“They Fought for their Motherland” was made to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the Soviet victory in The Great Patriotic War. It was released on Victory Day. The film was directed by the Soviet Union’s greatest director, Sergei Bondarchuk. Five years previously, he had directed “Waterloo”. The screenplay was based on a novel by WWII veteran Mikhail Sholokhov. It is what has been called a “comrades film” as it follows a platoon of soldiers in the retreat leading to the Battle of Stalingrad. The film was voted the most popular Soviet film of that year.
Over the credits, the platoon is part of the retreat across the steppes in July, 1942. The soldiers openly talk about the ass-whippings they have been taking. A peasant woman lays into them for abandoning them. “Don’t drag the enemy with you across the country” pretty much sums up the attitude of common folk towards their own retreating armies throughout history. The unit is given the mission of holding the Don River bridgehead. They dig into the rocky soil. There is a lot of sweat and dust. Here come the German tanks and infantry! They hold and then resume the retreat. The movie settles into this pattern of movement and combat. The marching scenes are heavy on dialogue, but it is spright. The main character is Pyotr (Vasily Shukskin). He is an anti-hero. Pyotr is a complex character who is a ladies’ man, clown, and scrounger, but he is playing a role to hide the stress of war. He is a good comrade and looks out for his mates. His best buddy is Alexandr (Georgi Burkov). Their banter reminds of Rivera and Friedman from “A Walk in the Sun”. At one point Pyotr tells Alexandr: “You won’t drown, turds float.” Bondarchuk plays Ivan, who ends up badly wounded and operated on without anesthesia. He talks through the operation. The movie is very talkie. Eventually, after a lot of walking and talking, the platoon reaches the outskirts of Stalingrad and we are left to ponder how these exhausted, but resilient warriors will fare in the meatgrinder facing them.
I am a big fan of the Battle of Stalingrad and have read several books on it. I also have seen most of the movies about the battle and there are a few. This one falls in the middle of the pack. While not as good as “Stalingrad, Dogs Do You Want to Live Forever?” or “Stalingrad” (1993), it is a noteworthy addition to the pack. If you pair it up with “The Turning Point” (1945), you have a nice lead-in to the events portrayed in that movie. Bondarchuk was a great director and it shows here as he keeps the long movie moving even though there are long stretches with no action. There are frequent long takes. The movie is in no hurry and neither is the platoon. His cinematographer Vadim Yusov is equally adept at lensing steppes or trenches. Credit must also be given to the special effects team as the movie has some of the most realistic explosions I have seen. There is a massive air bombardment that transitions to surrealism which is a tour de force. Overall, the combat scenes are above average, if lacking in quantity. The production made use of authentic Red Army weapons and used T-34/85 tanks to mock up the German tanks. (There are no Soviet tanks in the movie.) As usual for a Soviet/Russian movie, the PTRD-41 anti-tank rifle plays a role. The other weapons are authentic.
The movie is an ensemble piece and the cast is good. There is some character development and you do care about the men, even the bombastic Pyotr will grow on you. This is because you witness his bombast tempered by the stress of the retreat. However, the audience does not get the full effects that the falling back would have had on the soldiers. This would not have been a walk in the sunny steppes. One flaw in the film is there is no dysfunction in the unit, in spite of the hardships. Not surprisingly for a Soviet film (even after the thaw), all the officers are portrayed positively. On the plus side, the movie is not trying to be patriotic or propagandistic. It covers one of the worst periods of the war for the Soviets. The theme of the Soviet soldier and peasants being stoically enduring is true to life. “If there is one thing the Russian soldier has, it’s patience”. The same could be said about the peasant women they encounter. They are depicted as a feisty lot. One of them gives Pyotr a black eye. It’s no surprise the movie was popular with audiences.
I would rank the Soviets as third behind Americans and British when it comes to WWII movies. While not a must-see, “They Fought for Their Country” is one of the better Soviet films. It takes its time and is more of a small-unit dynamics film than a combat film, but it throws in enough action (and tanks for our tank fans) to appeal to most war movie lovers. If you are not familiar with Soviet war movies, I would not start with it, but after you have seen “Come and See”, “Ivan’s Childhood”, “The Dawns Here Are Quiet”, “The Cranes Are Flying”, and “Ballad of a Soldier”, you might want to check it out.
GRADE = B