Ballada o soldate (Ballad of a Soldier) (1959)
Director: Grigori Chukhrai.
Cast: Vladimir Ivashov (Pvt. Alyosha Skvortsov), Zhanna Prokhorenko (Shura), Antonina Maksimova (The mother), Nikolai Kryuchkov (The general), Yevgeni Urbansky (Vasya, the invalid), Elza Lezhdey (The invalid's wife), Aleksandr Kuznetsov (Gavrilkin, the train sentry), Yevgeni Teterin (The lieutenant), V. Markova (Liza, Pavlov's wife), Marina Kremnyova (Zoya, neighbor girl), Vladimir Pokrovsky (Pavlov's invalid father), Georgi Yumatov (Sergeant giving bars of soap), Gennadi Yukhtin (Pvt. Seryozha Pavlov), Valentina Telegina (Old woman truck driver), Lev Borisov (Joking soldier on train).
A sort of Russian road movie about a young Russian soldier's four day trip to go home to see his mother
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire movie.
1959. In a small town in the Soviet Union a woman walks along a dirt road heading between huge agricultural fields. But she is not waiting for anyone. Her son is buried near a town with a foreign name. He was a soldier who died in World War II.
Flashback. German tanks are coming over a hill headed down upon Russian positions. Most of the soldiers have left, but 19-year old Pvt. Aloysha Skvortsov, stays to use the radio to call in about the oncoming four enemy tanks. When one of the tanks comes close to running over him he makes a run for it. The tanks just follows him back to the Russian line. But they underestimated the private. Despite his extreme fear, he grabs an anti-tank gun and knocks out one and then another of the four tanks. Russian artillery opens up on the Germans and the other two German tanks turn around and leave.
At headquarters, the General says that Aloysha is a hero for knocking out two tanks. They are putting him in for a medal. The private asks the General if instead of getting a medal, might he not get a leave to go and see his mother and fix her leaking roof. He wants to go to the village of Sosnovka, Georgievsk. The General tells him he will give him two days to get there, two days to get back and two days to fix the roof. But he must return on time. As the jeep starts carrying Pvt. Aloysha home, the Russian troops are headed the other way. Some of the soldiers help Aloysha push the jeep through a stream. One of the soldiers asks Aloysha to take a letter from him to his wife in a town on his way to Sosnovka. The place is on 7 Chekov Street, not far from the railway station. The group gives Aloysha two bars of soap (all the soap the whole platoon had for a whole month) to give to the wife as a present.
The jeep drives close to a moving train. Aloysha jumps out, runs to the train and jumps on it. At the next railway stop Aloysha sees a soldier with one leg on two crutches. Aloysha volunteers to carry his suitcase for him. The invalid tells Aloysha to wait for him while he sends a telegram to his wife that he is coming home. Aloysha waits and waits but the train arrives and people start boarding, but there is no sign of the man. So Aloysha goes into the telegraph office. The fellow is just leaning on the counter doing nothing. When Aloysha asks him why he is doing nothing, he gruffly says that he changed his mind. He says he decided not to go home. He was not getting along with his wife that well and he will find something else. After all, Russia is a big country. The female clerk who overhears the one-legged man, gives him a piece of her mind. She says his behavior is despicable. It makes the man feel so bad that he decides to go home after all. He and Aloysha catch the next train to Gorisov. The two men joke around with the other soldiers on the train. They kid Aloysha about being a "hero". They arrive in Gorisov, but there is no sign of the man's wife. Just when they start to leave, the wife arrives. She is very happy to find her husband alive and well. They embrace each other.
Aloysha has already used up a half day for a two-day trip home. He will leave on the next train. But there's a problem. When he tries to hop into a box car a young guard stops him. No one is allowed on the train except authorized personnel. Aloysha bribes the guard with a tin of canned meat sent from the United States and is allowed to sneak on the train. The guard warns Aloysha to stay out of sight of the Lieutenant, who is a real "beast". At one of the stops a young girls gets on the box car. She is startled and frightened when she discovers Aloysha hiding in the hay. Apparently she is very scared of him and thinks he wants to rape her, because she tries to jump from the train. (That would have been suicidal.) Aloysha stops her, but she just screams and keeps screaming. He concludes that she's crazy. He finally gets her to calm down. She blames him for her problems, because she threw her bag with all her stuff from the train before he stopped her from jumping.
She is getting off at the next stop she says. But he convinces her to stay on. He gives her some of his food and they start talking. Fairly soon they are being friendly to each other. She tells him her name, Shura, and he tells her his. When the next stop comes up, the guard tries to throw Shura off the train. Aloysha intervenes and is able to bribe the guard with another tin of canned meat. The news of the day heard over the loud speaker is that the fighting in the battle for Novorossiisk is getting fierce. The Lieutenant shows up and asks Aloysha and Shura what they are doing in the boxcar. Aloysha explains and the Lieutenants proves to be anything but a "beast". The Lieutenant asks the guard why he is hiding a can of beef behind his back. He gets mad at the guard when he learns the whole story and gives the guard additional guard duty. Aloysha then jumps out of the car in order to get them some water for the trip. He does not make it back in time and the sleeping Shura is carried to the next stop by the train.
