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The Soviet Union's powerful motion picture industry turned out hundreds of war pictures during the Cold War years, not a single one of which received a major release in the United States. Made with production resources -- full military cooperation, armies of extras -- the biggest of these pictures are said to dwarf our action spectaculars. The only catch was that the films mainly had one theme, the holy sacrifice of millions to save Mother Russia from Hitler's onslaught. Through their war films, Russians relived sentimental stories of dauntless heroes and tough military decisions that had to be made to save the nation. The Soviet experience in WW2 was nothing like our own.
The fall of the Soviet Union put an end to most expensive productions from Russia. As the war in Afghanistan was a big contributor to the end of that superpower, it wasn't exactly raw material for the same kind of patriotic treatment. But in 2005, wheeler-dealer Russian producers made a massive combat picture about their country's final days in Afghanistan, an attempt at a National Epic. 9th Company was directed by Fyodor Bondarchuk, the son of Sergei Bondarchuk, the legendary Soviet director of the nine-hour War and Peace. The movie follows the enlistment and training of an army squad, which eventually takes its place in a hopeless campaign to protect Soviet supply lines against Afghan raiders. As we know that these bright-faced, tough soldiers aren't going to win, 9th Company takes on a "dark fate" vibe not unlike that of our own fantasy history pageant, John Wayne's The Alamo. Even if they lose, it'll be a glorious day for Mother Russia.
Then again, in a basic training scene, one of the instructors counters his pupils' enthusiasm with a sobering thought. In 3,000 years of history plenty of invaders have tried to conquer Afghanistan, and not one has succeeded. Ever. 1
"You fool! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders - The most famous of which is 'never get involved in a land war in Asia'!" -- Wallace Shawn, The Princess Bride
9th Company has everything war movie lovers crave. Writer Yuriy Korotkov follows the standard formula. A disparate group of young Russians shows up for service. Some are patriotic volunteers and others had no choice for economic reasons. As per Steve McQueen in The Sand Pebbles one recruit was given the choice of the army or jail. Another is a sensitive artist and sculptor, who offers a perplexing remark about war being an aesthetically beautiful endeavor.
As we might expect, Soviet basic training is a little different than our American films. The drill sergeant delivers bone-crushing blows whenever he hears or sees something he doesn't like. All the young soldiers are tough but this plays like a parody of training films, at least until we find out that it's all supposed to be serious. Everything is brutality -- but justified brutality. The recruits have their long hair sheared off. The most aggressive young man in the bunch takes offense at a snide comment by his barber, knocks him flat, and shaves a big swatch out of his hair. He clearly represents promising combat material.
Basic training is one grueling task after another. The platoon is repeatedly ordered to climb a gravel hill carrying heavy packs. On top of the hill waits another platoon to beat them up and throw them back down again. Already exhausted, the boys don't believe they have a chance. Only when they learn to fight as a team can the platoon prevail.
9th Company plays the same game as American films that want to rally audiences behind the army. The harsh trials are just a part of the sergeant's plan to teach the recruits teamwork and spirit. The sergeant, you see, had a traumatic tour of duty in Afghanistan (sniff!) and just wants to prepare his boys the best he can. A particular exercise requires volunteers to let a tank roll over their foxhole. One recruit is so frightened that he pees his pants. The other recruits laugh until the sergeant knocks a few heads together -- he doesn't care what the soldier does as long as he accomplishes his mission. This guy did, so he's got the right stuff. Likewise, the sensitive artist turns out to be the best marksman in the entire group, and earns everyone's respect. The soldiers also bond in a scene where they're shown a lump of plastic explosive. Someone shapes the lump into the likeness of a penis, providing an easy comedy scene.
The film's macho credentials are fully expressed when the boys get hopped up on (what the subtitles call) moonshine and visit the camp slut, a cretinous but sex-mad local who takes on any number of lovers in a single session. That's fair enough, except that the writer makes the entire episode seem benign -- the girl is having a great time, and the drunken soldiers spend most of the scene praising her, even kneeling to her in thanks. Desperate soldiers around army bases end up forcing themselves on local women and girls all around the world, and whatever you want to call it, it can't be an uplifting spiritual experience. So I have a hard time accepting this rosy image as anything but a whitewash.
Things pick up when the recruits move out to the arid hills of Afghanistan. Veterans fortunate enough to be coming home act as if they can't believe their luck -- nobody expects to get out of that hell alive. The forward air base can't even keep Mujahideen rocketeers from shooting down planes as they take off and land. The boys split up to provide replacements for two combat groups in little outposts exposed to enemy attacks. As this is near the end of the fighting, the Soviets are outnumbered and outgunned by well-supplied Mujahideen resistance fighters. They make deals with local "good" Afghans, but the boys realize that none of the locals are on their side. More bonding occurs before the attacks begin. At first the Soviet defenders can hold off the resistance fighters, but it isn't long before entire armored convoys are being wiped out, and the outpost falls under a merciless siege. The recruits have arrived just in time to be caught in a major counter-offensive.
