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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12 Russian War Movies You Must See

Russia is another of those countries whose film production rarely disappoints. I haven’t seen all of the below mentioned movies yet but have read a lot about them and have seen parts of them. There are most certainly more but these seem to be the most important ones. They are quite different. Some, like 9th Company, are pure, gritty  infantry combat, others like Come and See are more experimental. Mongol and Admiral are quite beautiful. What they all have in common is a feel of authenticity, and a way of showing how atrocious war is that is very unique and emotional. If you haven’t seen any Russian war movies so far, I would suggest you change that as soon as possible.

The Fortress of War aka Brestskaya krepost (2010) Dramatic infantry combat. The Germans attack the Brest Fortress from all sides. Soldiers and civilians fight for their life. (See my review)

Admiral (2008) The true story of Admiral Kolchak. WWI and Russian Revolution. War Movie and Love Story. (Here is my review)

Mongol (2007) The story of the rise of Genghis Khan. (Here is my review)

9th Company aka 9 Rota (2005) Gritty infantry combat in Afghanistan. It has similarities with Platoon but the characters are very different, very emotional. (See my review)

The Thief aka Vor (1997) Childhood drama that starts during WWII.

Come and See aka Idi i Smotri (1985) A young boy gets caught up in the atrocities of WWII.

The Dawns here are Quiet aka A zori zdes tikhie (1972) The story of a group of female soldiers during WWII.

Ivan’s childhood aka Ivanovo detstvo (1962) A young boy works as a spy at the eastern front. Three Soviet officers try to take care of this boy-child.

Ballad of a Soldier aka Ballada o Soldate (1959) A 19-year-old soldier gets a medal for bravery. On his leave he meets a girl on the train and falls in love with her. (Here’s my review)

The Story of a Man aka Sudba cheloveka (1959) The story of a man whose life is destroyed by WWII. When his village is bombed his wife and children are killed.

The Cranes are Flying aka Letyat zhuravli  (1957) A young woman waits for the love of her life to return from the war. The movie shows the battlefield and the home front. (See my review)

Battleship Potemkin aka Bronenosets Potyomkin (1925) A silent movie classic. One of the first war movies ever with a lot of famous scenes. Very expressive.

It is also worth mentioning other movies by Sergei Bondarchuk like War and Peace or Waterloo. They are all excellent but mostly co-productions with international stars that’s why I didn’t include them but chose The Story of a Man instead.

Do you have any favourite Russian war movies and/or recommendations?