We take a look at this wartime true story as it hits DVD shelves today…
During the Second World War, female Red Army sniper Lyudmila Mikhaylovna Pavlichenko achieved a total of 309 confirmed kills, many of them taking place during the defence of the port city of Sevastopol. This film, a Russian-Ukrainian coproduction – an achievement in itself, given the current and historical tensions between the two nations – sees Pavlichenko in the United States in 1942, on a diplomatic mission to convince the country to join the war. While there, she strikes up a friendship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, staying with her in the White House and relating to her the story of her extraordinary life so far, beginning with her acceptance to university to study history, and taking Roosevelt, and the audience, through the chance discovery of her skill in marksmanship, boot camp, the front lines, and 250 relentless days of fighting during the siege of Sevastopol.
The picture is thus a curious mixture of inspirational biopic, gritty war movie and, also, tragic romance, devoting three different subplots to Pavlichenko’s love life. And, make no mistake, they are subplots; the anachronic, flashback-based structure means that the film plays out as a series of vignettes, both those vignettes dealing with Pavlichenko’s relationship to the First Lady, and those detailing particular exploits of hers during the war. Particular highlights include the Enemy at the Gates duel that ensues when the Germans send their best sniper to take out Pavlichenko (in the war part of the movie), and a meeting with Woody Guthrie, who mythologised the sniper in his song “Miss Pavlichenko” (in the USA-set portion of the movie). But, as excellent as some of these vignettes are, the structure can be dissatisfying, robbing the film of an epic energy that it might otherwise have had – this is especially true since the whole story is a story-in-a-story-in-a-story, beginning in 1957 when Roosevelt asks to visit a friend in Moscow. Her driver says she shouldn’t keep Nikita Khrushchev waiting, and in response she tells the driver why she should keep Khrushchev waiting, launching into the story of her meeting with Pavlichenko in 1942, which itself incorporates lengthy flashbacks to events in Russia during the war.
If, however, its structure doesn’t hold together perfectly, then the same is certainly not true of its mixture of genres, which never betrays the general tone of the film, and is sure to please crowds from war-movie enthusiasts through history buffs to fans of world cinema alike. Director Sergey Mokritskiy, primarily a cinematographer, reportedly insisted that the script be as accurate to the real details of Pavlichenko’s life as possible, and that is the likely reason for those three romance subplots mentioned above: most based-on-a-true-story pictures would conflate the three characters into one, or maybe two in order to create a dramatic love triangle. But real people have been known to fall in love several times, you know, and in any case it only further underlines how tragic a figure Pavlichenko is. And knowing how much research went in to the picture only makes it more fascinating in any case.
That’s not to say that it isn’t propaganda, because it pretty much is. While some later parts of the film do deal with the traumatic effects of the war on its hero, still it has no motive deeper than to celebrate a great patriot. But it is excellently put together propaganda; Mokritskiy is a talented director, displaying as much visual expertise in the dirt and smoke of battle as in the state-rooms of the White House and making the viewer instantly at home in either. The washed-out colour palette, often a cheap trick, really works here, and despite the film’s budget not allowing it displays on the level of, say, Saving Private Ryan, the use of CGI to extend the visual field is seamless, and a battle between Soviet ships and German aeroplanes looks just as good as Pearl Harbor; if anything, better. And, of course, the acting goes a long way in helping us to believe in what’s happening. Yuliya Peresild, in the main rôle, has a cold determination that makes her sympathetic even as she is ruthlessly sadistic, and gives us just a glimpse of hidden depths. Everyone around her in the Russian scenes is, at the absolute worst, good enough, which is always a relief to see. The American scenes don’t fare as well, because they’re shot in English, but with only Eleanor Roosevelt played by an Anglophone actor, Englishwoman Joan Blackham, and it’s offputting to see Russian-looking Russians do American accents even worse than the Russian accents that American-or-British-played villains put on in American films. Frankly it would have been better just to do the USA-set scenes in Russian with subtitles, especially since viewers are already committed to watching a subtitled film.
But where Battle for Sevastopol has occasional failings, its successes easily outweigh them. Look out for one particularly triumphant sequence, a sniping montage set in hauntingly beautiful snow, with Russian alternative rock blasting over the top of it. It sounds like it might be cheesy but, like the rest of the film, and like its protagonist, it succeeds through sheer will.
Battle for Sevastopol arrives today (16th) on DVD, will you be checking it out? Let us know in the comment box below!