The Forty-First (1927) A Silent Film Review

One of my favorite love stories! (What does this say about me?) She’s a sniper with forty kills to her name. He’s an enemy officer who is targeted as her forty-first. One missed shot later, the officer is not dead but a prisoner. Do I even need to say that a dark romance is in the offing? A gritty tale of revolution and class divide, this is a lesser-known picture from the legendary Yakov Protazanov, best remembered today for the pioneering Aelita, Queen of Mars.

I will also be covering the 1956 sound remake. Click here to skip to the talkie.

Home Media Availability: No releases currently available.

Good romance tip: Don’t date women with kill tallies.

There’s nothing new under the sun. This goes double for the sun that shines over Hollywood.

Many film fans are shocked when they learn that some of their favorite sound movies are actually remakes of silent films. Chicago, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The King of Kings, The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur… Every one of those films has been overshadowed by its sound remake and by “overshadowed” I mean that if you ask the average non-movie buff, they may not even know there was a silent original. (In all fairness, I should note that the original Gentleman Prefer Blondes is considered a lost film but the others are alive and well.)

It is a nice poster.

Remake mania may seem to be a Hollywood tradition but foreign classics from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to Judex have been updated as well, with varying degrees of success. Even the Soviet Union was not immune. In the case of The Forty-First, the 1956 remake was so popular that the 1927 original is nothing more than a footnote, remembered for its famous poster when it is brought up at all.

We’ll get to the remake soon enough but may I draw your attention to that gorgeous color? It looks like a gouache painting.

I definitely understand. You see, that 1956 version is not only one of my favorite Russian films, it is one of my favorite films of all time. A dark and delicate romance with a nasty sting on the tail, it’s the Russian Revolution boiled down to the bones. The Forty-First was based on Boris Lavrenyov’s haunting 1924 novella of the same name and it follows its source closely. (I highly recommend the book, by the way. Its prose is charming and there is an unexpected touch of meta humor. It’s out of print in the United States but used copies are easy enough to obtain.)

I first heard of the 1927 original when I watched an interview with the remake’s director, Grigori Chukhrai. He spoke of how the film was revered and how he was nervous to be remaking it. It was directed by Yakov Protazanov, one of the few directors to find success in both White and Red Russia and famed today for helping to invent the modern science fiction film.

“Aelita” was instrumental in inventing what we think of as the sci-fi look.

It took years and years but I was thrilled to finally track down a copy of the 1927 picture. It was a battered VHS of dubious pedigree but it was mine at last! Would it live up to its reputation or pale in comparison to its remake? It looks I am going to have to watch them both to find out. Poor me. What a terrible task.

Before we get started, a clarification: The opposing sides in the Russian Revolution had various names and there were different factions. For ease of writing, I will be adopting the contemporary slang and refer to the Bolshevik/anti-Czar/Soviet forces as the Reds and the pro-Czar/anti-communist/aristocratic forces as the Whites. It just makes things easier.

A woman’s work is never done.

The story takes place near the Aral sea, which is between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan (or would be if it weren’t drying up). It’s the height of the Russian Revolution and the ultimate victor is anyone’s guess. In the case of a small Red detachment, they are getting badly trounced by the better equipped, larger White Army.

The Reds are commanded by Commissar Yevsukov (Ivan Shtraukh). He relies heavily on his second-in-command, Maryutka (Ada Vojtsik), who specializes in picking off enemy officers with her trusty rifle. In the flurry of combat, Maryutka has used her prowess as a sniper to claim her thirty-ninth and fortieth kills.

She’s gonna need a bigger belt.

The Reds manage to break through the ranks of the Whites and escape into the desert. Their czarist enemies do not bother to pursue. Why chase them down when the harsh landscape will kill them anyway?

The predictions of the White Army prove to be all too accurate. The little band of rebels are caught in a raging sandstorm and their water jugs are crushed. The commissar knows he is in a pickle but all he can do is lead his soldiers toward the Aral Sea and hope that they make it before they collapse.

Officer spotted!

Things look up when they spot a small Kazakh caravan. They will attack and take the camels, which will carry them to water and safety. As the Reds close in for the attack, the commissar spots the caravan’s lone passenger and he is wearing the uniform of a White Army officer. “Look, Maryutka! Officer!”

