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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 the early 1960's, when "The North Star" was being syndicated to local TV stations as part of their late-night fodder, the film was re-cut and booked under the title "Armored Attack." That version featured an apologetic introduction by an off-screen narrator, explaining that despite the fact the movie's characters were from the same nation, the Soviet Union, that had recently brought the world to the brink of nuclear war in October 1962, Russians were, at one time, America's allies in a war against a common foe -- Fascism. And thus was the rationalization of featuring a story that actually dared to picture the agrarian population of a southern Socialist Republic (Ukraine) as humane and sympathetic.
Thankfully, Lewis Milestone's classic has been re-released in its original form. I don't know if that says much about the political enlightenment of contemporary American film-viewers, but "The North Star" is obviously propaganda -- yet clearly more anti-Nazi than pro-Communist. And while screenwriter Lillian Hellman's sentiments did lean Left, she, like Orwell, despised tyranny, no matter from what extreme of the political spectrum it appeared.
Much has been made of the folk-peasant sentimentality that dominates the first half-hour of the film by other posters to this site, so I'll dispense mention of that here. Suffice it to say, however, that from the first scene of violence -- a merciless daytime bombardment of civilians on a quiet Ukrainian country road -- the film gathers emotional strength. And when Anne Baxter, playing a schoolgirl, gazes for the first time upon the horrific vision of her school chums, now dead as the result of mechanized warfare, she states evenly, "We're not young anymore." And as the rest of the movie demonstrates, she means it. She and a few others escape into the forest, emerging now and then to engage in hit-and-run sabotage against the Nazi aggressors. The film builds to a climax in which Russian partisans astride horses attempt to take back their village from the better-equipped Germans, giving director Milestone an opportunity to reprise the long tracking shots of approaching figures that became his trademark visual motif.
When Samuel Goldwyn produced "The North Star," he pulled out all the stops. He enlisted James Wong Howe to photograph and William Cameron Menzies to design the production. The cast, besides Baxter, includes Dana Andrews, Farley Granger, Walter Huston, and, as the Nazi You Love to Hate, the legendary Erich Von Stroheim, as a German military doctor who compromises his professional oath through medical experimentation. Supplies of blood for the German wounded have dried up, so Dr. Von Stroheim orders the children of the village rounded up and brought to the local school, where he draws great quantities of blood from them -- so much so, that a few of the kids die from the process. Effective and highly dramatic, it certainly beats visions of the Hun boiling Belgian babies in oil.
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