Sunday, March 27, 2016

As Much About the Present as the Past


Someone once made a comment about historical films being as much about the present as the past. This is certainly true of two Russian military epics made during World War II that I found today on YouTube.


The first is "Suvorov," a biography of the astounding Alexander Suvorov (ca. 1730 - 1800). The film dates from 1940, and I suspect it was not only meant as an ode to a spectacularly brilliant Russian general, but also as a reminder to Russians of their fighting spirit, and to Europe (Suvorov crossed the Alps), that it might be wise not to attack Russia.



The second, "Kutuzov," was also about a victorious Russian general and his army, this time Mikhail Kutuzov (1745-1813), who fought Napoleon. 



Since it was made in 1943, one is tempted to see the film as not only a reminder of Russia's past military glory, but to reassure the nation that the Germans, whom the Soviet Union was still in the process of pushing back to Berlin, would meet a fate similar to Napoleon's.


Both films are remarkable for their attempts to represent authentically the military uniforms, equipment, and tactics of their day. For example, this is the first time I've seen the Potempkin uniforms represented in film. 


The Soviet government was also generous in loaning authentic locations, such as palaces, in which to film, and lots, and lots of soldiers and horses. All of which is remarkable when you realize that World War II was in full swing by the time Kutuzov was filmed.

Lastly, one sees stylistic similarities between these earlier films and Sergei Bondarchuk's handling of battle scenes, especially in his 1968 "War and Peace." No doubt Bondarchuk was quite familiar with both of these amazing films.


I should note that both films are in Russian, with neither dubbing nor subtitles. But if you know the history even slightly (or look it up online) they are easy to follow and well worth a look.

A. Suvorov, 1940, with Nikolai Chrekasov-Sergeyev in the title role. 
B. This 1799 portrait of Alexander Suvorov by Joseph Kreutzinger, shows the remarkable physical resemblance between the actor and his subject. [Wikimedia Commons]
C. Russian Troops under Suvorov Crossing the Alps in 1799 by Vasily Surikov, 1899 [Wikimedia Commons]
D. Perhaps influenced by the film, this 1941 Russian poster links General Suvorov with the Russian Army of World War II.
E. Kutuzov, 1943, starring Sergey Blinnikov in the title role. 
F.Portrait of Russian field-marshal M.I. Kutuzov  by R.M. Volkov
G. German troops in Russia during the winter of 1941-1942 suffered a fate similar to those of Napoleon in 1812.
H. The Potempkin Uniform as reconstructed in A.V. Viskovatov's monumental work, Historical Description of the Clothing and Arms of the Russian Army (1855).
I. Suvorov, 1940
J. War and Peace, directed by Sergey Bondarchuk(1968)
K. Kutuzov (1943)