Maryutka takes aim and fires. The forty-fir—Oh dear, she missed. (So now you know where the title comes from… or do you?)

An awkward situation.

The officer is Lieutenant Vadim Nikolayevich Govorkha Otrok (Ivan Koval-Samborsky) and he is a courier of the czarist forces. (I told you we should have sent Michael Strogoff! What do you mean he’s retired?) The Reds soon discover a letter sewn into his coat stating that he has important secret information that can only be conveyed verbally. Unsurprisingly, the lieutenant is unwilling to share what he knows with his captors. The commissar decides to deliver him to headquarters for interrogation.

The lieutenant is appalled by this disagreeable turn of events (his nervous tic of twisting his military mustache gives him away) and makes no attempt to disguise his contempt for the Reds. The commissar puts Maryutka in charge of their prisoner since she is the only one of his soldiers who shows basic competence.

Maryutka gets the babysitting job.

Meanwhile, the Kazakhs manage to steal back their camels, which leaves the soldiers back at square one with an added mouth to feed. There’s nothing else for it, they have to rush for the Aral Sea. It’s a grueling hike through sand and sun. By the time they reach a small village, the only survivors are Maryutka, the commissar, the lieutenant and a few others.

All I can say is that it’s a good thing that this crew was out in the sticks and not fighting Baron Wrangel in Crimea or the Bolsheviks would have been doomed.

The Aral or bust.

(And before we get hand-wringing about the fall of the Ramanov dynasty, let me remind you that Czar Nicholas II was a cruel, racist and incompetent dictator. When they overthrew the monarchy in favor of the Soviet Union, the Russian people leaped out of the frying pan and into the fire. This does not mean that the frying pan was particularly pleasant. Save the hagiography for someone who cares.)

Anyway, the commissar decides that the lieutenant must be interrogated as soon as possible and has Maryutka and two of the other soldiers sail ahead with him in a small boat while the rest continue on foot. Her orders: If they run into the Whites, they must not recover the prisoner alive. Maryutka is to kill the lieutenant before he can be rescued.

Shipwrecked!

It turns out that the Aral is quite a violent little sea. The boat is capsized and Maryutka and the lieutenant struggle to shore, the only survivors. (The Reds. However did they win?)

By now, the lieutenant and Maryutka have reached a point where they are not spitting in each other’s faces. They have switched to passive-aggressive insults (“You’re a nice guy… for a white moth.”) Well, it’s progress.

Yeah, you’re a great girl for a filthy rebel who deserves to be shot.

This is fortunate as the island on which they are marooned is isolated and no rescue seems forthcoming. To make matters worse, the rigors of the past few weeks have finally taken their toll on the lieutenant and he collapses.

And this is where things get a bit awkward for Maryutka.

Ever hear of the pop psychology term Florence Nightingale syndrome? A nurse falling for her patient? That’s what we have here. It’s pretty hot stuff considering the time and place. As Maryutka puts her patient to bed, her hands linger on his bare chest. And just so we get the point, the porridge she was making boils over.

Oh my!

As the lieutenant recovers, he starts to return her feelings. He and Maryutka share a kiss over a nest of crustaceans. Sounds painful but it’s their romance.

But we have a problem. The lieutenant’s attitude is all “Thank you, good and faithful serf.” He wants Maryutka to return with him to his estate, where he will reward her. The film does not specify the exact manner but I think we all get the idea. Maryutka is torn. On one hand, the Revolution is everything to her and she cannot abandon it. On the other hand, she goes for blonds.

Decisions, decisions.

Their time on the island swings between barely being able to keep their hands off one another (though never quite managing to get another kiss) and screaming insults at the top of their lungs. This cannot end well.

Spoiler for this paragraph: It doesn’t. Recall Maryutka’s orders? Well, a small boat approaches the island. At first, our castaways take it for a fishing boat but they soon realize that it contains a band of Whites reconnoitering the island. The lieutenant runs to signal them. Maryutka shouts for him to halt. He doesn’t. At her core, Maryutka is a soldier. She takes up her rifle, aims and fires, killing the lieutenant. The Whites approach and ask who he was. Maryutka doesn’t answer. She doesn’t need to. We know the answer: The forty-first.

