The Winter War of 1939 1940, the Soviet Union's invasion of Finland under the banner of security demands and the silent mandate of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, stands as a mythical landmark in Finnish history, the epic national struggle against seemingly insurmountable military odds that resulted in loss of territory but saved the country's independence, a "miracle" born of stubborn perseverance and heart-breaking sacrifice. The war garnered Finland a lot of publicity and sympathy abroad, including this cheap Hollywood cash-in war film that tried, very badly, to champion Finland's cause in its struggle for life against the larger aggressor. The war was two months over by the time the film premiered, and the picture quickly faded into obscurity, as the ever-expanding conflict brought in fresh calamity to compete for attention.
Might be just as well that this was not shown in Finland before the 21st century, because the film's grasp of historical reality is ludicrously thin, and not just in details like when the war began. For one thing, Finland is famously the land of a thousand lakes but few mountains. Yet the Finns here are shown herding sheep in generic Middle European village sets with Alpine backdrops and dancing very jarring dances dressed in studio-standard Tyrolean gear that bears little resemblance to anything that might have been worn in a Finnish village at the time. Even the plot centres on a Finnish unit defending a huge mountain against the Soviet push. This may be because a lot of the combat footage was lifted from elsewhere, particularly from Luis Trenker's First World War epic The Doomed Battalion. Hence we get further historical inaccuracies, such as a Soviet airborne assault with the paratroopers deploying out of Junkers transports! Skiing was actually an important element in Finnish tactics, allowing the defenders mobility to outmanoeuvre and box in numerically superior but more lumbering Soviet formations that were ill prepared for winter warfare. The film struggles even with its depiction of cross-country skiing in the 1936 Winter Olympics, which opens the film and includes fictional participation by the Soviet Union for plot reasons.
Of course, this is Hollywood entertainment, and you can't expect its makers to treat history as anything more than raw material or not to use the famous artistic licence whenever convenient. But the film buckles on the artistic and entertainment fronts too. We get a cookie-cutter war story with the obligatory romantic strand and a side plot about friendly sports rivals ending up on different sides in the war, all capped with a ridiculous ending. We have a platoon of stock characters (a kill-happy sniper, a reluctant pacifist, a hate-filled avenger etc.) with amusing names, and the actors are mostly going through the motions. The one surprising element is the film's heavy pacifist sentiment, possible because the United States was still just a spectator in the European war (here represented by Arledge's chirpy American volunteer). That tenor would change radically later. However, the pacifism feels quite sanctimonious, when the thrust of the film is to titillate the audience with traditional militarist action. Again, the best action sequences, the downhill racing scenes, seem to have been largely culled from other sources.
It's funny how little both geopolitics and Hollywood formulae have changed since Ski Patrol's days. Now we have even Finnish-born directors in Hollywood milking same kinds of wars and suffering for a bit of similar entertainment with similar methods.
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