There's something about old films that you simply don't see anymore. Perhaps it's the ability to take their sweet time telling a story, never feeling the need to constantly do something drastic to keep the audience entertained. Perhaps it's the fact that they're usually highly optimistic. Whenever a couple young lovers get together in contemporary films, there's unnecessary, predictable, and eminent conflict or drama that comes between them. In old films like 'Stars and Stripes Forever,' this simply isn't the case. The road to "happily ever after" is paved with positivity and ideal perfection. Perhaps it's the combination of these things (and more) that make the old classics refreshing and still worth revisiting.
'Stars and 'Stripes Forever' is the musical bio-pic of world famous band leader and composer John Philip Sousa. It's a musical in the same way that 'Mr. Holland's Opus' is a musical, not in the traditional song-and-dance manner of 'Singin' in the Rain' and other traditional "musicals." In 1890, the government took notice of John Philip Sousa's Marine Corp. band and placed him at the helm of the first government-sanctioned civilian marching band. Once established, they toured the world and Sousa wrote some of his very best music, anthems that we still hear today.
Everything in the film regarding Sousa himself is said to be completely accurate. The only fictionalized material comes from the two young lovers that become part of Sousa's road show. Early in the film, Sousa meets a young admiring soldier who wants to join the band. He's charming, delightful and opens up the film to an audience much younger than that Sousa because of the age difference and progressive behavior. As he falls for a singer / dancer, the prospect of a new flourishing love creates a romance that opens the doors to an even wider audience than those expecting to see a marching band leader's biography.
Call me ignorant, but I haven't a clue as to who wrote the famous marching band songs that we hear today, let alone the titles of the songs themselves. For me, watching 'Stars and Stripes Forever' was an educational experience. Previously, whenever I heard the "Washington Post March," I thought of Mayor Goldie Wilson's re-election campaign music in 'Back to the Future.' Now, more than being just a reference to '80s pop culture, I know the story behind the march and the man who wrote it.
Another fun educational benefit from watching this 1952 film is that it firmly establishes the societal morals and values for the period in which it was set – the late 1800s. In one scene, Sousa and his young friend spend a night on the town. They end up in a playhouse where the woman onstage don't show skin, but wear skin-tight clothes that reveal their curves. The police bust in a raid the joint when the content of their sketches is deemed "indecent." There are many strange societal observations, but oddest of them depicts intimacy in a wild light. When the lovers kiss for the first time, the girl slaps the boy and huffs off. When talking with an admired "lady," she reveals how awful she feels for enjoying the kiss – as if women in 1890 weren't allowed to / supposed to enjoy kissing. The conversation that takes place between the two is quite interesting and will likely make you bless your lucky stars that you weren't around in that period.
The most comical era-related aspect of the way the film was made is the way that 1890s are made to look design-wise through the eyes of 1950s filmmakers. When you watch old movies that take place in the future, no matter how futuristic they try to make their sets look, they still appear to be from the era in which they were made. The same goes for 'Star and Stripes Forever' in the way that they design the 1890s. Aside from the actual artifacts from the 1890s, everything appears to be from the 1950s. At first, I was slightly confused as to which period it was set. They kept referring to it as the '90s, but that simply didn't make and sense since it didn't look like 1890 and knew they hadn't set the historical story in the future.
As we get to the end of the film, the filmmakers take a little liberty in adjusting the order of events to give it a pro-war patriotic moral. Instead of ending the film with Sousa's debut of the title track "Stars and Stripes Forever" in 1897 – which is historically accurate – they tweak its debut to take place at a charity concert for wounded soldiers returning from the Spanish-American War in Cuba in 1898. This small change gives the film a patriotic ending worthy of its overall pro-America content and tone.
