At one time an import as portentously inert as "Max Havelaar," the Dutch epic now at the K-B MacArthur, might have been dismissed as a crashing bore with near unanimity. Arriving between "Days of Heaven" and "The Deer Hunter," it seems to be right in the fashion: a production that reflects epic aspirations but lacks epic narrative skills.
The movie is reputed to be the most lavish production ever undertaken by a Dutch film company. Most of it was shot on location in Java, which appears a marvelously fresh, evocative setting until the storytelling doldrums settle in to stay.
The source is a Dutch literary classic of the 19th century, by Eduard Douwes Dekker. Writing under the pseudonym "Multatuli," Dekker evidently based the character of Have-laar -- an idealistic official frustrated by the corrupt colonial system of rule -- on his own experiences as an administrator in the Dutch East Indies.
The outline of a potentially stirring polemical saga is clear enougb. Unfor tunately, the "Max Havelaar" that emerges on the screen seems one-dimensional, starved for dramatic incidents and momentum. After arousing interest with the opening vistas of Java, a well-staged sermon at an Amsterdam church where the pastor expresses the conventional homefront enthusiasm for foreign missions and trade and Peter Faber's vigorous first appearances as the hero, the movie stiffens up and never makes a recovery.
Director Fons Rademakers and screenwriter Gerard Soeteman never quite get their continuity straight. The movie begins with a prologue establishing a sub-plot about the plight of Javanese peasants who later will encounter the hero. Then it shifts to Amsterdam in 1860, after Havelaar has returned from the East Indies to write polemical essays, and then backtracks to his period of service in the 1850s. Events remain confused, as one sequence appears to depict Havelaar and his family headed to the East Indies for the first time and then we learn that he's been there for some time.
The more fundamental problem is the collapse of both Havelaar's character and the story once the hero is finally located in Lebak. The apparently astute, intrepid diplomat suddenly degenerates into the most ineffectual of do-gooders, ready to pack it in as soon as he fails in his first tentative efforts to reform the wily old regent, wittily embodied by a performer with the imposing name of Elang Mohamad Adenan Soesilaningrat.
Although Rademakers lamely invokes the subplot every so often, the movie continues on a single dead-end expository track. Foiled by the regent in Round One, the hero falls apart and comforts himself by hurling deprecations at an unjust Creation.
Rademakers, now 58, has had considerable experience. Before starting to direct 20 years ago he served a long apprenticeship with such filmmakers as Federico Fellini, Vittorio DeSica, Jacques Becker and David Lean. The Lean influence seems especially apparent in his spacious, overly formal style of composition. Unfortunately, "Max Havelaar" seems to continue the Lean epic in its most depleted, enervating form; it recalls the static pictorialism of "Ryan's Daughter" rather than the adventure saga of "Bridge on the River Kwai."
Struggling to maintain consciousness through the last two hours of this epic, one may regret ever finding fault with the exposition of movies like "Hawaii," which seemed shallow but were still historically suggestive and packed with episodes. Before seeing "Max Havelaar" I was vaguely hoping for something as impressive as Jan Troell's "The Emigrants" and "The New Land." In short order I would have traded it in for what used to seem the longest, dreariest viewing experiences of one's life. Where's "The Alamo" when we really need it?