Many people have seen this movie, and many say it’s a classic of wartime cinema. There may even be some intersection between the two sets, but if so, it’s small. The North Star is somewhat unique of being an over-the-top Soviet propaganda film that was not made in the USSR, but by Americans in Hollywood.
It starred Dana Andrews, Ann Baxter, Dean Jagger, Walter Huston and Walter Brennan as a variety of adorable Ukrainian peasants (all looking rather well-fed for Stalin-era Ukrainians, and whose characters have rather typical Russian names) and Erich von Stroheim in the bloodthirsty-Nazi role.
After an interminable succession of sequences educating us about the lives of joy and plenty to be had amid the Holodomor, the actual movie finally starts. In it, the peasants rally to the (red) flag and defeat the Nazi juggernaut. Fortunately, they sing a lot less once the actual, interesting part of the movie gets going.
Acting and Production
Most of the acting is self-conscious and clunky, but Huston does well. The real standout performance is Von Stroheim as a Nazi doctor who has put on a veneer of civilization, but it isn’t as deep as his dueling scar. (The university dueling scar was associated with nobility and gentry, and often Prussians, not Nazis, but whatever… seen one Hun, seen ’em all, right?)
We’ve forgotten the name of the guy who played the other Nazi, but he is the go to guy for Hollywood wartime Nazis — at one time or another he stood up in the turret of seemingly every Panzer, commanded every concentration camp, and executed every Allied prisoner to ever get whacked on the silver screen. He was actually an anti-Nazi German actor who escaped barely ahead of the warrant for his arrest, and wound up in Hollywood playing the very guys who persecuted him!
The other actors are all solid performers with many other credits, so you can’t blame them for the way this movie came out. The villain seems to have been scriptwriter Lillian Hellman.
Hellman’s script seems to have been written according to an understanding of the audience as extremely slow, and unable to absorb instruction unless it’s hammered home with the caress of a pile driver — and the persistence of the Rain Man. The dialog only seems to be something a living, breathing human being would say of his or her volition only very occasionally — and then by sheerest happenstance.
The music needs to be mentioned as a warning, if for no other reason. The score is an intrusive chaos by the overrated Aaron Copland, and it gets worse, because there are songs with music by Copland and lyrics by Ira Gershwin. With the balky rhymes Gershwin comes up with, it’s almost as if he expected Sam Goldwyn’s check to bounce. Any of the singing scenes are a great time to use your fast forward button.
As bad as it was despite all the good actors in the cast and its awkward propaganda message, The North Star actually got a second chance at release — in the 1950s, it was recut and new dialogue was added, making the communist propaganda piece into an anti-communist propaganda piece that was nearly as bad. (“Nearly” because the cut version, released as Armored Attack!, lost 30 minutes of pastoral peasant insomnia therapy and a good bit of Copland’s and Gershwin’s auditory assault).
Most prints of this circulating in DVD and whatever are cropped for TV and in lousy condition, but it’s not like the film is a great aesthetic masterpiece. Save yourself a rental and watch it for free at the Internet Archive.
Accuracy and Weapons
If any effort at all was made in the direction of accuracy, it is not evident. One of the more bizarre (and gruesome) Hollywood inventions was the Nazis killing Soviet kids by transfusing their blood direct into wounded German soldiers — until the kids are dead. This over-the-top atrocity is hard to swallow, even knowing what we know now about extermination camps and Dr Mengele’s twin experiments.
The weapons seem to be “whatever” from the studio armory.
The bottom line
One wonders if Stalin saw it, was told that many of the cast and crew were true-believing Communists, and collapsed, weeping, to think that his Party had recruited the least adept figures in Hollywood. He could easily have formed that opinion from this movie, and it wouldn’t have been fair — most of the talent in front of and behind the cameras had plenty of quality work they could point to (the exception, perhaps, being Hellman). For whatever reason, and certainly Hellman’s leaden script is a prime suspect here, the talents didn’t gel on screen this time.
Sad to say, the bottom line is that this is one of those “we watched it so that you didn’t have to” movies. There’s a lot to be done with the resistance of various partisan bands to the Nazi invasion of the USSR, but this movie didn’t do it. And if you want to see Soviet propaganda? The stuff the Soviets made themselves is miles more entertaining.
For more information
These sites relate to this particular film.
- Amazon.com DVD page (cheapest DVD):
This second version also includes Armored Attack! as well as The North Star. For completists:
also available on instant video (for free for Amazon Prime customers!):
Watch it for free on Archive.org:
The free versions are generally from pretty lousy prints.
- IMDB page:
- IMFDB page:
- Rotten Tomatoes review page (unrated):
- Wikipedia page:
- History vs. Hollywood Page. (“no results.”)