The Colbert Report has an occasional segment called “Cheating Death,” which is introduced by the image of Stephen facing the hooded figure of Death over a chessboard. It’s one of many pop-culture tributes over the past half-century — a Woody Allen short-story parody, the Van Halen song “The Seventh Seal,” whole segments of Monty Python and the Holy Grail — to Ingmar Bergman’s medieval morality play. With this grand pageant of a knight (Max von Sydow) who plays chess with Death (Bengt Ekerot), putting his soul on the line to save a few lives during a season of plague, Bergman proclaimed his huge ambition and cinematic mastery. Its influence was immediate and extraordinary: intelligent youngsters in Europe and America saw it and, transfixed like Saul on the road to Tarsus, instantly recognized the difference between the movies they’d been raised on and the films that were worth admiration and scholarly study. For better or worse, The Seventh Seal helped spawn a generation of film critics, as well as the serious film culture that prevailed until Jaws and Star Wars re-established movies as playthings for sophisticated children. Beyond that, it’s a brilliant thesis on life and death, love and fear, morality and mortality. Or so says one of those kids who saw the picture as a teenager and can still feel the first shiver of its greatness.
Next They Live by Night