Jacques Tourneur’s first major film for RKO Radio Pictures after completing a stylish trilogy of low budget movies for producer Val Lewton’s renowned horror unit in the early 1940s, was this atmospheric wartime propaganda piece, to which the French-born director can be seen applying the same flair for striking noir tinged visuals that was to make his name in many other genre pictures from the same period. The film is an unabashed cinematic eulogy, dedicated to the bravery and self-sacrifice of the ordinary Russian folk who took up membership of the rebel partisan units organised by Stalin’s military forces in 1941 to counter the initial success of Operation Barbarossa. Their intent: to disrupt and eventually repel Hitler’s invading Wehrmacht from Soviet Russia. The strategy developed into a long and brutal campaign of guerrilla warfare, fought on the Eastern Front throughout the rest of WW2, which was only just coming to an end as the film was being released to US theatres. Even with the conflict still fresh in hearts and minds, the complications and moral ambiguities of war are nonetheless explicitly addressed by the film’s narrative -- even if ultimately slicked with a glossy coating of 1940s Hollywood glamour and romantic sentiment. At the same time, the Red Army is here unambiguously portrayed by the Hollywood machine as constituting nothing but brave-hearted freedom fighters to be lauded as great heroes; and the small band of rebel Russian villagers who are the focus of this tale, do their bidding willingly and enthusiastically in defence of their motherland. These days we’d probably be more inclined to see them all as ordinary victims, fatally caught between two equally brutal and oppressive totalitarian regimes, but the Red Army officer placed in charge of organising the disparate band of guerrillas into an effective underground fighting cell, is here played by the handsome, then-up-and-coming Hollywood star Gregory Peck, in what was also his debut cinematic appearance; and with the war still raging as the film went into production in 1944, the end message is unambiguous: the only good Nazi is a dead Nazi and no price is too great to be paid in pursuit of Hitler’s defeat.
If one keeps its purpose as a piece of morale-boosting propaganda in mind, it’s much easier to understand the intent behind the movie’s somewhat earnest voice-over intro, which first emphasises the true life struggle being waged behind the Hollywood drama that’s about to be enacted on film, and then goes on to introduce the entire cast of characters, one by one, with a brief summary of each personality’s defining traits. The two leads actors are even given a formal introduction to the viewing audience, with the voice-over intoning the name of the Red Army captain, Vladimir, and informing us that the character we’re seeing is ‘played by Mr Gregory Peck: distinguished star of the New York stage’ and that the character Nina Ivanova is to be played by Tamara Toumanova, ‘the internationally famous ballerina’. This curiously stagey and artificial introduction to the story – laboriously informing us exactly who all the characters are, their relation to each other and the names of the actors playing them – may seem like a terribly mannered device to a modern-day viewer, guaranteed to disrupt the mood and break the spell of fiction before proceedings have even fully begun; but at the time of the film’s release one can imagine that it was a deliberate way of reminding audiences that the events they were witnessing on film in a fictional context were also happening at that moment for real in the much more immediately threatening theatre of war.
Introductions done with then, the rag-tag group of guerrilla partisans, hiding from the Nazi invaders converging on their cities ‘in the stillness of the great Russian forests’, where they plot acts of retaliatory sabotage and silently pick off Nazi messengers whenever they can with sniper fire from their hidden base amongst the trees, together very much make a microcosm echoeing the character of their former village -- each one of them now individually assigned his/her role in a tightly organised unit and forced to live side-by-side in close confines in what was formally a stone-built monastery, before it was put to use as the secret underground base of the resistance. The motley collection consists of former farmer Dmitri (Igor Dolgoruki), the silent but dependable Petrov (Edward Durst), and Yelena (Maria Palmer), a former worker in the factories but now a crack marksman with sixty Nazi scalps to her credit; there’s amiable drunk Sasha (Alan Reed – the future voice of Fred Flintstone, no less!) and Fedor the blacksmith (Hugo Haas), who together provide some light relief and make an amusing slapstick double act. Then there’s the former teacher Semyon (Lowell Gilmore) and the fiercely patriotic sixteen year-old raw recruit Mitya (Glenn Vernon), still desperate to prove his worth in combat. And not forgetting Mitya’s precocious little sister, who’s had to grow up fast and become the mother of this makeshift family.
