The Legend of 1900 Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1999

I was born on this ship and the whole world passed me by... a thousand people at a time.

Tim Roth

"The Legend of 1900" is the latest masterpiece from acclaimed director Giuseppe Tornatore, the man behind the Oscar-winning "Cinema Paradiso", marking his return to film-making after a four year absence (his last film was 1995's "The Star Maker"). Based on the novel by Alessandro Baricco, "The Legend of 1900" is not only Tornatore's first English-language film, but it is probably his most ambitious film to date, a five-decade epic that takes place aboard the confines of a cruise ship. Unfortunately, like his breakthrough "Cinema Paradiso", North American studio executives have once again (Miramax with "Cinema Paradiso", and Fine Line with his latest) meddled with Tornatore's cut of the film, and shrunk the original 160 minute running time of the Italian version down to just a little over two hours. And though the film is still a remarkable achievement despite the re-editing, it is readily apparent that the emotional resonance of the story has taken a hit in the interest of brevity.

I found him on the first month of the first year of this friggin' new century... so I calls 'im '1900'!

Pruitt Taylor Vince and Peter Vaughan

The story is told through the reminiscences of a soon-to-be-retired trumpet player named Max (Pruitt Taylor Vince of "Heavy"), who was the closest and only friend to a long-forgotten piano virtuoso named Danny Boodman T.D. Lemon 1900, or 1900 for short. It begins in the year 1900, when an engine room worker (Bill Nunn of "He Got Game") finds an abandoned baby on board the luxury liner The Virginian. He names the child after the year, and decides to adopt him as his own. Over the years, the child grows up and develops an uncanny ear for music and a remarkable talent for playing the piano. By the time 1900 reaches his twenties (played by Tim Roth of "Pulp Fiction"), he has become a permanent fixture aboard the ship, charming audiences with music 'that's never been heard before'. As word of his talent spreads, he soon attracts the attention of record producers, publicists, and even Jelly Roll Morton (Clarence Williams III of "The General's Daughter"), the father of Jazz, who wants to challenge the prodigy to a piano duel.

I've been hearing a lot of talk about a guy... he's supposed to have been born on this ship, and never been off it since.

However, despite being on the verge of fame and fortune, 1900 lives a lonely existence, having never set foot off the ship throughout his life. Each roundtrip of The Virginian between Italy and New York brings thousands of new faces into 1900's world, but it is only temporary, as they all eventually disembark to start life anew in America, leaving the piano player behind. Despite the calls of fame, fortune, or even the affections of a young woman (Melanie Thierry), 1900 steadfastly remains on board the ship, too frightened of the possibilities and new experiences that await him on dry land. 1900 was born on the ship, and it seems that is where he will die.

Leave this ship, marry a nice woman, and have children... all those things in life that are not immense, but are worth the effort.

Despite the historical trappings, "The Legend of 1900" is by no means a true historical account of actual events (other than Jelly Roll Morton, who was a real person). Instead, Tornatore has crafted an allegorical film that is a part-fairy tale, part-tragedy, and nonetheless inspiring. Through the character of 1900, Tornatore explores the immigrant experience, the fear of change within all of us, and how some of us find the courage to overcome such fears. Sentimental without becoming schmaltzy, this is a story told in the Tornatore tradition that explores the simple emotions of day-to-day experience. With the addition of Ennio Morricone's masterful score, this is a film that, despite its flaws (including an episodic narrative structure and spots of laggard pacing), manages to entertain the senses and warm the heart.

They say this guy makes music that's never been heard before.

Roth and Melanie Thierry

Part of why this film works so well is because of its main character. Roth excels in his portrayal of 1900, a man who commands the ebony and ivory yet shies away from what he does not understand. Played with both resolve and panache, 1900 is an enigmatic and charismatic character that audiences can easily warm up to and identify with. Vince, whose character never veers to far from fulfilling the role of narrator and sounding board for 1900, fills his role admirably, though it would have been nice if we had been given more background on an otherwise throwaway character. Finally, Clarence Williams III does a memorable turn as Jazz great Jelly Roll Morton in the film's highlight sequence where the two musicians square off against one another to find out who is the best.

With "The Legend of 1900", Tornatore has prepared a sumptuous cinematic feast with an engaging story about an enigmatic character, told in a whimsical yet poignant manner. Though it may not have the emotional intensity of some of Tornatore's earlier films and suffers from having over half-an-hour left on the cutting-room floor, "The Legend of 1900" is still definitely worth a look.

Images courtesy of Fine Line Features. All rights reserved.


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