Her face says it all.

Phew! Intense stuff there! And all packed into a lean runtime of just over an hour. It’s a grubby war film where even the romance has a nasty stench of gunpowder about it.

I should note (and the screen caps probably show) that I did not have access to the best copy of this film. Worse, short snippets of footage are missing in at least two spots. However, the majority of the footage is intact and I feel that I got a handle on the overall story and style.

Bah! We’re intense!

Protazanov makes the most of his desert locations. The Reds are menaced by sandstorms, lack of water and must always be on the guard as they do not know which of the Kazakhs are for the czar and which are for the Bolsheviks. Protazanov intensifies this furtive paranoia with closeups of the actors’ faces and sudden cuts to their erupting rage.

While our intrepid Reds may not be the most accomplished desert travelers, I did appreciate the way to military aspects of the story are handled. The commissar and Maryutka in particular work as a unit. He simply says. “Officer!” and she picks off the target. This early establishment of Maryutka’s military discipline is essential in making the finale believable.

A war film, not a romance.

Spoiler for this paragraph: I know that the ending is often written off as a propagandistic cop-out but I don’t see it that way. Maybe I have watched too many Hollywood films that torture logic to extremes in order to make the leads end up together but I found the tragedy to be refreshing. Really, how else could it have ended? I also loved the fact that Maryutka doesn’t fall into the “weak and emotional woman can’t fire the killing shot” trap. As I said before, she is a believable human woman but she is also soldier to her core. This is an incredibly rare female role even today. (Often, female soldiers are treated like Army Fun Barbie or they are written exactly like men but, like, wear smaller underwear and stuff.)

A true soldier.

Another aspect of the story that I love is how it takes a familiar fairy tale narrative and turns it on its head. The story of a simple peasant girl saving the life of Prince Charming and being rewarded with his romantic affections… That’s as old as the hills. In the 1920s, Hollywood was updating the narrative with a series of “shop girl and boss’s son” films, some of them quite good.

In the case of this story, the peasant saves her dude in distress but she was the one who endangered him in the first place. He’s still playing by the fairy tale rulebook and wants to reward her with his love. However, Maryutka lives in reality and finds his archaic offer to be bizarre and insulting. Well, she has a point.

I reward you with… Me!

While Protazanov does make some use of the folklore elements of the tale, he is much more interested in the militaristic aspects. This is a war film, not a romance and the story is balanced accordingly. The lieutenant’s personality and motivations are merely hinted at, we are not given access to his thoughts. Maryutka and the commissar are the main focus of the film.

This was likely done to fall in line with censorship committee requirements, as the sympathetic portrayal of a czarist officer would not have been smiled upon by the still-new Soviet Union. Maryutka’s attraction to her prisoner is treated as a temptation but not a true love story. It is clear throughout the film that she is following the correct path by rebuffing his advances. She teeters on the brink but the arrival of the Whites at the very end proves to be the saving of her Bolshevism. She might have given in if they had not shown up and reminded her which side the lieutenant is really on.

A strong performance from Ada Vojtsik.

As you can see, there is a lot going on in Maryutka’s head and the film manages with relatively few title cards thanks to the hard work of its performers.

Ada Vojtsik boldly throws herself into the role of Maryutka. Her face is hard and her eyes are wary. Every mannerism reveals her to be a soldier who has seen combat. Her eventual affection for the lieutenant has to break through her tough exterior and it only seems to shimmer through a few cracks at first.

Maryutka’s appearance is equally convincing. While male performers were allowed to get gritty in war pictures (and usually did), female characters were often forced to prance around in full makeup and ridiculously inappropriate glamor garb. Vojstik wears almost no makeup and dresses like she really is going into battle with no concessions to the audience’s idea of what a movie star should look like. While her look softens after the shipwreck, she doesn’t slap on a few seaside cosmetics, wrap herself in a convenient cheetah skin and emerge looking like Gloria Swanson.

