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The North Star
+ Armored Attack!
Savant Blu-ray Review

The North Star + Armored Attack!
Olive Films
1943 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 108, 82 min. / Street Date July 15, 2014 / available through the Olive Films website / 29.95
Starring Anne Baxter, Dana Andrews, Walter Huston, Walter Brennan, Ann Harding, Jane Withers, Farley Granger, Erich von Stroheim, Dean Jagger, Eric Roberts, Carl Benton Reid, Ann Carter, Esther Dale, Paul Guilfoyle, Martin Kosleck, Tonio Selwart.
James Wong Howe
Film Editor Daniel Mandell
Original Music Aaron Copland
Written by Lillian Hellman
Produced by Samuel Goldwyn, William Cameron Menzies
Directed by Lewis Milestone

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Olive Films' Blu-ray and DVD release of The North Star, aka Armored Attack! will help clarify one of the sideshow issues in the history of the HUAC and the blacklist. When the Red-hunters looking for Soviet infiltration in American society targeted the film industry in the late 1940s, they called out for special censure the WW2-era features Mission to Moscow and The North Star. Encouraged by the State Department to foster good relations with our (then) Soviet allies, the two films are fairly radical political propaganda. Mission to Moscow is a pack of distortions and outright lies about Stalin's USSR, smoothing over the annihilating purges and promoting an image of a country "just like us", with completely compatible ideologies. It's as pernicious as anything the Axis could cook up. The North Star is a more idealistic story about 'simple' Ukrainian peasants and their struggle against invading Nazis. Written by the notable, frequently lauded leftist playwright Lillian Hellman, the film shamefully simplifies and sentimentalizes life under Stalin. Were these films produced just so they would be shown to Uncle Joe, and hopefully influence his attitude about America?

I should think that Stalin would laugh his head off at The North Star.

Sam Goldwyn's slick production engages quality Hollywood talent. Director Lewis Milestone's reputation was as the maker of the best anti-war movie yet seen, All Quiet on the Western Front. James Wong Howe served as cinematographer and design/effects whiz William Cameron Menzies was an associate producer. Goldwyn drew powerful performances from his own contractees and special guest actors like Walter Huston.

High school graduates in a tiny Ukrainian border village get set to walk to Kiev to celebrate the end of the school year. But the Nazis invade and occupy the village. Dr. Kurin (Walter Huston) is horrified to find that the German military doctors Von Harden and Richter (Erich von Stroheim and Martin Kosleck) are purposely exsanguinating village children to provide blood for wounded German soldiers. Village leader Boris Simonov organizes a guerilla resistance, and dies bringing ammunition to his mounted troops. This leaves the students to carry on. Simonov's eldest son Kolya (Dana Andrews) must rejoin his flying unit, so younger Damian (Farley Granger, in his first movie) takes charge of the munitions carts with old man Karp (Walter Brennan). Dr. Kurin's daughter Clavdia (Jane Withers) and Damien's sweetheart Marina Pavlov (Anne Baxter) accompany the cart as well. Back in the village, Marina's sister (Ann Carter) has been killed during an air raid, and her mother Sophia (Ann Harding) has had her leg and arm broken for refusing to divulge her husband's whereabouts. With Boris gone, Marina's father Rodion (Dean Jagger) leads the guerilla's counter-offensive, to take back the village.

It would be difficult to present a more whitewashed, sanitized and prop-Soviet image of a Ukrainian village than the one portrayed in The North Star. Everything is Ivory-soap clean, from the houses to the quaint costumes to the flowers that line the streets; even the animals seem to be living in heaven. Everyone talks about harmony and happiness in this Utopia. Under communism the peasant children are getting excellent educations and both Marina and Damian are university-bound academics. A full reel is dedicated to a singing and dancing festival that comes off as a giddy folk musical. If that isn't enough, the long hike to Kiev is presented with more 'sing as we walk' bliss. As we're at least half an hour into the movie by this point, we're wondering when all the carnage and misery will begin.

Director Milestone takes full advantage of James Wong Howe's beautiful close-ups and the graphic compositions, presumably overseen by William Cameron Menzies. But most of the rest of the movie is straight combat action. Milestone simply repeats his rapid trucking shots that were so impressive a decade before in All Quiet. No matter what the action, the camera moves to pile up action on action. Men tumble through windows in sequence and fighters crash together one after another as the camera retreats. It is almost as if the combat scenes were choreographed by Busby Berkeley. In the old Lew Ayres movie Milestone's moving camera impressively suggested a conveyor belt of mechanized death -- the camera took the place of a machine gun, raking across trenches and killing every soldier we see. Here the camera tricks are little more than gimmicks to hype the action. Milestone repeated these same setups throughout his career -- in The General Died at Dawn and Edge of Darkness, a similar movie about Norwegian resistance made immediately before.

