There’s a high standard to meet “The Greatest Film of All Time.” Though it’s sometimes not #1 on lists, Sansho the Bailiff has been called “The Greatest Film of All Time,” “Perfect” and many other things and when it’s not considered the single greatest, it’s often on a very short list. It’s even harder for a film from 1954 to live up to that designation in 2021. And, honestly, I wish I had never known that people felt that way. Because, inevitably, no film is going to live up to such an honour for at least some people (if not most people).
This is a bleak movie, like a Greek Tragedy but without the obvious moral. (That gives you some idea of the bleakness.) It’s the kind of thing that few English-language films of the time would have even attempted. (Any English-language films? I doubt it.)
The film is subtly extremely artful. It is well shot and there are some really long takes that would really impress in a showier film but here you almost don’t even notice them. That’s a real skill and one that is perhaps a little lost in our day and age. (I feel like every current movie with really long takes becomes “a movie with long takes” if you know what I mean.) It is undoubtedly, extremely well made, especially given the standards of the time.
Of course, as this is a Japanese film there is the issue of traditional Japanese acting, which often dates rather poorly. There are certainly far worse examples, but there are moments where the emoting is a little much. (And, again, I’d like to emphasize, there are far worse examples from the ’50s and especially earlier.)
I have seen well over 4,000 films at this point and this one doesn’t rank in the Top 100 (or whatever) for me. Maybe that’s because I watched it at home, instead of in a theatre where I’d have fewer distractions. Maybe that’s because of my mood. maybe that’s because of something else. But maybe it’s the film. Is this tragedy really the greatest movie ever made? I can’t tell you it’s “perfect” because I not only don’t believe in “perfect” films but I can absolutely find shots in it to take out. (I don’t think it’s necessary, but I am just making the point in reaction to people claiming this film is perfect.)
It’s an impressive accomplishment artistically and there were few people making films like this in the 1950s. (There are fewer people making films like this now.) But I don’t think I’ll be haunted by it like so many others have been. And I frankly like other films from even 1954 more than this one.