This is the story of a war fought in China some two thousand years ago. A dynasty is falling apart; the country is divided between princes competing for survival. Massive armies, scarring the land, are moving toward the Red Cliffs. Many historical dramas concern the unification of China, or the world; we are interested in this one, because it teaches disunion. Men withstood empire, fought for themselves & their own, & became heroes. This was the end of the last Han dynasty & the return of warfare & intrigue between princes & courts.
Cao Cao is the man who drives this great motion. He has unified the Chinese heartland, the Northern plain. He has destroyed many princes. He has executed his enemies at the imperial court. He has assumed control over the emperor. Now he is preparing to wage war in the South, to reunite the Han empire. He is moving to the Yangtze, chasing Liu Bei.
Liu Bei first appears as a defeated man, his political brilliance dimmed. He has taken his armies & people into exile, but is caught by Cao Cao & defeated again. His captains save his heir & cover his retreat. We notice he calls his men brothers & takes up the lowliest work, fashioning sandals out of straw, an exile’s habit. He seems a coward; Cao Cao cannot understand why heroes would be ruled by him, because he cannot see great honor.
Sun Quan is the last undefeated prince. His advisor brings to him the strategist of Liu Bei, Zhuge Liang. We see their debate & alliance. John Woo shows us what we did not see in the first court scene, dominated by Cao Cao, who scares away a little bird, the weak emperor’s only joy.
Sun Quan is the one who calls for an alliance, but the needier Zhuge Liang must make polite requests. He dusts himself off & accepts the humiliating remarks about Liu Bei’s defeats. This is necessary. The greatness of Liu Bei starts from his many defeats & his surviving them, along with his captains. The strategist concludes from this defeat that Sun Quan is under attack. If he will fight Cao Cao, he must prepare for war, & accept the service of the exiles.
The courtiers are, as always, realists. They advise appeasement. Zhuge: Cowards do well to surrender – the sooner the better. Sun: Why then does not Liu surrender? Zhuge: Surrendering is a matter of virtue. Victory & defeat come in war, but cowering before tyrants is shameful. The courtiers laugh dismissively, but Sun knows he is greater than Liu Bei, so he must fight. He will not sue for peace, but make his own by his arms.
The most beautiful war drama of recent times. John Woo‘s masterpiece. A must-see for men.