Arsenal (1928)



Director:     Aleksandr Dovzhenko.

Starring:     Semyon Svashenko (Timosh, the Ukrainian),   Amvrosi Buchma (Laughing-Gassed Soldier),   Georgi Khorkov (A Red Army Soldier),   Dmitri Erdman (A German Officer),   Sergei Petrov (A German Soldier),   M. Mikhajlovsky (A Nationalist),  A. Yevdakov (Tsar Nikolas II),  Nikolai Kuchinsky (Petliura),  O. Merlatti (Sadovsky),  Nikolai Nademsky (Official).

Dovzhenko's "Ukraine Trilogy" (along with Zvenigora and Earth)

Silent film, black and white, English subtitles. 


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

Barbed wire and artillery shell explosions.  There was a mother who had three sons.  Trench warfare.  Mother looks awfully skinny and worn out.  There was a war.  The women of the village look very unhappy with their heads hanging low.  A local official feels the breasts of one of the women who stands so still.  The mother had three sons no more. 

A woman sows seeds in the field.   Tsar Nikolas II sits at his desk.  The woman sowing seed falls to the ground.  The Tsar writes that today he shot a crow.  Splendid weather.  The woman in the field appears to be dead.  A factory makes artillery shells.  A one-armed farmer, husband of the skinny woman, takes his very skinny horse out to the fields.  A small daughter and son pull on the blouse of the mother begging her for food.  She is totally listless with her head hanging low.  The mother beats her children out of frustration.  The farmer beats his horse out of frustration.  The farmer kicks the horse and he falls down.  The children are still crying.  "You're hitting the wrong one, Ivan!"   The farmer begins to lead his horse again.  There are very little crops in the fields.

Artillery shells push up loads of dirt.  The Germans attack.  A soldier gets too much laughing gas and starts laughing his head off.  There are many dead soldiers around the laughing man.  A German soldier goes to bayonet someone on the ground, but stops.  He asks:  "Where is the enemy?"

The enemy is on a train.  A German officer comes up from behind the stopped German soldier and points his pistol at his head.  The soldier seems frozen like a statue.  The Germans keep coming.  The officer shoots the soldier.  He picks up his rifle and proceeds forward. 

Soldiers are returning from the front.  They are fighting each other for supplies.  "Give me back my Ukrainian raincoat," says one.  "And my Ukrainian boots."  Another Ukrainian soldier says:  "You've been torturing us for three hundred years, you accursed Russians."  The Russian only says:  "What did I do?"

The train comes to a stop.  The engineer says:  "My brakes have given out.  I won't take you down hill."   One soldier puts a rifle barrel up to the engineer's head.  But another man says:  "Take it easy, men.  We'll repair the brakes ourselves." 

A different group of soldiers suddenly descends on the train looking for deserters.  A leader shouts:  "Surrender your arms in the name of the Ukrainian People's Republic."  Machine gunners open the train doors and look out kneeling behind their machines guns.  The train continues to roll on.  The engineer is left behind.  The guys in the engine compartment ask how do you run a train.  "Just keep it going" is the answer.   Then they demand that the train go faster.  Some soldiers jump off the moving train.  The train crashes.  One of the soldiers, a deserter named Timosh, swears:  "I'm going to learn how to run a train."

Soldiers from different nations come face to face with their women who now have small babies conceived in their absence.  A soldier with two lost legs sits by the square.

Timosh says to an employer:  "I am a demobilized soldier; an Arsenal worker, back from the war."  The boss says:  "A Ukrainian, eh?  A deserter, I suppose."  The boss pulls a pistol on the desk closer to him.  The man leaves and takes his two friends with him waiting outside the door.

The Ukrainian soldier speaks with other workers.  A man tells him:  "Go back to the barracks, Timosh.  Be ready for the next call of the revolutionary committee."  

In the city there is a religious procession.  One of the clergy says:  "Let us thank God, who has preserved our free Ukraine!"   A shout goes up:  "Long live the Ukraine!"  Some people are hugging and kissing each other. Timosh watches what is going on.  A man comes up to him and says:  "Christ is risen, soldier!"  Timosh is not interested. 

Someone asks the question:  "Who was Bohdan Khmelnitsky?"  Another someone says he was a Ukrainian general.  Another man screams:  "Soldiers, the Central Council summons you!"  A soldier in the audience asks the question:  "Can we knock off the capitalists and officers in the streets if we find any?"  The men line up to sign a non-Bolshevik list of supporters.  There is an argument on the line involving Timosh.  He won't sign.  The seated man says:  "But you're Ukrainian, aren't you?"  Timosh answers:  "Yes, a worker!"  The man looks harshly at Timosh who then gets out of the line.

Timosh starts thinking:  "Yes, I am a worker!"  He gets up on the platform and pushes the two speakers already up there off the platform.  He speaks to the assembled throng. 

The first All-Ukrainian Congress.  The representative of the Bolsheviks has the floor.  Some in the audience seem very upset at this.  Timosh stands on the platform again ready to speak.  He says:  "We workers are also for the freedom of Ukraine!  But we want Soviet power!"   Timosh adds:  "How they deal with representatives of the working people!"  Another speaker on the platform says:  "Power is in Ukrainian hands, but in whose hands is the land?  The peasants' or the landowners'?"

General Simon Petlura now has the floor.  Timosh and his friends leave the meeting.   The General says:  "Here's a message of greeting from the Black Sea fleet."

A competing message is:  "Do not fool your sons and brothers.  They will soon know the truth and you will be cursed by the sons of Ukraine and do not look to the support of the Black Sea fleet, for we will be the first to train our guns on you!"  Another fellow says: "It's just a misunderstanding and should be overlooked."    Still another says:  "Let's vote.  Who is for dismissing the whole thing?"  The audience looks downhearted.  "Who is against?"  The dreadnought "Maria".  "The Three Saints."    "The Don Basin!  Poltava!"  "Boguntzy!" 

