Monday, December 6, 2010

#81 - Ballad of a Soldier

SUMMARY: "Ballad of a Soldier" is a Russian movie set in 1942 on the Eastern Front. Alyosha becomes a hero by destroying two German tanks. His reward is a pass to return home. Thus begins an odyssey which sees him interact with various people. The young, humane soldier has a positive effect on those he meets. The backdrop is the desperation of the Great Patriotic War. His most significant encounter is with a young woman named Shura. They have an awkward, chaste, and endearing "affair". He finally arrives home having used up all of his leave getting there.

“Ballad of a Soldier” was a Soviet film released in 1959. It is a significant example of the movies made during the period after the death of Stalin and the rise of Khrushchev. The new Soviet dictator loosened the reins on Soviet cinema which resulted in some remarkably non-doctrinal films. In the case of “Ballad”, it helped that Khrushchev was a fan of the director Grigori Chukhrai and allowed even more leniency in censorship. Chukhrai made the daring decision to cast two inexperienced leads, but it paid off. The movie quickly acquired international acclaim including an Oscar for its screenplay. It is one of the most beloved Soviet-era films.

CRITIQUE: This is not so much a war movie as a movie set in war. It is certainly interesting and well worth the viewing, but I think it is a tad overrated. It almost seems the critics went overboard in accolades in order to encourage the new cinema that was coming out of Khrushchev’s Russia. Plus, compared to the pompously patriotic films under Stalin, this movie must have been bracingly refreshing.

There is some good cinematography, but some of it is a little artsy. We get lots of close-ups of stoical Russian faces. There are numerous long shots. There is lots of scenery from moving trains.

Some of the characterizations are not true to human nature. For instance, one of the guards Alyosha encounters is armed with a rifle and bayonet, yet turns out to be a pushover who can be bribed with a can meat when he could clearly have taken whatever he wanted. But most perplexing is the portrayal of the Russian officers, starting with the general. I’m not saying all Russian officers were tyrants, but certainly a majority were. The movie has all of them being nice to the enlisted men. This strains credulity.

On the plus side, the main characters are likeable. We want Alyosha and Shura to fall in love and live happily ever after. We root for him to get back to his mother. We cheer when the crippled soldier’s wife welcomes him back without flinching. We are incensed that Pavlov’s wife is cheating on him. The movie takes some unexpected turns. It does a great job showing the spirit of the Russian people.

ACCURACY: “Ballad of a Soldier” is fictional so accuracy is not really an issue. My only complaint is the portrayal of the Russian officers.

CONCLUSION: I would never have watched this movie if I had not started this project, so I am thankful for having been exposed to something different. Watching a Soviet war movie was not on my list of to-dos. I definitely enjoyed it, but I do not think it is a great war movie. I am not even sure if it is a war movie. It certainly fits better into the journey genre. It’s not the Iliad, it’s the Odyssey.


Action = 4/10
Acting = C+
Accuracy = D
Realism = C+
Plot = B+

Overall = C+

I have now worked my way through the first twenty (actually 19 because I still have not seen "Dunkirk") on Military History's 100 Greatest War Movies.  Here is my reworking of the list (with the Military History rank in parentheses):

99 – Ben Hur (96)

98 - Foreign Correspondent (86)

97 - The Life and Times of Colonel Blimp (87)

96 - The Thin Red Line (100)

95 - Ballad of a Soldier (81)

94 - Guns of Navarone (93)

93 - Northwest Passage (97)

92 - Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (98)

91 - They Were Expendable (99)

90 - Desert Rats (88)

89 - Battle of Britain (90)

88 - Midway (92)

87 - Manchurian Candidate (85)

86 - Sahara (83)

85 - A Walk in the Sun (82)

84 - A Bridge Too Far (94)

83 - Dr. Strangelove (84)

82 - Breaker Morant (91)

81 - Last of the Mohicans (95)


  1. I thought you were going to kick some of them out to make some space for movies like Enemy at the Gates or A Midnight Clear, no? Looking at it like this they didn't even shift too much and you are very kind to The Battle of Britain, moving it up one step is proof of a very generous heart. Lol. Why can you not find Dunkirk, that can't be so hard? I should watch it, it's another John Mills movie.

  2. My plan is to not start removing movies for a while. Perhaps when I get to #71. I do not think there is any doubt that I will find at least ten movies better than "The Thin Red Line", for instance. "Dunkirk" is not on Amazon, or Netflix, or downloadable (at least that I would risk). John Mills sure appeared in a lot of WWII movies!


Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.