Into this close-knit assemblage of resistance fighters comes a potentially disruptive new member when the unlikely figure of a dancer from the Moscow ballet, apparently lost in the countryside after being assigned by Stalin to make up part of an entertainment troupe sent to the Front, is rescued, given shelter and taken under the wing of the guerrillas, where she is an instant hit with the males, particularly young Mitya (much to his little sister’s annoyance) and Semyon, who sees a sensitive kindred spirit in the beautiful, literature-quoting young ballerina (Tamara Toumanova). But things really start to sizzle once the fine-boned Gregory Peck and his sultry co-star Tamara Toumanova clap eyes on each other. The former plays the military captain assigned by the army to take command of the group and deliver it army orders from the Front. He returns to the forest hideout weighted down with the knowledge that the band of friends will soon be required to make the ultimate sacrifice as part of a plan of distraction set to take place during the Red Army’s final all-or-nothing push to expunge the Nazi scourge from central Russia once and for all. No one can expect to survive this imminent suicidal onslaught when the order finally comes.
But Nina’s cultivated elegance and her innate gentleness and sensitivity start to remind many in the group of the humanity they’ve conveniently suppressed in the name of battle; and the more noble, finer sentiments they’ve had to set aside during the desperate struggle against their ruthless oppressors begin to resurface and stir the emotions once more. When Nina accompanies Vladimir and some of the group on a mission to sabotage a German ammunition supply train, the dancer’s growing feelings for the captain cause her all the more pain as she finds them hard to reconcile with his evident pleasure in the destruction that the group’s activities inevitably causes. She’s particularly disturbed by his gleeful response when they both witness a lone German parachutist being destroyed by Russian artillery fire after he ejects from his damaged craft over the forest. When she asks him why it is true that destroying things gives him so much happiness, Vladimir reveals that before the war he was an engineer by profession who had been responsible for building factories, bridges, and the great dam on the outskirts of the village which brought light to some remote regions of the country for the very first time in its history. ‘As soon as the Nazis came, I had to destroy all the things I had built,’ he confesses. ‘When you’ve destroyed something you’ve greatly loved, you learn to love to destroy!’ Nina’s journey of growing comradeship and of developing trust between herself and her new friends is equally painful though: when she first arrives at their camp, Nina is horrified when she realises that the guerrillas are planning to murder in cold blood a Nazi patrolman who has inadvertently stumbled on their forest hideaway. She manages to persuade those males most immediately smitten by her beguiling presence to spare him and hold him captive instead, but when the soldier makes a violent attempt to escape it is she who is forced into taking the most drastic of actions in order to preserve the safety of her friends.
The film’s various attempts to wrestle with such weighty issues of morality and its proper place during a time of war, occurs in a cinematic context which is set very far from the dirty grit and grain of most war pictures, though. Tourneur employs an aesthetic that’s as romantic and dreamlike as one would have expected from the most light & shadow- conscious of his Val Lewton pictures: the guerrillas’ forest home is a lush, evocative studio-created concoction lit in beguiling chiaroscuro shades, with artificial moonlight glittering on fairy tale-like trees. Their cosy underground bunker is rendered equally a product of the realm of fairy tales and later, when a party of guerrillas travel to a nearby occupied snow-mantled village for a secret meeting with their communist commanders, they encounter a blizzard that’s as picturesquely perfect as any Christmas card image. The persistent romantic styling of the film’s cinematography highlights and augments the fervent valour of the characters -- willing to sacrifice everything to protect their comrades, even when it means facing a public hanging rather than give away the resistance movement’s critical plans.
The director proves him-self more than proficient throughout the length of the picture in combining the soft focus glamour of Hollywood romance conventions with the fervent conviction of a last stand war-time patriotism, which often leads to a curious symbiosis of schmaltz and high emotion that reaches its apotheosis in the film’s final scenes, during which Vladimir and Ivanova cement their love with a socialist pledge that’s delivered like it’s an endearment between lovers, the ever-glamorous Toumanova all the while loading the shells in Peck’s mortar artillery as the two stoically set themselves in the path of insuperable on-coming Nazi tanks. The film’s special effects won it an Oscar nomination in 1944 and they still stand up unusually well today; the combination of in-camera effects, back projection and model work results in several well-crafted scenes during which things get to explode on screen with a satisfyingly convincing kinetic charge. As a visual spectacle then, the film is far superior to other run-of-the-mill war-time propaganda materials. The performances of the all-new cast are uniformly strong, although Peck and Toumanova’s clichéd romantic scenes inevitably stick out in such unusual surroundings despite all Tourneur’s work to facilitate the appropriate atmosphere of heightened reality!
The film gets a decent UK DVD release, here, as part of Odeon Entertainment’s Hollywood Studio Collection. The transfer has a few speckles here and there throughout, as you’d expect from a film of its vintage. But the image is pretty sharp, Tourneur’s black & white compositions standing out quite handsomely. The mono audio is set a little low and consequently you’ll need to whack the volume up a bit on your remote control. Otherwise it’s a pretty solid release, which should interest fans of Jacques Tourneur’s other better known works.
Read more from Black Gloves at the blog: Nothing But The Night!