Aloysha runs to the road and flags down a truck. It is a woman driving. She tells him that she can get him to the next station in time to catch his train. Problems, however, start happening. It is raining and the truck stalls in a large puddle of water. Later it gets stuck in the mud and Aloysha has to push to help get the truck onto drier ground. They arrive at the next station, but the guard there says the train left and hour and a half ago. Aloysha is crushed and starts walking around in a daze. Then he hears Shura's voice calling him. She got off at this station stop in the hope that Aloysha would show up.
They stop to have some food. She looks in his pack and sees a very fancy handkerchief and two bars of soap. She asks Aloysha about what she saw. He explains the handkerchief is for his mother and the two bars of soap are for the wife of a soldier at the front. Then he remembers that he is in the town where the wife lives. They run to 7 Chekhov Street to find it completely destroyed by German bombs. The elderly lady looking through the rubble tells him that the wife is living in another apartment. Her grandchild takes them over to see the woman. Aloysha learns from an overheard conversation that the woman is with another man. So he only gives her one bar of soap. He leaves very angry. As he descends the stairs he gets even angrier and decides to go back to the wife. He rushes into her apartment and grabs back the bar of soap he had given her. Aloysha and Shura now visit the front line soldier's father who lies in his sick bed. They give him the two bars of soap. And Aloysha pretends he really knows the man's son and gives the son very high praise. The father is grateful to Aloysha.
Aloysha and Shura try to get on the next train, but only soldiers are aloud on. So Aloysha puts his coat on Shura and has her wear his military hat over her pulled back hair. They get on the train. It's obvious looking at their behavior on the train that they are falling in love. She lays her head on his shoulder. She has to get off at the next stop. She is going to her aunt's place. Aloysha tells her not to forget him. She runs alongside the train waving good-bye to him. On the train Aloysha reviews various memories of Shura in his head. It then occurs to him that she was trying to tell him that she loves him, but he was too dense to catch the message and did not say anything in return.
There is a big explosion that destroys a railroad bridge. The train has to stop. And when it does the train is hit by bombs. The train starts to burn. Again Aloysha proves himself a hero as he rescues numerous children from the burning car he is on. The children and women are to be evacuated on the next train, while Aloysha with the other men will have to wait two hours to be evacuated. He doesn't have enough time to wait. He runs down to the river, grabs a raft and starts heading downstream. He then gets a ride from a trucker who takes Aloysha all the way home. The neighbors see Aloysha coming and one woman runs to the fields to tell his mother to get home fast.
Aloysha enters his home and finds the neighbor girl. She tells him that his mother is in the fields. As time slips by, Aloysha says he has to go. The trucker cannot wait any longer. Aloysha gets on the truck and they start leaving the home. Mom finally reaches the road just after the truck passes by her. But she is able to scream loud enough to get Aloysha's attention. Aloysha has the truck stop and he runs back to his mother. They embrace. All the neighbor women and some old men (all the men of military age are at the front) watch them embrace. They are eager for news from the front. Their first question, however, is how long will the war last.
Mother and son are able to talk for just a few minutes. Aloysha gives her the fancy handkerchief. He then says: "I have to go." Mother cries and says: "I won't let you go." But she has to let him go. She tells him: "I'll wait for you to get home."
Back to the present. The narrator says "We'll always think of him as a Russian soldier." (Notice he did not say a Soviet soldier. The thaw was beginning that would lead to the demise of the Soviet Union, which gave the director a lot more latitude in what he could say on film. )
Good movie, a part of the Criterion Collection of good films. There's not that much history in the movie, however. The movie could have been set in a different country, except for the scenery. The movie was praised for its message that humans are good and are presented humanely. (This attitude was compared favorably to the coercive atmosphere forced on films that had to get Soviet approval.) I guess if you were living in the Soviet Union at the time, the film would have been considered outstanding -- a breath of fresh air for a change. And in this sense, the film itself is historical.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
Novorossiisk (or Novorossiysk) is a city in southern Russia in Krasnodar Krai. It is that country's main port on the Black Sea.
1942 -- the town of Novorossiisk was occupied by the German army. But a small unit of Soviet sailors were able to hold to one part of the town for 225 days. This defense prevents the Germans from using the port for supply shipments.
1943 (September 16) -- the Red Army liberates Novorossiisk.
1973 -- Novorossiysk is awarded the title Hero City.
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