Background of the war in Chechnaya -- in operatic style
Considering the time and place this film was made, it is an amazingly sensitive and even-handed look at a rarely-seen period in history.
It is the mid-1800s, and Russia is expanding southeastwards into the lands of the Chechen people. Jemal, son of Shamil the Chechen leader, is sent to Saint Petersburg as a hostage and guarantee of a temporary peace treaty. While there, Jemal sees the power of Russia and falls in love with a Russian woman. When Shamil wants to make war again for the freedom of his people, his son is torn between old family loyalties and his understanding that his father's nation cannot stand against the power of a country equipped with modern arms.
This could be handled as a simple struggle-against-oppression soap opera, but it isn't. Both sides are shown with nuances of sensitivity totally unexpected in this type of film. In an especially powerful scene, the Chechen artillery bombards the Russian army's camp as the soldiers are celebrating mass. As the shells burst among the troops and bugles call them to arms, a soldier is hit and falls to the ground. In a moment that speaks for all the faceless warriors that have fallen in countless war movies, the dying soldier speaks to a priest holding him, "Father! I can't die. I have children..." A moment of humanity deeper than that shown by many more celebrated (and pretentious?) films!
This movie is also interesting for its depiction of the Russian campaigns in Central Asia in the 1850s. The Russian soldiers in their white tunics are straight out of the paintings of Vereshchagin, the famous war artist, and the Chechen warriors (the "Cossacks" of the film's title) look realistic in their long coats with bullets tucked in holders sewed to their pockets. Shamil was a real person, and is still a hero to the people of Chechnaya. He eventually made peace with the Russians when he saw that his struggle was doomed to failure.
I saw this film some twenty years ago on late-night TV, but it has stayed with me because of its rare subject and its unusual humanity and sense of fair play to the sides portrayed in the drama it shows.
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