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Heroes of Shipka is quite a delightful venture into Soviet cowboys and Indians. The film depicts in ardent propagandist terms the Russian victory over the Ottomans in 1876 when the Russians, out of sheer humanity, came to the aid of their "oppressed" Bulgarian brothers. The whole show is fraught with an enthusiasm and naivete that Hollywood no longer offers.
The photography is striking and beautiful; every scene features at least one sunset, a device which conveys, albeit cheaply by more sophisticated and "decadent" western standards, the heroic mood that is the life-blood of the film's credibility. Carrying through this effect is the usual lyrical and stirring Russian music.
Little attempt is made to delineate or even distinguish characters. One figure seems to be the center of attention and then disappears. The rather sketchy sub-titles don't communicate the relationship between characters as well as the dialogue undoubtedly does. The transition between scenes seems ridiculously careless and abrupt, but this may be due to failures in this particular print and not general ineptness on the part of the Russian film-makers.
The film then gains its merit from sheer movement and color and makes its myth come momentarily true in the abstract as if it were an opera and not a supposed documentation of an historical event. The Turks are all red-fezzed ogres, the common soldier and the people's general win the war for their oppressed brethren, and the Tzarist general staff is composed of dunderheads and tools of women. Bullets cannot touch the heroic leader, and his heroic troops stem the Turkish hordes by hurling rocks and corpses. A Bulgarian captive breaks away from his captors and, standing silhouetted against the night sky, cries "We will gain our freedom," and hurls himself into the abyss below.
Particularly delightful is the love interest--a peasant girl (the sexless Russian ideal of beauty), sees a soldier (who leers in reply). She says "A Russian saint," grabs a rifle and joins the heroic defenders.
The epic closes with a touching ceremony before the enormous tasteless monument dedicated by the Third Ukrainian Army in 1944.
For all its absurdities, this rare glimpse into what the Russians divert themselves with on Saturday night does not come off at all badly. It would be interesting to speculate on the debt that the people's artists behind the Soviet cinema owe to our own capitalistic horse-opera tradition. Even the cavalry arriving at the last minute is not omitted, nor the victory of a handful of heroes over thousands of the wicked.
What is particularly amazing is this film's ability to create an authentic empathy for shallow flag-waving, and if we all know in our hearts that war is not glorious, and the Russians must know this most of all after Stalingrad, the vision of national and violent heroism still comes alive and intoxicating for the moment, even transplanted out of the culture that it speaks to.
Surely, Heroes of Shipka is valuable not only as an exercise in the art of film-making, but also as an example of how effective mythmaking can inculcate patriotism by means of an almost Orwellian warping of history. And it is surely more exciting than what the text-books tell us of treaty-making and spheres of influence. Fiction in this case is more persuasive than fact.
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