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The Andrews Sisters
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In a peaceful Ukrainian village, the school year is just ending in June 1941. Five young friends set out for a walking trip to Kiev, but their travels are brutally interrupted when they are suddenly attacked by German planes, in the first wave of the Nazi assault on the Soviet Union. When the village itself is attacked and occupied, most of the men flee to the hills to form a guerrilla unit. The others resist the Nazis as well as possible, but soon the village is placed under the command of a Nazi doctor who begins using the town's children as a source of constant blood transfusions for wounded German soldiers. Meanwhile, the small group of young persons tries desperately to take a supply of firearms to the guerrillas. Written by
In its time, this probably fulfilled its desired purpose reasonably well, with a fine cast and some effective scenes depicting the suffering caused by Nazi troops. It is probably more interesting now, when it can be viewed with more objectivity, and when it is interesting for a new set of reasons. Its depiction of life in the Soviet Union is a revealing statement about the priorities of its time. The actual movie and story, viewed apart from any and all political issues, work quite well at times, while falling short at others.
The first part of the story simply dwells on the daily lives of the residents of a Ukrainian farm town. This part is quite slow, and would be of little interest except for the sharp change of tone that comes with the Nazi attack. As banal as the lives of the villagers may have seemed, they certainly did nothing to deserve the suffering they bore as a result of the invasion. Things pick up dramatically in the second part, and at the same time the characters come more sharply into focus.
Naturally, the scenario is more fiction than fact, especially in its idyllic depiction of life under Stalin's rule. More than anything else, this reflects the urgent desire of the US Government (whose hand was supposedly quite active in the production) to promote full-fledged public support for working with the Soviet Union against the Axis. Like the majority of features in any era that address a then-contemporary issue, it looks much different when viewed years afterward. The truth about both Stalin and Hitler is much easier for us now to determine than it was for the movie's original viewers.
The cast helps considerably in making it work on a dramatic level. Experienced stars like Walter Huston and Walter Brennan combine with then-young performers like Anne Baxter, Farley Granger, and others to create a generally interesting set of characters. Jane Withers also has a good role, as a hapless but often endearing young woman who is desperate to help. Lillian Hellman brought her considerable reputation to the screenplay, although this kind of material is not really her strength. Lewis Milestone shows his steady hand in the battle sequences.
Because the cast, director, and writer all add their weight to the production, this works well enough as a fictional drama as long as you set aside what you thought or think about the USSR. As history, the story is not reliable, but the movie itself is interesting as one of the more earnest attempts of its day to use cinema to influence public opinion.
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