Review: Ballad of a Soldier (1959), dir. Grigori Chukhrai
Synopsis from IMDB: “During World War II, 19 year old soldier Alyosha gets a medal as a reward for a heroic act at the front. Instead of this medal he asks for a few days leave to visit his mother and repair the roof of their home. On the train eastwards he meets Shura who is on her way to her aunt. In those few days traveling together they fall in love.”
Ballad of a Soldier features one of the most sympathetic and likable lead characters in the history of the movies. The story follows a 19-year-old soldier – Alyosha – as he leaves the Russian front during WWII to visit his lonely mother. Along the way, he runs across all sorts of people, and in some way leaves a positive mark on all of them.
In many ways you could say that it is a love story, though to me it felt more like an amazing display of how our individual perceptions of events can color our lives, for better or for worse.
The entire plot-line is driven by one misunderstanding, misinterpretation or lie after another. The direction of the film then follows whatever path is chosen by these perceptions of reality. What ends up happening is that every character is constantly either disappointed or pleasantly surprised; nobody, however, is ever completely right – or completely wrong.
I don’t want to venture toward the philosophical idea that “nobody knows anything” or that we are all victims of the randomness of the universe. Instead, I will say that our lives are in fact pulled from one place to the next largely based on points of view, over which we often have little control.
The very starting point for the story is founded on a slight misperception: Alyosha is granted a leave to go home based on his heroism in the field of battle. But as we know – having seen it – Alyosha is not a great warrior; his actions are out of sheer instinct to survive, and the results of his attempts are surprising even to him. That isn’t to say that he is entirely not heroic. He did stay behind to call in the arrival of the enemy tanks, and he did destroy two of them, however accidentally it may have been. Yet the story would have gone nowhere if the general had decided to dismiss these events as dumb luck.
It happens many more times throughout the film: Alyosho and Shura seal their friendship by sharing a fright. Hiding away in the hay car of a train, he fears that her arrival is actually the arrival of the “beastly” lieutenant. She takes him for an attacker. After a laugh about their misunderstanding, they immediately become closer. Soon after, they discover that the beastly lieutenant is actually a very kind man; the guard that took his bribes to let him on the train had only described him as a “beast”. We soon see that the lieutenant is only a beast towards the guard, who is always getting into trouble. Through all of this tension and fear, it turns out that nobody on the train is a threat.
Earlier, Alyosha convinces a soldier who has lost a leg to return to his wife. The soldier had decided to telegram his wife that he is not coming home; he feels she will be better off without him and his injury. When the one-legged soldier is reunited with his wife, he (and we) see how wrong he was: she would not have been better off without him.
After a train wreck, Alyosha is truly heroic as he saves several children and an old woman from the fire. Afterward, he is treated by those who arrived to help as a “good for nothing” who is just in the way as they try to clean up the wreckage. It is the mirror opposite of the perception of his war heroism.
I won’t go into all of the details, but it happens in many more instances, like his mother believing he is home to stay, that Shura is enagaged, a soldier sending gifts home to a wife he believes is loyal, all the way down to Alyosha running up to a train he thinks is the one that Shura is on. None of these beliefs are true, but the characters in the movie live their lives and make their next decisions based on these beliefs. It follows over and over: disappointment, adjustment; a nice surprise, adjustment, etc.
One of my favorite scenes in the movie is also the most obvious example of how our minds change our reality. After leaving Shura, Alyosha thinks back about their time together. He remembers the real things, her real words… and then, in his mind, he has her saying things that she never said, things that Alyosha thinks she might have meant, or that he wishes she had said. Based on these invented words, he tries to get off the train immediately and return to her.
What really drives the entertainment of the movie is the fact that the character of Alyosha never ceases to act – and dramatically – when he sees that events are not proceeding according to plan. He is constantly running towards things, jumping from trains and onto trains, hailing down cars and shouting for people to hear him. He is young and enthusiastic, and while he cannot control everything, he does not sit idly by. He is cast especially well, as his face is childlike, but he is big enough not to appear helpless. His smile is engaging, and his naivete charming rather than annoying.
The camera work is textured and engaging, incorporating deep focus, layered shots and a slight glow to the shadows. This world is real and full of life, even on hay cars and war-torn countryside.
The most touching moment is the embrace between Alyosha and his mother. Up to that point, the film is a race to get to her in time. In the minutes leading up to it, the music builds and builds, and it appears that they might miss each other after all. But then she shouts, he jumps off the truck, and when they reach each other and fall into each others’ arms, the music stops dead. There is barely even any ambient sound. They simply embrace for what seems like a full minute, wordless. It speaks volumes about the film that none of those extras are needed.