I decided to take a break from chasing the Netflix movie purges, and instead catch one of the Amazon Prime offerings. I’ve had a movie on my watch-list for quite some time, but I was deterred from watching it by the bad cover art. The film is The Battle for Sevastopol, another Russian-made film, this one from 2015.
Fortunately, I had a friend recently watch the film who started a discussion about the use of snipers as a battlefield tactic, and the morality or the lack thereof. In order to participate in the discussion more intelligently, I promised to give the move a watch.
The film is the story of Ludmila Pavlichenko, a female sniper during the Second World War. It is a Russian-language film that seems to be mostly available in the U.S. through channels like Netflix and Amazon prime. I’ve not seen where it was released to a general audience in this country. While the box office returns in Russia were not huge, particularly by comparison to Hollywood movies, it did make many times more than what it cost and so was a commercial success.
Although a Russian-language film, it jarringly begins in English. The anchor for this story is the connection between Pavlichenko and Eleanor Roosevelt, and so Mrs. Roosevelt serves as a narrator. Some other notable American figures, such as Woody Guthrie (who wrote a song about Pavlichenko), also make an appearance. It’s an interesting choice for story telling from the Western perspective, essentially telling us the story that we already know. Except that this isn’t a movie for Western audiences; it was made for distribution in Russian and Ukraine.
It also does pretty well, considering the source, as a war/action movie. Obviously, it makes heavy use of CGI to keep the effects budget down. And that shows, but I was able to look past that. The budget limitations become obvious when comparing two scenes. One showing sniper training had more soldiers in it than another where an entrenched position is defended against a German attack. Again, I’m willing to suspend some disbelief as a nod to their cost constraints.
The style is extremely patriotic, which is probably a matter of course. Similar films from any country, celebrating the war actions of a national hero, are going to come through that way. It does seem to resurrect a Soviet cold war pro-warrior message that may or may not reflect the mentality of the time portrayed. A theme is that ever decent man (and a more than a few women) is eager to fight to defend the Soviet Union. Lack of enthusiasm is cowardice and thus contemptible. More believable would be some ambivalence from Ukrainians being drafted into the Soviet war effort, particularly before the viciousness of the German invaders became evident. It also makes me wonder how accurate these sentiments are in a post-Afghanistan Russia. Do modern times have patriotism tempered by that experience, and if so is this movie attempting a revival?
Again, this isn’t a uniquely Russian phenomenon. In the U.S., recent movies have been working to undo the anti-war, anti-patriot sentiment that infused the culture after the Vietnam War. This could be seen in a similar light.
What is unique about this movie from a propaganda angle is it is a joint Russian/Ukrainian production. Pavlichenko was a Ukrainian, although she spent her final years in Russia. She is from western Ukraine and, the initial part of the movie and the initial fighting take place in the Odessa area, all outside of the current “separatists” regions. Sevastopol is now in the part of Ukraine, the Crimea, claimed by the Russians. Also consider both the timing of the release of this movie, as well as the timing of the production relative the war in Ukraine. I feel there is a message in there, but I’m just not sure what it is.
Also puzzling are some of the fudges made to the historical facts. Presumably, these were to advance the story, but I have trouble seeing how. Once again, it makes me think there must be some propaganda angle that I’m just not seeing. For example, in the film her father is a Soviet Army major and a hero of the Revolutionary War. In reality, he was a factory worker. Is this some kind of message about the Soviet patriotism of the fathers versus the modern patriotism of Greater Russia? Again, I don’t know.
In the end, it was a movie well worth a watch. Both from the historical standpoint, telling a story about a historical figure about which I was unaware, and from the entertainment standpoint, as a war move. It certainly highlights the pitfalls of choosing movies simply based on the cover art.