Grigori Chukhrai’s Ballad of a Soldier was crafted in the USSR in 1959. Its black and white, in Russian with English subtitles.
What Norman Rockwell was to Americana, Grigori Chukhrai seems to try to be to the Soviet Union – at least in this very lovely film. That was my first impression of Ballad of a Soldier, a sense of delight. Of course, I was not entirely correct about my evaluation of the film. Especially after reading real academic works on Soviet cinema, like Neya Zorkaya’s survey.
But to a degree, the idealism projected in the film seemed to be fitting of the period of thawing tension in Soviet film. This was a really good movie, wholesome and virtuous. It is a love story, and it could have been set in any nation. What brought it to my interest is that it happened to be set in 1943 when Germans were driving tanks at will all over the western Soviet Union. My un-academic, un-educated, out-of-context views enjoyed this film greatly.
The story follows a well-mannered young soldier named Alyosha Skvortsov as he embarks on a mission of devotion to his mother. During the only combat scene, immediately after the narrator sets up the ballad, Alyosha manages to perform an act of bravery that earns him a six day leave. What any good boy would do with six days leave is to go home to fix his mother’s leaky roof, right? Of course! Alyosha sets off only to be delayed by his good nature, kind-heartedness, and the rather heartbreaking fact that he falls in love with a young fellow traveler. The story is quite absorbing, simple as it may be, and I found it comfortably paced and beautifully composed. Rich scenery and careful composition made the view of Russia during WWII look quite beautiful, even the ugly parts. At the same time, there is a constant threat of ominous war, allusions to corruption, and a nod toward challenging circumstances. There is a tension all throughout too, for the viewer knows Alyosha’s fate from the beginning, casting an urgency on his various exploits.
But the most important trait of this film, and plainly obvious, is the noble character of Alyosha. He’s a model young man of selfless charm. His smile is infecting, his devotion to others is inspiring. He is the dutiful youth serving his country as a “good Soviet.”
According to Zorkaya’s book, Soviet Cinema, which cited the author’s off-screen text, Alyosha “could have become a good father and a wonderful citizen. He could have become a worker, engineer or scientist. He could have grown wheat and adorned the earth with gardens. But all he managed in his short life was to become a soldier…”
Truly human traits, however, transcend the godless Soviet ideal – they come from somewhere else. Alyosha is honest in admitting fear, generous in time and effort, and loving to a degree rarely seen anymore. He is a picture of naïve goodness, and this decidedly non-Soviet trait is what causes him grief. This is a character trait pressed into Soviet film at this time, a time of thawing Soviet doctrinal tyranny; a time when film makers pushed their over-lord’s limits.
If Alyosha is goodness personified, the equally idyllic supporting character, Shura, is like the dream girl of all good Russian boys. As a kid of the Cold War, this surprised me a bit because Ballad of a Soldier was one of the earliest Soviet films I had watched. In my youth, I remember fully expecting to die by Soviet nuke, and I remember what a monstrous impression I had of the average communist goon. This caricature was part of popular culture in the US, and it was encouraged formally. I can recall clearly my sixth grade social studies teacher, Mrs. Reed, declaring that Russians were cold and calculating, living in fetid squalor, drinking nothing but stagnant water from vending machines full of slime and common cups. Such was the depiction of “commies” to a cold war American sixth grader as late as 1980.
Maturity and experience has erased much of that assumptive idea of how a Soviet ought to be. I have since met meany Russians, ex-Soviets who likewise expected to die by American nuke, and am friends with many. But to see such a human and joyful depiction of Soviet society still caused a brief disconnect. What I was witnessing unfold in the film, however, seemed to be Russian culture, not Soviet culture. If there ever was a film that beautifully displayed the old saying that “people are people, wherever”, then this is it. I am firmly against the wicked evil that communism is, and I decry all forms of Marxist doctrine for the death-dealing, poisonous rot that it is. But people everywhere persevere, usually, and Alyosha’s Russian, not Soviet, tradition, values and culture are communicated very well.
Military hardware buffs and gun nuts will find this film worthy of a watch, if you happen to be too shallow a man to enjoy a good love story. There are the obligatory cords of Mosin Nagant rifles in this film. Alyosha knocks out two German “Tiger” tanks with a Simonov 20mm rifle in the combat scene. There are numerous T-34s, both in Russian guise and disguised as German tanks. You’ll see some fine footage of ZIS and GAZ trucks and a GAZ jeep, along with excellent railroad footage.
If I had a formal rating system, I’d give this a 9 out of 10, knocking a point off for a few small cinematic cliches of the day, and for the fact that it could have been a little more effective at spotlighting Alyosha’s character if some of the conflicts he encountered had been a little more threatening. Was there optimism in the late 1950s that I am not connecting with fully?