is fetching enough in custom-tailored peasant outfits that no one minded that her voice was dubbed into French, it is her costar, little known in this country though close to legendary in France, who takes the prize.
That would be Philipe, who was on the eve of only his 37th birthday when liver cancer killed him in 1959. A supremely handsome actor, he was a standout in classical theater as well as a major film star through appearances in films like "Devil in the Flesh," "La Ronde" and "Les Liaisons Dangereuses."
Here Philipe plays Fanfan, a self-assured rogue and seducer who is headed for the 18th century equivalent of a shotgun wedding to a farmer's daughter when a gorgeous fortuneteller named Adeline (Lollobrigida) suggests a different future: The king's daughter will fall in love with him.
Fanfan flees the wedding and joins the army, where he discovers that Adeline is a recruiting sergeant's daughter who will tell young men anything to get them to sign up. That doesn't stop Fanfan from delusionally fixating on this bogus prophecy, and when he just happens to save Princess Henrietta from brigands, he is sure that love with her is in the offing.
Of course, things don't work out quite that way, and, frankly, "Fanfan" is at its best when its title character stops talking long enough to engage in the film's numerous well-choreographed action set pieces.
With Philipe apparently doing a lot of his own stunts, "Fanfan" is replete with heroic leaps, speedy horse rides, occasional explosions and clashing sabers. If this all sounds like a 1950s version of "Pirates of the Caribbean," that may not be such a bad comparison.
'Fanfan la Tulipe'
MPAA rating: Unrated
A Rialto Pictures release. Director Christian-Jaque. Screenplay René Wheeler, René Fallet, Henri Jeanson, Christian-Jaque. Director of photography Christian Matras. Editor Jacques Desagneaux.
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.
Exclusively at Landmark's Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A. (310) 281-8223.