The Forty-First (1956)

This review is part of "The Russia in Classic Film Blogathon," hosted by Movies Silently. Check out the movie and blogroll here.

Some movies beg the accompaniment of a list or two. Female revolutionaries? Check. Wait, no, Female *snipers.* Check. (Probably a pretty short list, that, unless you count exploitation cinema, which abides by a whole 'nother set of rules.) Propaganda film? Check. Russian civil war story? Check. Sovcolor remake of black & white Soviet silent film? Check. Furthermore, the story is rich with nationalist and patriotic trope-ry.

Because you can head here for a more detailed plot summery, I will keep my retelling brief. Instead, I'd rather focus on this film's connections to international cinema and the questions it raises for me about the expectations for women in nationalist narratives. [This post will be rife with spoilers, as it's impossible to say anything about this film's message without discussing the final scene. You have been warned.]

It's the *ahem* Soviet propaganda version of 1918. The war between the Whites and Reds has not yet been resolved. [The important thing to remember is that White is bad and Red good in the Soviet imagination.] Maria (Izolda Izvitskaya) is a hardened sniper in the Red Army. She and her company are marching through the Karakum desert, when she spies a rival army caravan from afar and picks off two of the soldiers, giving her forty total kills. Uncharacteristically, she misses the man who would have been her forty-first, Lieutenant Otrok (Oleg Strizhenov).

Swiftly, the survivor is captured and discovered to be carrying some mysterious war intelligence for the White Army. This makes him a valuable prisoner indeed, and Maria is tasked with watching over him. But because he looks and acts rather like Cary Elwes dashing, is both charming and well-educated, and because she's the only women for hundreds of miles probably, a tentative comradery grows between them.

On his part, he seems to enjoy her shaky attempts at revolutionary poetry, and tries to hold back his laughter at her expense. She has a certain glow, it must be denied. (I need to get me some of that socialist realism make-up, it makes one look invincible.) And yes, she's rough and uneducated, but he comes to respect her dedication to the cause. Still, a shadow hangs between them, as she is bringing him to his death. However, not before they are shipwrecked on an island alone together (you'd have to be there, it sort of makes sense), and they finally let themselves fall into tempestuous cast-away love. Obviously, such bliss must be sacrificed--there's a war on, after all.

Helmed by one of my favorite directors, Grigori Chukhrai, and released in 1956 at the beginning of the Kruschev Thaw, the characters here are still bound by the severity of Soviet ideology. But, take note, these folks are characters, not puppets, with believable motivations and semi-believable actions. It's definitely not a pure propaganda film about the early Lenin years like 1959's Kommunist with Yevgeny Urbansky, nor does it share the ambiguities and moral questions of Kalatozov's The Cranes are Flying (1957), the maddening unfairness of war expressed in Chukhrai's Ballad of a Soldier (1959), or even the mild Stalinist critique of his later Clear Skies (1961). It falls somewhere in the middle. Yes, each of Chukhrai's films within this period are intensely personal accounts of war and the aftermath of war, and The Forty-First is no exception. But by sympathizing with the enemy (and even more literally, with the enemy's stories and story-telling) while STILL advocating a personal sacrifice for the larger mission, The Forty-First digs its heels into safe territory.

It's still near enough to no man's land to provide some thrills, however.

*Biggest spoilers below*

Of course, I'm hinting at the fact that although romance is allowed temporarily, it's doomed to be ended by Maria's final act: shooting Otrok when he is about to be rescued by a White Army ship. For those of you feeling some deja-vu, you have good reason. It's a scene that bears more than a passing resemblance to Fanaa (2006), in which *spoiler* a Kashmiri woman kills her would-be militant husband, instead of letting him be air-lifted out to support large-scale terrorism.

Both stories trade on doomed romance that transcends earlier loyalties ... for a time. Both emphasize rejecting a beautiful enemy for a more beautiful country. Both use the desert island trope: one on an actual island, the other a snowed-in Kashmiri lodge. But while the protagonist in Fanaa has to kill the father of her son, and thus destroy her family (or save it, depending on your point of view), Maria was never a nurturing figure to begin with. It's easier to understand how her military training would take over in a moment of crisis.

I don't mention this because I think it's easier to execute one's lover than one's husband (Sophie's Choice much?), but it surprises me that in both cases, the Indian and Soviet ideals for the average woman (mother, wife, worker) are being superseded by the "higher" call or "need" of one's country. A film from India in the 50s, especially in the rather socialist Mother India (1957), sure. And in Soviet society in the 1950s, absolutely. Obviously, society trumps the individual in socialist narratives. But in Fanaa? An Indian film from the last dozen years? That's SO 60 years ago, guys. I guess nationalism and patriotism still need the same kinds of stories to achieve their ends, no matter to what country you pledge allegiance.

Following on the heels of that thought, it's important to note a similarity in the "means" not just the ends of this kind of fatalistic patriotism. Without artistic value, persuasive cinema can't keep people in their seats, much less spur them toward a certain kind of action. Both of these films trade on natural beauty to create an atmosphere of enchantment, even in, nay, especially when framing personal tragedy. The visuals of love and loss conjure up fairy tales, not history books. And in this, we see both the sneakier subtext of patriotism (the land is oh-so-important in national propaganda), the transformation of natural space into supernatural space (where anything can happen), and the dueling romanticizations of country vs. lover. Maria chooses the first, of course. Given Chukhrai's flare for "Romance with a capital R," one can almost understand why.


  1. Thanks so much for joining in with your review and tying the film into international cinema as a whole.

    1. Thanks for running the show! I also quite enjoyed your comparison between the silent film and the 50s film.

  2. That was a nice analysis and commentary. I wonder if the story of the sniper, taken from the 1920s novel and movie, was given resonance by the importance of women who served as snipers during the Great Patriotic War (World War II). Thank you for sharing with all of us.

    1. Thanks, Joe. It seems to me that the 1950s cinema in Russia was fairly concerned with WWII commentary, and perhaps someone should write a master post about how depictions of the Revolution differed from the Great Patriotic War. From what I've seen, there seems to be more room to maneuver in speaking about the devastation of the second than in diverging from the accepted narrative of the first.

  3. I guess nationalism and patriotism still need the same kinds of stories to achieve their ends, no matter to what country you pledge allegiance.>>

    And who is nationalist or patriot in the 41st?


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