I’m a little puzzled why this Khrushchev-era 1959 Soviet film (Ballad of a Soldier in English) is routinely cited as an “anti-war” classic in the descriptions and reviews I read of it.
It is the story of a nineteen year old common Russian soldier (Vladimir Ivashov) who single-handedly takes out two enemy tanks, in a comically unlikely way. (The tanks futilely and clumsily chasing him around the trenches looks like something out of a Jerry Lewis movie). As a reward, the kindly commander (“Comrade General”) grants the pure-hearted boy his wish for a short leave to travel back to his rural backwater home to see his struggling, beloved mother and help her repair their roof.
The soldier scrounges for whatever travel methods he can come up with–regular trains, trains he has to stowaway on because they are only for military purposes, trucks and vehicles he hitchhikes onto, and walking–in his efforts to get home. Along the way, he has adventures, plays good Samaritan where he can, sees the war’s impact on ordinary people’s lives, and even has a (chaste) romance of sorts with a lovely young thing he happens to meet as a fellow stowaway on a train.
Now I understand that some of the downsides to war are depicted in the movie–he encounters a crippled soldier afraid to return to his wife in his damaged state, a married woman who out of economic desperation has moved in with another man while her husband it at the front, civilians (mostly women) having an even harder time than usual sustaining themselves with all the men gone off to war, etc.–but it’s really a stretch to say that makes this an anti-war movie. It’s hard to imagine any movie about war–pro, anti, or neutral–that doesn’t include some negative consequences of war, so I hardly think the fact that some people are struggling in this movie gives it a strong anti-war message.
Especially given the context of those struggles. In the world of this movie, zero people oppose the war; the common soldiers are a fun-loving, male-bonded bunch focused on keeping up each other’s spirits and finding ways to send loving messages and cute little gifts back to their families and sweethearts; the officers are big-hearted, paternalistic blokes who love the little scamps they command; though we see the occasional person hobbling around wounded as a result of the war, really all the death and gore happens off camera; the civilians are a plucky lot willingly making any and all sacrifices, and grateful to “the boys” at the front; and the hero remains as chipper and kindhearted and committed to the cause as could be throughout the film–no demoralization or disillusionment for him, regardless of what he sees.
I’m not sure how much more war could be sugarcoated. All Quiet on the Western Front or Platoon this ain’t.
OK, so maybe it’s just that I’m not a deep enough thinker to see the subtle, anti-war message of this movie. But I’m not an unusually dumb guy. If this celebration of the heroism of a people fighting a just war is somehow something very different in some tricky, hidden, artsy way that only really discriminating film critics can discern, then is it really an anti-war movie after all? If an elite few see a message that subverts what presumably almost everyone else sees, then regardless of which interpretation is accurate as to the filmmaker’s intentions, the impact of the film is a lot more likely to reflect what those outside the tiny elite see in it.
But it’s hard to imagine how an anti-war movie could have been produced in these circumstances in the first place. Besides the obvious fact that we’re talking about a movie made under the auspices of a totalitarian regime that would never accept anything other than a celebration of glorious Soviet victories and the heroic, loyal individuals who made them possible, World War II, was, understandably, a wildly popular war in Russia. It was a war of defense against a despised invader. If Soviet filmmakers were free to try to satisfy the “market” instead of the censors, I’d expect a movie every bit as intent on patting the Russians on the back for a job well done in a just and necessary cause.
Or maybe the point is not that it’s anti-war in the sense of being critical of the fact or manner of Soviet participation in the war, but just in the sense that even when it’s a necessary evil war is still a bad thing, and the people who initiate wars unnecessarily, like the enemies of the Soviets in this movie, are to be condemned. But heck, everybody’s “anti-war” in that sense. Everybody’s against the way the bad guys in other countries force good people like us into wars we only fight because we have to. That’s a pretty trivial sense of “anti-war.”
In addition to being praised for its supposed anti-war message, the movie is also lauded just for its filmmaking technique in general. I can sort of see that, but at the same time the style seems over the top enough to almost be a parody of big gesture, manipulative filmmaking. It’s probably accurate to say it was very good for its time, but not so impressive if you don’t qualify it that way.
I’m thinking mostly in terms of the visuals–and there really are some very nice, if a little too obvious, shots, meticulously and skillfully chosen–but it’s true of the storyline too. As an uplifting tale about a heroic soldier and a heroic populace, it’s well told and emotionally effective. And really simplistic and sentimental.
So on the one hand, I’m cringing at how hokey it is as I watch it, but on the other hand, I can see how if you kind of accept it on its own terms it can be an inspiring and powerful movie. I’m not surprised that this was one of the most loved movies in Russia, especially by those who lived through World War II.
It’s kind of like the movie version of The Grapes of Wrath. If I approach it with a certain mindset I think it’s lovely filmmaking, and I appreciate the ideals it expresses. But I can also step back from it and see how unrealistic and overly sentimental and simplistic it is.
If you’re studying the history of filmmaking, it’s a no-brainer to include this film. Aside from that, it’s more borderline. I enjoyed the story, the protagonist is certainly a likable fellow, and it was interesting seeing even a sanitized view of how ordinary Russians experienced the war, so I thought it was a film worth seeing. But I wouldn’t be eager to watch it again, or to watch other movies like it.