This blog contains material I wrote and posted on between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Ballad Of A Soldier (Ballada O Soldate): Review

It’s difficult to know how to go about reviewing one’s favourite movie of all, of all genres, all eras, everything. Where does one begin?

I first saw this movie as a teenager, back in the late eighties, on television. The impact it made on me was immediate and unforgettable. I bought the DVD in Russia, and watched it several times since then, the most recent occasion being this evening.

The problem with reviewing a film one loves more than any other is that one lays oneself open to incomprehension. Another person watching the same movie will be left cold. Someone else might have actively hated it. It depends on one’s tastes, one’s mindset, one’s outlook on life.

So, what is it about?

On the face of it the story is simple to the point of being simplistic. Soldier destroys two enemy tanks in combat, at his own request gets home leave as reward instead of a citation, and goes on a long train journey meeting a wide variety of people as he goes.


Only, it is not so.

Alexei “Alyosha” Skvortsev, the protagonist, is a Soviet signalman who at the outset of the film destroys two German Tiger tanks with an anti-tank rifle. His general wants to give him a medal. Instead, he begs for leave, just for a day, in order to go home and repair his mother’s roof. He has left for the front before even being able to say goodbye to her. The general gives him leave – not one day, but six: two days to get home, two days to fix the roof, and two days back.

(Let me mention here that the director doesn’t play around with one’s hopes here – right at the outset he announces that Alyosha never returned from the war, that he lies buried in a foreign land, so that the movie is a continuing tragedy, and everyone knows it as such.)

Skvortsev, on his way to the train, meets other soldiers going up to the front, and one of them entrusts him with a message to his father and wife, who live in a city Alyosha must pass through, and gives him two large cakes of soap to give them. He had never seen this soldier, Pavlov, before. He never is going to see him again, but he takes the soap and the commission just the same. On the train, he meets a crippled soldier on his way back from the front who does not want to go back, minus a leg, to his young and pretty wife. Alyosha must, delaying his own journey, persuade and escort him till he reaches his destination. His wife meets him, tearfully overjoyed, at the station.

Alyosha – in the meantime – has bribed a guard on a goods train to let him travel in a wagon full of bales of hay. Into the wagon comes a stowaway, a young girl named Aleksandra (“Shura”) who tries to jump off the train when she sees Alyosha. He pulls her back in, and they form a sort of temporary truce until she can get off when the train stops. Only, she can’t. The train is under heavy guard whenever it stops and she can’t get off.

Stop by stop, little by little, Alyosha and Shura grow closer. The theme could have easily become hackneyed, but the director makes sure it does not. She tells him she is on her way to the bedside of her fiancé, an Air Force pilot who had been shot down and wounded. They are discovered by the commandant of the train, the dreaded Lieutenant, who turns out to be an extremely nice man who merely asks them to be careful not to set the hay on fire and puts the guard under arrest for accepting bribes.

Once, Alyosha gets left behind once the train sets off while he is fetching water for Shura. He has to hitch a lift on a farm truck and reaches the next station only to find the train has already left – yet Shura is there, having abandoned her journey to wait for him. This is the town where they are supposed to meet the wife and father of the soldier who had given Alyosha the soap. What follows is the most touching part of the whole film, where the wife of the soldier turns out to be living with another man while the father is in a shelter for bombed out civilians. Alyosha tells the father a lot of lies to make him happy, but he cannot wait long, and he and Shura are off again. They finally part on a railway platform where she finally admits that she is just on her way to meet her aunt. The wounded fiancé story was just a fabrication.

On again, with Alyosha already delayed far too much, and dreaming of Shura, and the train is bombed almost within sight of his destination. Somehow, Alyosha does make it home with a ride hitched on another truck – just in time to see his mother, hug her, and rush off to the war again.

As we have already been told, he will never return.

This is a film of heroism, but is not a film of heroes, just as it is a film set in wartime, but not a war film. It is a film of love, and friendship, and much else that cannot be easily categorised. It is ultimately a film about coming of age, but a coming of age that was cut short.

It could have been so easy, so very easy, to ruin this movie, especially by creating a happy ending. it is to the director's eternal credit that he didn't.

As I said, on the surface it is simplistic, but I liked it. I don’t know if you will.

Go see it yourself.

(Oh yes…the title in Russian, “Ballada o Soldate”, translates into “Ballad About a Soldier”; but the official title in English is “Ballad of a Soldier”, which doesn’t quite mean the same thing, but I have had to stick to it.

And a blooper or two: Alyosha never finds time to shave in the movie, but he remains immaculately shaved all throughout, and clean even after helping to push the farm truck out of mud. And the movie is set in 1941, just after the Battle of Voronezh – loudspeakers make announcements about that battle. But the tanks shown, German Tigers and Russian T34/85s, did not come into service till 1943. Sorry.) 

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