A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Ballad of a Soldier (Grigoriy Chukhray, 1959)

Before the collapse of the Soviet Union there used to be jokes about how Russians claimed to have invented everything from the light bulb to baseball. During a thaw in the Cold War that led to an exchange of films between the Soviets and the Americans, American audiences learned that the Russians had at least improved on a familiar Hollywood genre: the glossy, sentimental wartime romance. Even Hollywood was impressed, giving director Grigoriy Chukhray and his co-screenwriter Valentin Ezhov an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay. Ballad of a Soldier was a substantial hit, thanks in large part to its appealing leads, Vladimir Ivashov and Zhanna Prokhorenko. Ivashov plays Alyosha, a private serving at the Front who single-handedly cripples two German tanks and is rewarded with a leave to return home and see his mother. But it's not easy making it cross-country in Russia during wartime, and he is forced to bribe his way onto a freight car carrying bales of hay. At a stop, he is joined by another stowaway, a young girl named Shura (Prokhorenko). She initially takes fright at discovering she has a traveling companion, but they eventually begin to fall in love, only to face an inevitable separation. The two young leads -- they were both untried actors still in their teens when they were cast -- are touchingly fresh and innocent, making the contrast with the harshness that surrounds them more poignant. It's a road movie as well as a love story, with some fine character bits by people they meet along the way, especially Evgeniy Urbanskiy as a soldier embittered by the loss of a leg and fearful of how he will be received by his wife. Although the core of the film focuses on Alyosha and Shura, their story is framed by some spectacularly filmed battle scenes at the beginning and Alyosha's painfully brief return home at the end, sequences that surround the love story with scenes of urgency. Chukray has a real gift for pacing and rhythm, aided by his editor, Mariya Timofeeva, though he sometimes allows his cinematographers, Vladimir Nikolayev and Era Savalyeva, to indulge in camera tricks: At one point when Alyosha is being pursued by a tank, the camera does a head-over-heels rollover shot that ends with Alyosha and the tank upside-down on the screen, a giddy, gratuitous bit of fancy photography. Ballad of a Soldier certainly didn't break any new ground, but it managed to make its genre clichés feel fresh.

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