Vojtsik with her son in “Ivan the Terrible: Part II”

Vojtsik is probably best known outside Russia as the czar’s mother in the second part of Eisenstein’s epic Ivan the Terrible. The young Ivan was played by her son, Erik Pyryev. (Vojtsik’s ex-husband and father of her son was Ivan Pyryev, an acclaimed director and the head of the Mosfilm studios when the 1956 version of The Forty-First was made). She continued to act into the 1960s and made her final appearance in 1971.

While Ivan Koval-Samborsky’s part is not as fleshed out as it could have been, he nicely catches the overcompensating arrogance of his aristocratic character. His neurotic twisting of his military mustache reveals that the lieutenant is not as confident as he lets on and while his high-handed manner with Maryutka is less than sympathetic, it is not overplayed.

Koval-Samborsky in “Girl with a Hatbox”

Koval-Samborsky is something of a “that guy” actor for Western fans of Soviet cinema. He played the chess-obsessed policeman in Chess Fever and was the handsome American heir-turned-lusty-maniac in Miss Mend. He didn’t stand a chance against the manly heroics of Boris Barnet and company, needless to say. You may also have seen him in Girl with a Hatbox (also directed by Barnet and starring the much-maligned Anna Sten) and Pudovkin’s Mother.

Vladimir Fogel gets in on the kiss between Koval-Samborsky and Anna Sten.

Koval-Samborsky made films in Germany during the twenties and thirties and perhaps this was a factor in his downfall. Back in Russia, he was caught up in a purge, arrested in 1938 and spent nearly twenty years in Soviet labor camps. He was freed in 1956, the same year that the remake of The Forty-First was released. (Whether this was coincidence or a political move, I cannot say. I am leaning toward political. The remake was an international hit and it wouldn’t do for the press to catch wind of the original star being held in a gulag.) He was able to return to making films and worked steadily until his death in 1962.

A sad story any way you look at it.

As Commissar Yevsukov, Ivan Shtraukh comes off as enthusiastic and likable, every inch the commander. As I mentioned before, I liked the professional chemistry that he and Vojtsik brought to their roles. Their teamwork as spotter and sniper is particularly notable.

The Forty-First is a rarity in any era: A war film with a strong female lead who takes part in the action. It’s an inverted, subverted and converted fairy tale with a thick layer of grit spread across the top. Here’s hoping it becomes better known.

Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★★½

Where can I see it?

The Forty-First has not had a quality home media release in the United States or in Russia, as far as I can tell. I am not sure who holds the rights, if there are still rights to be held, or the condition of the surviving print. A pity. This movie deserves a revival.

And now the moment you have all been waiting for. I am going to be comparing this 1927 film with its more famous remake. The 1956 version of The Forty-First is based on the same novella but it takes a completely different approach in style, look and tone. This is going to be fun.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

I love the 1956 version of The Forty-First. I saw it relatively early in my Russian viewing career. (I basically grabbed a random stack of films, which turned out to be a great idea because there were some real gems.) The first time I saw it, I felt it was so-so. The understated color scheme seemed odd compared to Hollywood films of the same era and the story did not compel me. But something made me want to watch it again. And again. And again. Each new viewing revealed another layer to the film. So, if you see it and feel it is only so-so, give it another shot. You may be surprised.

The poster wars are on!

Before I begin with the review, I would like to share how this film came to be made. I think you will be charmed. (Unless otherwise stated, all anecdotes come from an interview with Grigori Chukhrai included as an extra in the DVD release of this film.)

Born in Ukraine, Chukhrai served with distinction as an airborne trooper during the Second World War. After the war ended, he studied filmmaking at VGIK and Ivan Pyryev (who was, you will remember, the head of Mosfilm studios at the time) took a liking to the would-be director. One day, he put a question to Chukhrai:

“If you were czar, what film would you make?”

The story of a girl and her rifle.

This is a dream scenario for any up-and-comer and after he got over his surprise, Chukhrai had his answer. He wanted to make another version of The Forty-First. Pyryev was skeptical. Why make it? Did he just want to redo it with sound and color? No, Chukhrai had other ideas. Pyryev wanted to hear how Chukhrai would make it different.

(Seriously, can we somehow get someone like Ivan Pyryev to work for our modern film industry? These are great questions and would prevent many a stupid remake.)

