Twenty minutes into The Journey (1959), I found myself rather surprised I hadn’t heard of it. With its unique backdrop, excellent performances, and engrossing plot, it’s a stirring, overlooked gem full of intrigue and drama.
Set during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the story involves a group of foreigners stranded in Budapest when violence erupts between the Russian military and the Hungarian resistance. Among these travelers is Diana Ashmore (Deborah Kerr), a British woman assisting an ill countryman, Henry Flemyng (Jason Robards), back to London. Or that’s how they’re presenting, anyway…in fact, Flemyng is a wounded Hungarian rebel whom Diana is attempting to rescue after his release from a long and brutal prison term. Unfortunately for Diana, she and Flemyng are put on a bus with an international group which happens to include an acquaintance, Hugh Deverill (Robert Morley). Deverill gradually deduces that Diana is dissembling, which complicates her cover when the party is waylaid by a suspicious Russian major named Surov (Yul Brynner). He sequesters the travelers in a hotel on a bureaucratic pretext, and slowly starts to put the pieces together. But Surov, who initially comes across like an officious, duty-bound servant of the Soviet state, turns out to have a more complex agenda, putting Diana’s play-acting skills to the test.
The Journey benefits from a striking technicolor look, convincing eastern European location work, and a subtle, intriguing plot involving amateur spies facing dire circumstances. But first and foremost it’s a powerful showcase for actors. Kerr is exquisite as the desperate Diana, and there’s quality support from Robards, Morley, E.G. Marshall, and Anne Jackson, among others. But best is Brynner, whose Surov is the focus of the film’s penetrating central character study. Surov’s outward bluster and confidence conceals an inner conflict and torment that Brynner, as the film progresses, performs expertly. While his hidden agenda leads to some squicky moments of gender dynamics between the leads, the relationship between them is ultimately quite poignant, bolstered by the performers’ clear chemistry.
I also appreciated the fraught backdrop of the Hungarian Revolution, an under-explored setting of oppression and resistance that resonates strongly against the world’s current political troubles. In particular, a fiercely delivered monologue from Robards late in the film really got under my skin.
The things you do to weaken us only give us strength to survive, and anger. Yes, anger. Deep, dark anger. Anger that used to be love, until you and your kind made it curdle and turned it into hate. That’s the one thing I’ll never forgive you for: making us hate!
These words, sadly, are as relevant now as when they were written, and their ultimate effect on the plot infuses a dark and tragic tale with an inspiring kernel of hope.