9th Company can't be faulted for putting on a good show. The action scenes make unlimited use of imposing Russian combat hardware. The subject is so unfamiliar to us that we take special note of ordinary things like clothing and uniforms, but every scene introduces something new -- an odd tank, an unfamiliar Soviet transport plane. The Russian attack helicopters are impressive, but they're spread so thinly that there's never one around when it's needed, as when a half-dozen fighters must hold off fifty brazen Mujahideen advancing at them in determined ranks. The battles range from broad assaults on the convoys to desperate hand-to-hand fighting. The Finnish digital effects appear to be used mostly to augment production photography, not to create scenes from whole cloth. We're told that the aerial destruction of an entire village was all done with real pyrotechnic effects -- no CGI funny business involved. An exception is a spectacular plane crash that makes a particularly strong impression on the arriving green recruits.
Director Bondarchuk handles the dramatic scenes with style, milks tension out of many suspenseful moments and gives us rousing portraits of gutsy, gung-ho comrades doing their best to survive and make their buddies proud of them. Earlier attempts to distinguish among ten or so original recruits go mostly for naught as we forget about their individual pre-combat circumstances and see them blend together as a fighting unit. The artist stands out for awhile, especially when he wanders alone into a hostile village on an unwise mission to procure some matches. The instructors told him that Afghans / Pashtuns won't harm visitors to their villages, under any circumstances. But as soon as you walk out, they can cut your throat without losing face.
9th Company finishes almost like our Wake Island or The Alamo, with an overblown last-ditch battle to bring audiences to their feet in approval. Our respected comrades are cut down, with most afforded a moment to demonstrate heroic fighting spirit, to the last drop of blood. One grossly wounded hero waits until several of the enemy are around him, so he can take them all out with a suicidal grenade, a John Wayne moment if there ever was one. It's all very intense, but it seems based more on old movie ideas than fighting reality. In some ways this is a very American movie. 2
All of these thoughts fall into place when we see the extras, which contain a photo of Russian President Putin beaming with approval at the film's premiere. The movie broke the record for top grosses in its home market, with $27 million in receipts. We may see 9th Company as escapist entertainment, but for the Russians it is definitely a feel-good endorsement of the Afghan War. Exactly why?
1) The movie doesn't concerns itself with why the Soviet Union invaded in the first place. We only hear, just once, that they're going into battle to defend the Afghans against outside capitalist oppressors. That's news to me.
2) The movie makes the Soviets look like underdogs, fighting a defensive war. 9th Company takes place in the final year of the invasion, when the well-armed Mujahideen have them on the run. In the context of the movie, we see nothing of the Soviet army's ruthless campaign to pacify the Afghan population.
3) The film's big pitch is that the Afghan conflict demonstrates the noble character of the Russian fighting man, an honorable state of affairs that hasn't changed with the fall of the Soviet Union. The movie therefore is pro- military and (because of Putin's endorsement) in favor of Russia's present-day conflicts. It's all for the honor of our boys!
All that said, 9th Company is a rousing and oddly old-fashioned combat saga overflowing with gutsy action and muscular, true-blue fighting heroes. It's more or less unknown in the United States, which seems a ridiculous miscalculation considering our unquenchable thirst for war movies. Adding to the appeal is the novelty of a big-scale film about the Soviet Army made by Russians ... few of us have ever seen anything like this.
Well Go USA Entertainment's Blu-ray of 9th Company is a pristine encoding of this colorful, exciting and action-packed war epic. Shot on Super-35, the aspect ratio is a wide 2.45:1. Unlike many new Soviet productions, the audio post was accomplished in England, giving 9th Company a finely tuned 5.1 mix. The combat scenes are very dynamic.
Just for the home video release, Well Go USA has recorded and mixed an optional English language track. I strongly recommend auditing the Russian version with subtitles -- what's the point of seeing films from other countries if we're going to pretend that everybody speaks English?
Three lengthy featurettes are included on a second DVD disc. One on the making of the film shows that most of the military hardware on the screen is real, and gives each of the excited young actors a chance to express his feelings about his role. As in an American EPK, the actress playing the recruits' sex date makes a speech about the relevance of the part and the legitimate need for the nudity. Director Bondarchuk, who also acts in the movie as one of the tough veteran soldiers, seems a very capable filmmaker.
A second featurette examines the movie in relation to the actual war, which lasted from 1980 to 1989. In what seem to be dozens of testimonial interviews, speaker after speaker comes forward to sing the film's praises and relate its impact to their personal emotional grief from the war. Mixing the personal sentiments, most of which seem real, with the obvious for-profit enterprise of promoting a movie, doesn't seem in the best of taste, especially when one considers the jingoistic spin being applied to history.
A third shorter piece covers the film's premiere. 9th Company is already five years old, and it's frustrating that it took so long to reach American home video. It certainly isn't very optimistic about our own efforts in Afghanistan. Why couldn't it have been shown here back when it might have done some good?
A full DVD release is also available.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
9th Company Blu-ray rates:
1. We Americans once chuckled with the notion that the Soviet Union had found its own Vietnam in the Afghan poppy fields. Just two years ago, the Tom Hanks movie Charlie Wilson's War gloated over images of Afghans shooting down Russki 'copters with portable rockets made in the U.S.A.. But we choke on the laughter, as we're now fighting much the exact same war, making the exact same mistakes.
2. I'm not a raving fan of Oliver Stone, and I don't like Platoon very much, but to my mind it gets one detail very, very right. A trooper in Vietnam, cut off in a nighttime firefight and convinced his position is about to be overrun, leaps from his foxhole and runs full-tilt straight into a tree, knocking himself out cold. Although some of the supermen in 9th Company freak out a bit, none seem capable of a similar panic.
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T'was Ever Thus.