Romance above grit (but still plenty of grit)

So Chukhrai outlined his plan. He wanted a film that was less about war and more about love. He felt that there was a more of a romance to be told, a more sympathetic look at the doomed lieutenant, something new and different in the Soviet film industry.

Pyryev considered the matter. He consulted with Chukhrai’s instructors at VGIK. And then he said yes.

I’m so glad Pyryev agreed…

The 1956 remake of The Forty-First was at the vanguard of less-politicized cinema of the post-Stalin thaw. Praised upon its initial release, it won a special jury prize at the 1957 Cannes Film Festival. Today, it is most often brought up, discussed and (usually) sniffed-at by Western critics as an example of Khrushchev-era propaganda, its cinematic and artistic merit ignored. Such prejudiced nonsense has to be read to be believed. I will not be linking to any of these criticisms. Why give them the traffic? In any case, a simple search for reviews of the film will turn up a sea of smug.

Let’s just write off all films not directed by Michael Bay, hmm?

Needless to say, I am going to be examining this film based on the more abstract elements and shall be leaving the lion’s share of the political commentary to the pundits and know-it-alls. You know the types. The twerps who refer to every Russian film ever made as propaganda. (As their punishment, I wish for them to be locked in a room and not let out until they see 300 straight hours of real propaganda from assorted lands. By the end, their brains should be sufficiently jellied and we will never have to hear their drivel again.)

Let me spell this out: Just because a film contains some propagandistic elements, this does not mean it is to be dismissed as propaganda. (e.g. Casablanca, This Gun for Hire, Ninotchka). One would think this was obvious. Apparently not. (I believe we are dealing with the sort of people who need a warning label to tell them not to use their electric hairdryer in the bathtub.)

Ready for another go?

I already covered The 1956 version of The Forty-First in a Silents vs. Talkies feature, pitting it against Cecil B. DeMille’s Russian Revolution romance, The Volga Boatman. (I had given up hope of obtaining the 1927 film at that point.) I am very happy to be revisiting it.

Now for the story. The general plot is identical to the 1927 version so I will be focusing on the aspects of the film that are different.

Bang, bang.

Once again, we open with a band of Reds wandering through the desert. Once again, we are mostly concerned with Maryutka (Izolde Izvitskaya), the sharpshooter and Commissar Yevsukov (Nikolay Kryuchkov), the leader of the band. Rather than starting with a battle, the sound film merely shows the aftermath: A disillusioned band trying to reach the Aral before it’s too late. (Well, actually the Caspian but more on that in a bit.)

The lieutenant is played by Oleg Strizhenov, who was fresh off his success as the lead in The Gadfly, his official film debut. The introduction of his character is the first indication that this film is different from the 1927 original. While the silent film did not make much of the lieutenant and Maryutka seeing one another for the first time, the sound film tarries on their introduction, includes banter and generally comes off as a meet-cute with guns.

You’re cute too, blondie.

The pair continue their flirtation, finally breaking the ice in the small village on the Aral. By the time the shipwreck comes, we know it is only a matter of time. The 1927 film had several almosts but the 1956 version has a full-blown love scene by firelight.

A dedicated Bolshevik woman locked in a passionate clutch with a White officer—with both parties in full uniform yet? One, I might add, that she initiates? That would never have flown a few years before. It almost didn’t fly in 1956. Chukhrai was called on to explain himself but he took the advice of his mentor, Pyryev. Don’t argue. Just nod and agree and then he would be free to shoot what he wanted once he was at the isolated filming locations.

Scandal!

Can we talk about those locations? One of the most distinct differences between the silent film and the sound remake is the weather. While the silent film was definitely cold (fur hats for all!) it was not frozen. The sound film is icy. Blue-white gusts of wind blow across the desert.

The cold made filming particularly challenging. Oleg Strizhenov recalled that they had to move and set up a new location for every take as the sand could not have footprints. Since viewing rushes was not possible, Chukhrai and cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky (The Cranes are Flying) had to plan their shots meticulously each time and would shoot at least five good takes in case a grain of sand blew onto the lens.

Frozen sand.

Why didn’t they just sweep the sand smooth? Well, look at that sand. The moisture in it froze, giving it the texture of packed snow. Once it was crushed by feet, there was no getting it back into the proper shape.

