June 11, 2015
Movie of the Week: The Forty-First
The movie came out in 1956, only two years before the far more ambitious And Quiet Flows the Don, which reveals a certain interest in revisiting the burning issues of the Civil War which, evidently, were once again on the agenda in the post-Stalin USSR.
Anyway, here’s the movie, subtitles and all:
And now for the spoilers:
One of the main characters is a Maryutka Basova Red Army woman soldier, a crack shot, who by the beginning of the movie has racked up 40 White kills. As the shattered detachment is retreating before the Cossacks into the desert, they encounter a camel caravan with which they enter into a firefight in which Maryutka scores her “forty first.”
Which brings us to our second main character, the Guards Lieutenant Govorukha-Otrok, a bearer of the Cross of St. Georgie, who turns out is not even wounded by Maryutka (incidentally, this episode goes a long way to show that one should not take snipers’ “confirmed kill” numbers at face value) and instead is taken prisoner by the detachment.
To make long story short, eventually, and after several somewhat implausible turns of events, Maryutka and the officer are left alone with one another so that the movie’s real story can at long last begin.
Because, ultimately, its the same story that’s being plaid out in Russian politics today, the conflict between the “liberals” and the “ignorant masses” who for some weird reason think Putin is a swell guy!
The officer has a great deal of today’s Russian liberals in him. Well educated, sophisticated, French speaking, aloof, arrogant, and not even having the time of day for the lower orders. When the two are stranded on an island in the Aral Sea (one of the implausible events I was referring to above), he compares the situation to the Robinson Crusoe story in which he, of course, is the Robinson, and Maryutka is Friday, which gives you a pretty good idea of the social gap that separates the two.
But now that they are stranded on the island, something amazing happens. They discover each other as (gasp!) actual, living and breathing, human beings. They don’t take it too far–even though there is a remarkable amount of nudity here (for a 1956 Soviet film, at any rate), nothing untoward actually happens between the two.
But the sudden turn of events is the main story in the movie, which argues that the class divides within the Russian society are artificial. I mean, even the officer’s name suggests he is not from an aristocratic family, but rather that he comes from a peasant stock himself, it’s just that he forgot his roots. These divides are instead the product of foreign influences–the officer looks down on the peasant soldiers of the Red Army because his ideals are all somewhere in the West, not in Russia. And the implication here seems to be that the best way to promote domestic harmony between the classes is to ensure a certain amount of Russia’s isolation from the rest of the world. If only Russia could be like the island on the Aral Sea…Otherwise the “liberals” will get the idea they are “Europeans” or some such silly thing and betray and abandon the rest of the population. Not unlike what the Russian liberals did in the 1990s, not unlike what the Ukrainian maidaneks are doing to their own population today, solely to be accepted by the Western “polite society.”
That idea is reinforced by the movie’s rather sad ending, because as a Whites-bearing boat approaches the island, the officer suddenly forgets about his newly found camaraderie with the Red Army peasant sniper woman and runs off to join them–thus giving Maryutka the perfect opportunity to finally score her “forty first”, an opportunity which she does not pass by, but which she tearfully regrets…