Horsemen race over the snow.  "Strike!"  The Arsenal Plant was astir. "Strike!"  The machinery of the arsenal factory stops.  Counter-revolutionary nationalist troops  are on the march to put down the trouble at the Arsenal.  They arrive at the arsenal.  The workers get their rifles and machine guns ready to oppose them. 

The troops go through the main gate.  The door closes behind them.  Someone shouts:  "There will be no more trains!"

The Arsenal Plant.  Things are quiet.  Some women come with food.  One man says:  "Here we go, boys!  Let's begin a workers' arsenal." 

Troops arrive and there is some shooting at the Arsenal. 

Lots of men lay frozen to death along the railway tracks.  Others keep marching.  An arsenal soldier says:  "I've been through four years of the world war and one year of civil war.  Petlura's bullet got me and I know I'm dying.  I want to be buried at home.  I've been away for nine years.  But hurry, or the Arsenal will fall!" 

They rush an artillery piece forward.  A man shouts that they must bury their comrade who died for the revolution.  A grave has already been dug.  They stop and place the body of the revolutionary in the grave.  A man says:  "Here he is, mother, and there's no time for explanations.  We live and we die for the revolution!"  The men with the artillery piece take off again. 

The armored car "Free Ukraine".   An explosion hits it.  One man accuses another:  "You overturned our Free Ukraine."  "Stand with your face to the wall, so I can shoot you in the back."  The man does as he is told, but then decides to turn around and face his executioner.    He starts to walk toward him.  There is fighting in the streets.  The man walks right up to the fellow with the pistol. "Can't you do it looking in my eyes?"  He takes the gun from the man and shoots him dead. 

Three days and three nights after the attack.  A man sits on the ground with lots of empty expended artillery shell casings around him.  One of the arsenal workers says:  "It will be all up with us tomorrow.  We're halted."  Soldiers rush the arsenal and the fighting begins anew.  An arsenal worker shouts:  "We need shells!"  The soldiers take the arsenal workers captive.  There is celebration among the troops later that night.  An arsenal worker, standing before a wall, is executed along with many other arsenal workers.  The women of the arsenal workers wonder where is father? and son? and brother?  Even a young boy is executed. 

Then someone asks:  "Where's the machinist?"  "There is no machinist."  "Where's the blacksmith?"  "There is no blacksmith." 

Timosh gets his hands on a machine gun.  The machine jams.  Three soldiers demand to know who is there.  Timosh answers:  "A Ukrainian worker.  Go on, shoot!"  The men shoot one volley and then another at Timosh.  Yet he still stands.  One would-be executioner says:  "Fall damn you, fall!  Are you wearing armor or something?"  He rips open his shirt showing he has no armor.  The men decide not to fire again.  They whirl and leave. 


I can't say I really enjoyed the movie.  And it was a bit confusing until I read more about the history of the Ukraine.  Many film buffs are into the film making techniques of the directors, but that's just not me.  I prefer my history without so much "art". 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Historical Background:

Bohdan Zynovii Mykhailovych Khmel'nyts'kyi (c. 1595-1657) was a hetman of the Zaporozhian Cossack Hetmanate of the Ukraine. 

1648-1654  --  Bohdan  led the uprising against  the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth magnates.  He wanted to create an independent Ukrainian state.

1654   --  Bohdan concluded the Treaty of Pereyaslav with Russia.  This eventually led to the loss of Ukrainian independence.

1879  --  birth of Symon Vasylyovych Petliura, who was a publicist, writer, journalist and Ukrainian politician and statesman.  He was the leader of Ukraine's fight for independence following the Russian Revolution of 1917. 

1917 (Feb) - 1921 (March)   --   Ukrainian Civil War (or Ukrainian War of Independence).    The forces involved in the fighting were:  Ukrainian, Anarchist, Bolshevik, Central Powers forces of Germany and Austro-Hungary, the White Russian Volunteer Army and the Second Polish Republic forces.  Some French and Romanian forces were also involved.  The war led to the division of Ukraine between the Bolshevik Ukrainian SSS, Poland and Romania. 

1917 (May)  --  Petlura attended the first All-Ukrainian Army Congress in Kiev as a delegate.  There he, despite his lack of any military training, was elected head of the Ukrainian General Army Committee.

1917 (June 28)  --  proclamation of the Ukrainian Central Council. 

1918 (Jan-Feb)  --  as head of the Haydamaka Regiment of Sloboda Ukraine, Petlura forced back the Bolshevik Red Guard that had briefly captured Kiev.

1919 (January)  --  outbreak of hostilities between Ukraine and Soviet Russia.

1919 (Feb)  --  during the Ukrainian Civil War, Petlura was briefly Head of the Ukrainian State  (He was the leader of the Directorate of Ukraine.)  For the next ten months he fought both Bolshevik and white forces in Ukraine.

1919 (autumn)  --  by this time most of Anton Denikin's White Russian forces were defeated.  But the Bolsheviks were now the strongest force in Ukraine.

191921  --  in the Polish-Bolshevik War the Polish Army managed to defeat the Bolshevik Russians, but were unable to secure independence for it ally Ukraine.  After the Peace of Riga Ukraine was divided between Poland and Soviet Russia.

1920 (October)  --  the Pole interned Petlura and his forces in Kalisz. 

1923  --  Petlura escape Polish internment. 

1924 (early)  -- Petlura settles in Paris. 

1926  --  Petlura was assassinated in Paris.  He was killed by multiple shots from a pistol wielded by anarchist Sholom Schwartzbard. 


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