Whenever cinema portrays historical warfare, character tends to get brushed aside in favor of massive battle scenes. Faceless cannon fodder explodes in smoky fusilades, arrows rain down on digitized shields piercing the same extra twelve different ways, swords clash and ring as sweaty bearded He-men exchange grunts and leathered headbutts. While this can be incredibly entertaining, it can feel a little empty. It’s staged like a History Channel documentary — you know, back when they still did that sort of thing — only with blood and amputation levels dependent upon the rating. Occasionally, we’ll see one of the generals or captains in the midst of battle, either frowning and bellowing orders, or taking out everyone around him in a heroic frenzy. It’s awesome to behold, but you don’t feel anything for anyone. It begins to resemble a videogame, or a massive multi-dimensional board game.
With Red Cliff, John Woo was able to embrace the emptiness and gently layer it with character without ever reducing the size or scope of his epic battle scenes. Red Cliff tells the story of a single pivotal battle in the historic Three Kingdoms period of early China. With an $80 million dollar price tag, it’s the largest film that’s ever been created in China, and it shows. It is a tremendous, enormous, gargantuan film that never once feels bloated or lethargic. Woo’s battle scenes work on at least four levels at all times, creating some of the most violently beautiful warfare ever captured on film. But it’s between the battles that Woo infuses the smaller scenes with humor, pathos, and intensity that make the film outstanding. He doesn’t just create characters; he literally breathes life into legends. And while my ignorant ass had trouble keeping the names straight, you don’t forget the characters. Sure, at times, the dialogue feels a little too proclamatory, but these mouths are where proclamations were born. Some of these men are still worshiped as gods in China today. For the epic scope of the battle scenes alone, Woo created one of the greatest war movies to date, but with his careful and wonderful portrayal of the legends of the Three Kingdoms, he generated a masterpiece.
Frankly, I could make an attempt to explain to you the different names of the various generals and counselors, but it doesn’t matter. Either you already know about the Three Kingdoms from novels or the same videogames that I’ve been playing (and I’m going to look the fool for oversimplifying), or you’ve got no idea what the hell I’m taking about and will get overwhelmed with the multitudes of Zhou’s, Liu’s, and Yu’s. But you require absolutely no prior knowledge of the Han Dynasty to appreciate a single minute of this film, because it’s a very basic and familiar story that’s extremely easy to follow.
Here’s the five minute rundown: Emperor Xian is trying to quell rebellions by three different factions: Liu Bei in the north and Sun Quan and Zhou Yu in the south. The Emperor has a dynamic warlord, Chancellor Cao Cao. Cao Cao is battling with Liu Bei, pushing his men back. Liu Bei and his epic generals hold off the advances — sometimes in single combat against a multitude of warriors — while the peasants flee. Liu Bei’s wise advisor Zhuge Liang, decides to go and elicit the help of the other two factions to battle the forces of Cao Cao. Zhuge Liang is a wily fox, and he uses his slick wit to enlist the forces of the brash, arrogant Sun Quan and noble, honorable Zhou Yu. So now you have an uneasy alliance of foes against the greater foe of Cao Cao, who advances his forces at ungodly speed by sea and by land to face the enemy at the Battle of Red Cliff.
And that’s the film. For the duration of the two and a half hour international release (the Chinese version was four hours and released in two parts), the forces of Cao Cao battle against the allied forces of Sun Quan, Zhou Yu, and Liu Bei — in both cavalry clashes, naval battles, and fortress assaults. The battles are intense — spears and arrows and swords and shield work. Because they are legendary warriors, there are tons of moments where we watch the generals rip through the military assaults one versus one hundred, which are amazing displays of martial art. A spear gets hurled through a soldier’s back, and the general climbs over him, rips the spear free through the wound in the back, and continues to battle. Blood flies in torrents, but it never feels like gore for gore’s sake. Even more glorious are the actual sieges, done in waves of choreographed defense like a militant dance number. Shields are locked down to create a turtle shell to avoid arrow assaults, or to let a general run up the metal wall like a ramp, or to protect against cavalry so the spearmen can poke out and tear away limbs. Fire becomes a hero in its own right, sending several faceless soldiers to a fiery, melting grave.
While the battles are massive — armadas of ships in the thousands, hundreds of thousands of troops — the politicking is just as impressive. Zhuge Liang’s scheming, the triad’s interdisciplinary maneuvers, and the different strategic tactics are just as illustrious as the sweeping fight scenes. As alliances shifts and armies abandon, the drama and tension ratchet up as if we were watching a period piece. These men aren’t just heroes because they won wars, they’re portrayed in epic grand fashion. The women are just as pivotal, unlike other war films where they tend to get lessened to the usual role of stoic wife or sly courtesan. Sun Quan’s sister is a mole in Cao Cao’s camp, sending messages to Zhuge Liang by way of doves — a sly wink at John Woo’s trademark. Even more poignant is Zhou Yu’s wife Xiao Qiao, a former desired love interest of Cao Cao. While it seems on the basic level like a screaming cliche, the sacrificial wife doing all that it takes to win the war for her husband, the manner in which it is meted out is so spectacular, you’ll be riveted. Wars can be won with a thousand spears or a single cup of tea.
Despite the ginormous running time, there wasn’t a single moment that felt anything less than poetic. Even when it slows down, the film feels more like flowing with a river’s current before hitting the rapids. It’s a beautiful movie and a magnificent achievement in warfare cinema. There are plenty of CGI renderings, but it’s more like watching a painting rather than a computer program. A lot of Woo’s contemporary directors should watch the film because it proves you can actually put a heart in your digital effects and at half the cost. Why it hasn’t garnered more screens in the United States is a testament to our subtly racist refusal to read subtitles. Also, the fact that aside from Tony Leung as Zhou Yu and Takeshi Kaneshiro as Zhuge Liang, there are no recognizable faces in the film, and even those two are a stretch. We’ll pay money to watch a Mustang and a helicopter turn into big ass rockem sockem robots and punch each other in the head to the dulcet metallic strains of Linkin Park, but fuck a Chinese war epic.