Saturday, May 29, 2010


This film was produced during wartime as relatively undisguised propaganda for our allies, the Russians, and was released during some of their fiercest fighting against the Germans. Years later, during the McCarthy anti-Commie era, the movie was disowned by its producer and was sold and re-edited with most of the overt propaganda taken out. Frankly, that might have helped it since the first half-hour is a bit hard to swallow, no matter what your political beliefs. The film begins by setting up a kind of MGM-Andy Hardy version of life in a village of collectivist farmers. We get a handful of remarkably artificial musical numbers featuring everyone singing faux-folksongs (written by Aaron Copland) to celebrate their communal life and the coming of summer. With school letting out, young folks Farley Granger and Anne Baxter hike with some friends to Kiev for vacation, despite rumors of German troop movements, but soon the Nazi air attacks begin. The villagers send their healthiest men up to the hills to engage in guerilla activities, and the rest of the adults stay to defend the town; Granger gets blinded, and Baxter becomes a Russian Paul Revere, riding to the village and yelling, "Burn your houses! The Germans are coming!!" The last half is largely made up of sad but inspiring stories of personal heroism and spectacular warfare scenes.

The first part is pretty dreadful, with the mindlessly happy singing Russian farmers being portrayed like mindlessly happy singing slaves in old Hollywood movies about the South--even old-timers Walter Brennan and Walter Huston have to croak out a song or two. The first invasion sequence is well shot, and Huston mostly keeps his dignity as the village doctor who engages in some interesting philosophical debates with Nazi doctor Erich von Stroheim, leading to a satisfying, if not terribly plausible, ending. Most of the other actors aren't called upon to act so much as smile, suffer, and make speeches, with Brennan and Dana Andrews coming off worst. Baxter and Granger (pictured) just seem like amateurs (and indeed this was Granger's first movie). Jane Withers, coming out of her child-star phase, does a nice job in a scene in which she struggles to find the fortitude to carry out a guerilla attack. Also with Ann Harding, Dean Jagger, and Martin Kosleck. As period propaganda, this is endlessly fascinating, but as entertainment, it's quite dated. [TCM]

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