Ballad of a Soldier – Ballada o soldate (1959)

Ballad of a Soldier

Grigory Chukhray‘s movie Ballad of a Soldier  aka Ballada o Soldate is an iconic Russian war movie, which is often mentioned together with another famous Russian movie of the same time, The Cranes are Flying aka Letyat zhuravli. Both films are excellent and combine heartfelt stories with luminous black and white cinematography.

Ballad of a Soldier begins with a scene showing a woman looking into the distance. The road we see is the only one leading to and from the village in which the woman lives. She doesn’t expect anyone to come. Her son has died during the war and nobody will ever know what would have become of him. The movie then rewinds to a famous scene on the Russian frontline and we see her son, nineteen year-old Alyosha, a young signalman, blowing up two German tanks on his own. This heroic act would bring him a  medal but he’d rather be granted a leave to visit his widowed mother and fix her roof. The general in charge, one of a few kind officers, allows him to take a five-day leave.

Russia is a huge country and travelling by train would always take a long time, but during a war it’s almost impossible. Alyosha’s trip quickly turns into an Odyssey. Because he’s kind and helpful, he misses his train more than once. At first he helps a soldier who has lost his leg, then he assists a young girl and the two young people fall in love. Later he helps people after the train is hit by a bomb. When he finally arrives at home, he has only time to hug his mother, exchange a few words and has to leave again immediately. Since we know that he will die during the war, this scene is all the more poignant.

The movie shows how everyone is affected by war, even those who don’t fight. In focussing on someone as kind as Alyosha, someone who genuinely cares for other people the movie makes a powerful anti-war statement. Much more than his heroic act of the beginning, his humanity and kindness make us sad and we deplore that he will never return to his mother, nor get a chance to find the girl he fell in love with.

Something that struck me was that all of the Russian officers, and most of the soldiers in this movie are depicted in a positive way.

Like in The Cranes Are Flying, many shots focus on the faces of the actors who are very expressive. While the first film sticks more to the point of view of a woman, this is told mostly from the point of view of a young man, which makes them great companion pieces. The scenes between mother and son are short but still I’d say it’s one of the most touching portraits of a mother/son relationship. After all, it’s his love for his mother, that makes Alyosha persevere on his journey.

I’d like to recommend this movie. It stands out and makes a powerful statement.

If you’d like to watch other Russia war movies – here is a list: 12 Russian war movies you must see

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13 thoughts on “Ballad of a Soldier – Ballada o soldate (1959)

  1. […] Ballad of a Soldier (Russia 1959) A Russian masterpiece. A young soldier falls in love with a girl on a train. (See my review) […]

  2. Guy Savage says:

    I thought this was a marvelous war film. One of the best Soviet war films IMO (not that I’ve seen them all) but it ranks up there with The Cranes are Flying.

  3. Guy Savage says:

    Another great one told from a female perspective: Commissar

  4. the war movie buff says:

    I have a fond spot for this movie. It was the first Soviet war movie that I saw for my blog project. It is ranked #81 on the list of Greatest War Movies. I recall that it was one of the movies that was made possible by the Khrushchev thaw in films. It is refreshingly nonpatriotic. The leads were inexperienced actors. The screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award which is amazing.

    My main problem with the film is the portrayal of Soviet officers as kind and sensitive. Who was the director trying to fool? Russian veterans must have chuckled while watching the film.

    The movie is charming and the cinematography is interesting (if a bit too artsy at times). The ending could not have been more poignant.

    In my opinion, “Cranes” is the better movie. They are great companion pieces.

    • Well, yes, I was puzzled by the depiction of the officers as well.
      I didn’t remember that it made it on your list. But Cranes didn’t? If I had to choose I suppose I wuld prefer Cranes as well but since I don’t have to, I like them both equally.

  5. nem baj says:

    “Something that struck me was that all of the Russian officers, and most of the soldiers in this movie are depicted in a positive way.”

    Of course. Everybody in this rosy propaganda film is depicted positively; even the cheating wife feels remorse. All the Soviet Union (including Ukrainians) stands behind the war, and the Russian war hero! Mind you, even after “Foreigners” call him a “liberator” (are they Poles, Balts or Hungarians?).

    That said, it’s pretty entertaining, well scripted and well done (the low-angle shots are a tad repetitive and the close-up on faces often meaningless though), and it’s hard not to be endeared by the golden-hearted boy and touched by the sensuality of his meeting with Shura – which certainly was a breath of fresh air for Soviet audiences of the times.

    • I liked those low-angle shots and didn0t find it all that propagandist but looking back, yes, it might have been. 🙂

      • nem baj says:

        They were indeed reminiscent of stalinist sculpture. One in particular, of the women in the fields, brings back the heroïc Mother/Motherland association, a classic theme since the 1943 film She Defends the Motherland. Also, the paternalistic officer was a standard since Chapaev (1938).

        What was new in the Ballad was the focus on the individual private, and the sex. But the style wasn’t new, either borrowing from soviet aesthetics from the 20s or neo-realism (but using both styles without representing political conflicts is imho a rather empty exercise).

        Which is why from the same director I prefer The Forty-First, and would choose The Cranes are Flying over the Ballad any time…

      • I haven’t see The Forty-First. Ballad of a Soldier is on almost all Top 100 lists. I suppose form a Western European poj nt of view it does its job very well. I like the private aspect and found the love story compelling too. Because it had no chance whatsoever.

      • nem baj says:

        I agree with you that the Ballad is very pleasing to Western eyes. It was even more so when it was presented, a sudden breath of fresh air – especially for left-wing critics. I suspect its has been overrated ever since, as for charts, well… I don’t even trust my own. 🙂

        You may want to try Twenty Days Without War which is also based on a “trip home”… with a very different treatment. Made under Brezhnev, and unsuprisingly banned for a few years.

      • Yeah well, maybe it’s overrated. I’ll see if I can find that one.

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