Saturday Matinee: Ballad of a Soldier

Ballad of a SoldierBallad of a Soldier is a remarkable film: a work of Soviet propaganda that manages not to dwell upon Soviet, or Communism, or Marx or Engels or Lenin or Stalin. It is a work, rather, of Russian nationalism that would have worked as well to sell patriotism for a Tsar, for a liberal Yeltsin, or for an authoritarian neosoviet Putin. Director Grigori Chukrai used powerful black and white images and a lyrical, sensitive script to tell a tale that works on several levels, but most powerfully as a love poem to home and homeland. Chukrai took advantage of the brief artistic flowering in the interregnum between the bleak Stalin and Brezhnev censorship areas to make a film that speaks to all people in all times.

It is not particularly a combat film, although it contains some combat scenes. It’s mostly a tale of people and their relations set against the backdrop of war.

The events in the film

Ballad of a Soldier-PTRD2As the film opens, we learn that a mother mourns her lost son, who is memorialized only by a grave marker in a foreign land that says “A Russian Soldier”. Then we flash back to the principal combat scenes of the film. Young private Skvortsov, Alexei Nikolayevich, is in a forward observation position with another soldier when German tanks appear. The tanks quickly overrun their position and Skvortsov flees, finally throwing away his radio to save himself. Ultimately, he is chased into an abandoned trench where he seizes an abandoned PTRD anti-tank rifle, and smokes two tanks with it. The Germans turn tail and retreat.

Skvortsov is ordered to see a general. He has no idea what he’s in trouble for, but as it turns out the affable general wants to decorate him. The general is taken with Skvortsov’s self-effacing modesty, and when the private asks, instead, if he could get a brief leave, as his mother has written that her house needs repairs, the general assents and orders leave papers to be drafted.

Skvortsov has a few days to get home to his village of Sosnovka and back, and of course train travel in wartime is complicated by guards, schedules, interruptions (sometimes by the Luftwaffe), and all these various entanglements elucidate Skvortsov’s character and speak to an essential theme of love. There is an innocent, bittersweet romantic love with a young girl he meets on the way, and two married couples where both the husbands and the marriages have had different fortunes in the war. There are entertaining and coherent bit characters: a self-serving guard, a nervous truck driver, a lieutenant whose reputation as “a beast” has gotten far out ahead of him. He finally does connect with his mother, after many adventures, and for far too short a time before he must retrace his steps to the front and his unit. Love of home and mother is a great thing, but so is fidelity to duty. The movie doesn’t state or hammer these themes; instead, it shows them to you through the actions of its central character, and it is all the mightier for that.

Skvortsov as the innocent, well-meaning Everyman handles a German bombing with more aplomb than his love relationship. He handles the wounded warrior who is depressed and fears his wife will not want him; he handles the wife who failed to keep faith with her soldier husband. He always acts with decency and resolve, he is as pure of heart as Galahad (well, rather more so) and he’s the son you wished you had or the friend you’d have liked to make.

All the while, we are aware, at least subliminally, that the opening scenes of the movie told us that this young man did not survive the war. And, indeed, the closing scene bookends the movie and closes, in effect, with a great sigh about what he might have been.

If you don’t think that’s a powerful film, our review has not been equal to Chukrai’s work.

Weapons and realism?

Ballad of a Soldier-tank chaseWe’re going to give the film a split decision on this. The German tanks are crudely mocked-up Tigers on T-34s; Skvortsov’s valiant defense against tanks with a PTRD anti-tank rifle is, tactically, ridiculous. (You could shoot at Tigers all day with 14.5mm AP and all you’d do is irritate the Germans inside, who’d then come looking for a fight). Worse, the scene in which Skvortsov flees from the German tank, with its nightmare quality, has that in part because nightmares aren’t real, and a soldier outrunning a tank — even a slow-moving Tiger on terrain — is even less likely than the crew of the tank not bothering to grease him with the bow MG or the co-ax. Instead, we see a remarkable crane shot of the tank chasing Skvortsov, something that was done in all earnestness but made us think it should have a soundtrack: Theme from the Benny Hill Show. It’s that wrong. 

Ballad of a Soldier-PTRD1So with all that wrong, how do we get to split decision? There were two things we really liked seeing. The first, of course, was the PTRD AT rifle. It’s hell for rare in the real world as well as on film, and it’s just the sort of oddball weapon that would have us making room on the slatwall in the gun room if we could get our hands on one (or a PTRS, even more so, for that matter). It’s enough of a treat to see an anti-tank rifle in a movie that we can excuse errors in the depiction of its tactical employment, and gross errors in depicting its capabilities.

The second thing was that Chukrai had the courage to cast a young actor of private-soldier age as a private soldier (Vladimir Ivashov was 19). His love interest was also played by a 19-year-old actress, Zhanna Prokhorenko. One wearies of Hollywood’s delusion that make-up on a 40 year old can make a convincing 20-year-old.

The bottom line

This is a movie to watch, and enjoy, if you understand Russian or tolerate subtitles (the subtitles, at least on the Criterion Collection edition, are decent). The American movie it feels most like is The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), in that it’s a depiction, mostly, of soldiers in home front life as a backdrop for an essentially human story. Ballad of a Soldier was awarded a Lenin Prize, which in 1959 probably didn’t mean much except that “Khrushchev liked it,” but also won an award from BAFTA and was nominated for a screenplay Oscar, so it was quite a sensation when new. It has a rare 100% score on RottenTomatoes.com, so those still paying attention to it still like it. While the film is little remembered today except by film students, who can get quite deep in the innards of Chukrai’s script, direction and cinematography, it’s as entertaining now as Khrushchev thought it was in 1959. Our fellow capitalist-roaders can snag a DVD from Amazon.com, put it in their Netflix queue, or possibly borrow the film from their local library.

And where else are you going to see a PTRD?