To count down to Memorial Day, we’ll be presenting a daily war movie to get you in the fighting spirit. Today, Boots on the Ground presents:
Ballad of a Soldier (1959)
In 1959 Russian filmmaker Grigori Chukhrai co-wrote and directed this tale set on the Russian front during WWII about a nineteen year old soldier, Alyosha, rewarded six days leave to return home to see his mother for knocking out two enemy tanks single-handedly. On his trip back home he encounters various individuals with loved ones away at war, as well as numerous obstacles that further delay Alyosha’s return home, and each one chips away at the amount of time he’s been allotted to see his mother.
In contrast to a good deal of war films, Ballad of a Soldier is less a story about the experiences and brutality of war, and more about how it affects the lives of those involved and those waiting for them to come home. There’s no talk in the film about fighting to protect the land, or for freedom, or any other noble causes even if there was one (this was WWII). It’s about a soldier’s greatest desire, and no matter for what reasons they joined the military in the first place in a time of war that greatest desire is just to go home. They can be one-hundred percent gung-ho about why they’re fighting, but there’s not one soldier that doesn’t wish they didn’t have to. That’s the story of Alyosha, who instead of accepting decoration for his accomplishment in the field pleads to just return home, if only for a day to help his mother fix the roof to their home and be given the opportunity to say good-bye (something he didn’t get to do before leaving for the front).
The General who approves the leave knows that a day won’t be enough and approves him for six; two to get there, two to spend time with his mother, and two to get back. That’s how much even the most hard-nosed of military leaders understands the value of being able to say good-bye.
The other men in Alyosha’s regimen are equally supportive and happy for him, and that’s refreshing. In a moment where it would seem easy to be bitter about him being able to go home for a short period while they stay and fight everyone is excited for Alyosha. Some ask for favors, such as finding a soldier’s wife to tell them that her husband is alright and while Alyosha knows that he’s on a time crunch he abides. That’s how much even a nineteen year old boy with only two days to see his own family (possibly for the last time) understands the importance of a wife needing to hear that her husband is alive, that he misses her, and that he can’t wait to come home.
On his journey Alyosha meets a variety of characters, most with tragic stories and a mixture of happy and sad endings. The most touching comes in the form of a discharged soldier, sent home due to a war injury. Alyosha finds him in his first train stop looking a little dejected, presumably because of his injury, but also seems a little less enthusiastic about being able to go home to his wife. As it turns out the man is in a state of self-loathing and feeling inadequate, mainly that he doesn’t deserve his beautiful young wife and has his mind made up that he won’t go home because he’s afraid of rejection. It takes a little bit of convincing, but the man changes his mind. His reunion with his wife is a film highlight, and a satisfying depiction of how, often times, those who mean the most to you feel more for you than you think.
The most significant encounter to Alyosha’s own story is in meeting the young stowaway girl Shura who is on her way to see her aunt. Shura goes along with Alyosha to all of his pit-stops and over the course of a day of travels the two fall in love, only to have to eventually part ways. Sometimes, the greatest sacrifice a soldier will make isn’t in putting the life he had on the line, but the life he could have had – and who he could have had it with.
The film is, obviously, Russian, but its themes are universal to all those that serve as soldiers; or, more so, for those who have someone important to them away at war. When it comes down to it the reasons for fighting, whether noble or horrendous, can seem trivial when put into context next to the stories of those who have to do it. Most soldiers don’t care if the cause is dignified, in the end they just want to go home; and guaranteed they’re wanted home more than their cause wants them to fight. It doesn’t matter if a soldier joined the military out of necessity, obligation, personal choice, an inner desire, or just because they thought they had no other option – the fact is they’re in it and their chance for survival in a time of war decreases. That’s why we remember those that didn’t make it. It isn’t necessarily because of what they fought for, but because of what they gave up to do it. For some, for all we know, they could have cured cancer. For others, for all we know, someone will have lost the true love of their life – whether having already known it, or having just met them on their way home to fix their mother’s roof.