If you've never seen 'Stars and Stripes Forever,' it's an older American film that deserves to be seen. It doesn't quite qualify as a classic, but it's certainly worth making time to see.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
20th Century Fox has remastered 'Stars and Stripes Forever' and placed it on a Region A BD-50 in a two-disc eco-friendly blue keepcase. The second disc that accompanies the Blu-ray is a DVD version of the film. Within the keepcase is a glossy 14-page booklet with photos and ads from the promotional campaign as well as text praising the cast and filmmakers. The blue keepcase slides horizontally into a slick and thick classy side-sliding glossy and textured cardboard slipcase. Upon inserting the Blu-ray into your player, a skippable firmware disclaimer and forced FBI warnings and Fox vanity reels run before taking you to the menu.
'Stars and Stripes Forever' hits Blu-ray with an astounding 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. With movies this old, you often hear the transfer looks great "for a 59-year-old film," but here, this transfer is simply amazing – 59-years-old or not.
The moment the main feature began, I had to look at the case to check the film's release year because it looked so good. No other 59-year-old thing is supposed to look this good. The print used for this transfer must have been tightly sealed away and protected because it's 100 percent clean. There isn't a single speck, scratch or sign of dirt. You can't help but notice this from the first frames, as well as how three-dimensional the image looks and how brilliant the colors are. With its patriotic themes, the reds and blues vibrantly pop while the whites shine brightly.
Being the old film that it is, 'Stars and Stripes Forever' features a small amount of grain, but never any compression-caused digital noise. The vast majority of the shots are rich in details that rarely exist in aged color films – facial pores, individual strands of hair and the texture of fabric clothing. Few and far between are the shots that don't feature such clarity. And even then, those shots aren't bad enough to distract or take away from the film. With tightly-wound patterns frequently appearing on screen, aliasing should be an issue, yet it never is.
The black levels are the only inconsistent issue, at times rich and revealing great details within, other time clipping and chewing up any and all textures that lie within them. The contrast is spot-on with the exception of one daytime outdoor scene where the levels are thrown off to the left, causing whites to appear gray and blacks to be overpowering. Touch-up elements like edge enhancement and DNR are completely absent, making this one pristine classic film with very high video quality.
The argument whether a mono track should be remixed to stereo or not is an issue for another day, but considering that music plays an active character in 'Stars and Stripes Forever,' this is one title that truly could have benefited from it. Only one English listening option is available – Mono DTS-HD Master Audio.
Just like the video quality, the audio is perfectly clean. There's isn't a single instance of crackling or popping. The only real problem stems from the vocal audio being considerably lower in volume than that of the music. After the grand musical intro to the film, you'll need to turn the audio up to hear the dialog and narration well. This problem only exists when music and vocals do not overlap. When they do overlap, the music volume is quickly lowered as to not step on the vocals.
It's truly a shame having to hear all of the audio from the center speaker only. You might as well turn your receiver off and crank up the television. The purpose of this film is to give you a higher appreciation for the music of John Philip Sousa, the iconic marching music that deserves to be heard in the best possible format - yet the mono audio doesn't convey the grand scale of it at all. As is, the music is flat and lifeless. Some argue that converting the mono to stereo would ruin the integrity of the film, but if the movie itself could be shot in black & white and technicolor-converted to color in order to make it look better, then why can't we justify mixing the audio to surround just to make it sound better?
All of the video special features are in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, but crunched down to fit the 1.37:1 screen size of the film, causing each non-1.37:1 special feature to look annoyingly slim and distorted. The audio hisses and crackles incessantly, which you'd think wouldn't be a problem since it's not a problem in the film itself. While the content of these features is very interesting, their presentation makes them almost unwatchable.
'Stars and Stripes Forever' isn't the best or most iconic film from the '50s, basically being a standard film you'd see on Turner Classic Movies, but it's worthy of watching. The story is interesting, educational, and fun. When you're not learning about iconic American music, you're either enjoying a delightful assortment of characters or you're laughing at how prudish society used to be in regards to romance and relationships. The picture quality is above and beyond what anyone would expect from a 59-year-old film. If only the same amount of quality-enhancing love had been given to audio. While the mono Master Audio track is lossless, considering how important Sousa's grand music is to the film, a stereo or surround conversion of the audio really would have helped and enhanced the Blu-ray experience. If you love classic films (especially the ones with strong Blu-ray transfers), then 'Stars and Stripes Forever' is a must-own for your collection.