Perhaps the biggest insult in this propaganda movie is the removal from this 'perfect' village of any religious context. Whether Eastern Orthodox or Jewish, faith would have been a big part of the community, but to flatter Stalin's Great Society, no religious content appears at all. Almost as strangely, the show doesn't achieve the level of shock one might expect, considering the atrocious use of children by the Nazi doctors. The village just gives them up, which doesn't wash for a minute. The same goes for the 'communal' scorched-earth strategy, which doesn't seem to work well either. When the Russians burned and destroyed everything as they retreated, it was a much bigger policy carried out with a cruel pragmatism, often very much against the peasants' will. Villages near the border were abandoned to their fate, and what guerrilla forces could be mustered would be sent deeper into the country as well, to defend the nation on a greater scale. The border town in The North Star would likely be written off entirely.

Screenwriter Hellman wastes no opportunity for her noble Russians to make noble speeches against the barbaric Nazis. The final resolution shows great suffering but leaves the village liberated, which is another grotesque lie for the purposes of morale -- or currying favor with Stalin. The Germans penetrated a thousand miles into Russia, and Stalin's defenders had little choice but to let the civilian populace serve as an expendable 'buffer' while a counteroffensive was slowly prepared. Untold millions perished, without a glimmer of the hope or political idealism expressed in The North Star.

The actors are all fine, with Farley Granger earning special attention as a 'new star'. It's also nice to see Jane Withers in a serious role of this kind. A light comedienne/child actor, she reportedly had a strong sentimental connection to the audience. Erich von Stroheim is indeed creepy as the scar-faced surgeon, underplaying at all times. Walter Huston has seemingly been made up to resemble Joe Stalin himself. Huston starred in both this and Mission to Moscow but didn't seem to suffer much political fallout later on. Dean Jagger's presence is particularly ironic, as he'd later become a virulent anti-Red actor spokesman, eagerly starring in My Son John and going so far as to get a politically exiled American director (Joseph Losey) fired from an English film ten years later.

Olive Films' Blu-ray is titled Armored Attack! The full-length The North Star (108 minutes) is actually menu-ed in the extras, with the shorter Armored Attack! offered as the featured attraction. In 1957 the film was sold to National Telefilm Associates (NTA), which undertook a radical editorial revision to 'correct' the film's political stance. Distributed to theaters as well, the film has been cut by perhaps half an hour. The changes reduce The North Star to a generic resistance tale. Instead of main titles over animals and farming scenes, a new opening begins with the German column crossing the border. Nowhere is Russia or the Ukraine mentioned. The entire party-celebration is dropped, and along with it the happy talk about a Soviet future for the young. Instead of spending a half-reel with the students walking and singing, we see them already riding on Karp's cart, just before the Stuka bombers attack. The rest of the movie is stripped of morale speeches and other confrontations with political content - reducing the conflict to evil Nazis versus generic peasants. A quick-fade at the end brings up a new concluding scene, which barely makes sense. A narrator quashes Marina Pavlov's last words of hope, saying that the evil of Communism soon took over, keeping Eastern Europe under the heel of a new aggressor. It's implied then, that the peasants in the film might be Czech or Hungarian. The images are stock shots of Soviet parades in Red Square; the announcer simply says that we're fighting a new war now.

I doubt that Lillian Hellman was pleased, if she ever knew about Armored Attack! I don't think Lewis Milestone would have lost much sleep, as a couple of years later his strongly anti-Red Pork Chop Hill completely reversed any personal commitment he might have had to The North Star. But he still employed his old moving-camera combat shot gimmicks, this time to show Chinese commies mowed down by the dozens.

Olive Films' Blu-ray of The North Star contains two good encodings of this real curiosity, a pro-Soviet propaganda picture re-purposed ten years later as anti-Red program filler. Most of the film looks fine, but dirt and specks can get heavy near reel changes. There are also a number of missing frames in The North Star's main credit sequence.

Not to be passed over is the contribution of composer Aaron Copland, whose music lends the show much-needed dignity. The four or five ersatz Ukrainian folk songs have lyrics by none other than Ira Gershwin. The prestige angle didn't hurt, as the film was nominated for a fistful of Oscars, for Hellman, Howe and Copland among others.

Olive has reorganized somewhat, and is working toward including more extras with their releases. This fascinating disc comes with a half-hour radio adaptation first aired in 1944, and featuring Walter Huston, Anne Baxter, Farley Granger and Jane Withers from the original cast. The cover artwork won't alert the few fans/scholars aware of this politically tangled curiosity from the time when the USSR was briefly our ally. The North Star does help explain the undercurrent of conservative resentment of producer Goldwyn's later The Best Years of Our Lives -- right wingers incensed by William Wyler's humanist take on the postwar climate would likely point to The North Star as evidence of pro-communist 'treachery'.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The North Star + Armored Attack Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good but politically problematic, in both versions!
Video: Good
Sound: Very Good
Audio: English
Supplements: none, but two versions of the movie, from 1943 and 1957
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? No; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 15, 2014

Text © Copyright 2014 Glenn Erickson

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