Directed by: #DougNichols
The Last Captain is a #documentary by Doug Nichols that tells the story of legendary Hungarian fencer and coach, George Peller. The story of Peller, born at the end of the 19th century covers a fascinating period of history with him bearing witness to some incredibly important events and all the while maintaining his passion and talent for fencing.
Told mainly through photographs and talking heads the film's story unfolds through a myriad of different sources; sporting champions, Hungarian officials, military officers all contribute to the life of this man. It’s an impressive collection of people and shows that Peller was born at a time when many different traditions and world events were coinciding and developing; the world is changing, technology is advancing and fencing (primarily a military tradition in Hungary) along with it. Peller who has just as many war stories as fencing victories comes across as a clearly brave and talented man, who would soon go on to lead the Hungarian team as a coach. Under his tutelage and development of modern techniques Hungary became a world champion team and the nation to beat at the Olympics.
In recent years there have been some truly great documentaries. Asif Kapadia has demonstrated how to get under the skin of a subject with Amy and, with Senna, made a story about Formula 1 accessible and enjoyable to those who knew nothing of the sport. The Last Captain has many awe-inspiring stories of Peller charging from the trenches armed only with his saber, but the film does not deliver any coherent picture of this man. Instead, we hear a lot about how he changed the sport, but to most audience members the subject matter is niche and no effort is used to make it accessible. Similarly, it seems the questions are geared more to the lives of the interviewees rather than to the film's subject.
We end up with a lot of stories about what it was like living in Hungary at the time from people who happened to know George Peller rather than what it was like to live and work in Hungary with George Peller.
The film opens and closes on an American student of Peller's Charles Senburg. He has little to do with the story, only appearing at the top and tail, and yet this framing twists the story to be about Peller's impact on American fencing. Senburg describes Peller in three ways, but none of these are made clear to the audience throughout the film's course. Instead of following a three-act setup, the film is told in about twenty different sections that don't cohere or connect and, again, make Peller appear more like a collection of facts tagged on to a history lesson.
The stories of George Peller are fascinating and inspiring, especially that a man could climb so high while his world imploded around him. The story of The Last Captain, however, is messy and unclear, and structurally feels strange that an emphasis is put on his time in the States when he only spent three of his sixty years there and the film only needs ten minutes to cover it.
Taken as a collection of scenes the film delivers some fascinating anecdotes and the people who tell them are clearly in awe of this man. However, as an audience member, George Peller, compared to subjects in a Kapadia film, remains an elusive figure and the changes he made to his sport unclear.