And the sand was everywhere, blowing in the wind and stinging the eyes of the cast and crew. Strizhenov said that he met Nikolay Kryuchkov a year later and the pair compared notes on their experiences. As the commissar, Kryuchkov had been obliged to march at the head of the troupe and got the brunt of the sandy wind. A year later, the older actor was still complaining of the grit in his teeth. Of course, Kryuchkov’s duty ended with the sandy scenes. For Strizhenov and Izvitskaya, the worst was yet to come.

I l-l-l-ove y-y-y-you, d-d-d-dear!

The crew set up filming on the Caspian Sea, as the Aral proved to be unsuitable. It was March and technically spring, though no one seemed to have informed the weather of that fact.

To look as carefree and in love as possible, the leads were decked out in thin clothing, more suitable for a summer picnic. However, the fact remained that it was March on the Caspian and they were freezing. Urusevsky declared that they could have filmed in warmer climes like Sochi but where else would they get such an angry and emotional sky? No other sky would do.

Good call.

Strizhenov seemed rather good-natured about the whole thing in spite of his discomfort and he lavished praise on Urusevsky for his impeccable technique. Strizhenov and Izvitskaya were tougher than I will ever be. I would have hopped on the first plane back to civilization. (I wonder if these filming conditions had anything to do with Strizhenov’s very next film being Pardesi, a Soviet-Indian co-production filmed in sunny India.)

Oh, Urusevsky, let’s talk about Urusevsky. The cinematography… Oh my! The wild skies, the sepia-tinged beauty… Watching the film is like opening an old, yellowed book with gorgeous ink and watercolor illustrations. I am not a fan of Hollywood’s garish Technicolor (circa 1935 to about 1960) and this understated palette just sings to me.

I mean, look at it!

It also works beautifully for the tone of the film. While the 1927 version hinted at its fairy tale roots, the 1956 film embraces them passionately. The score (more than a little influenced by Ravel, I think) is all choruses and romantic themes. The characters are given symbolic elements (Maryutka’s sand against the lieutenant’s sea).

The lieutenant has lived a charmed life, a bookworm who was able to hide himself away in his library or on his yacht. He was even a Bolshevik sympathizer—in theory. The war and the revolution ended all that but the shipwreck on the island allows him to return to the dreamy existence that he misses. He wants Maryutka to join him there and she is tempted. Her plans and hopes are rooted on solid ground but there is just enough romance left in her to want to taste this charmed existence.

Well, if you’re going to abandon your revolutionary ideals, he’s pretty cute…

In the end, though, the fairy tale prince cannot win the peasant girl. It’s not because he is arrogant or a bad person. They simply don’t breathe the same air. The eventual tragedy blends all of this together in the moment when the dream shatters and Maryutka is pitched back to the earth. We in the audience fall along with her.

As anyone who has seen Chukhrai’s beautiful, melancholy Ballad of a Soldier knows, his style is delicate and emotional. He relies on audience empathy, leading us along a parallel path with his characters so that we are deeply invested in their fate.

We care about our couple.

Chukhrai infuses his films with serenity and gentleness. Having seen his calm and humble manner during interviews, it’s easy to see that he brings much of himself into his productions. A decorated war veteran, he had no use for the fake glamor of movie wars. He knew the real price. (May I please adopt him as my grandfather? He looked like such a dear!)

The Forty-First is a movie that haunts the imagination. The tragedy works because we understand both characters and know that this was the only way it could possibly have ended. It was a beautiful dream but no dream lasts forever.

Only one side can win.

But now we are going to set about the business of naming the victor in this contest.

What I find most odd about this pair of films is that there is absolutely no critical consensus. I mean, not even a drop. (Naturally, I am not counting the “propaganda” louts mentioned above.) Some sniff at ’56 and praise ’27. Others will swear that the reverse is true. Some say that ’56 has the better acting and cinematography. No, no, no, it’s the ’27 version with the better performances and camera work. I wonder if some of these critics even saw the films. It certainly would not be the first time. (See my epic rant on that topic re: The Frozen North.)

I have copies of both films and I am going to try my hand at this. How hard can it be?

Just a simple decision…

Oh dear. Very, very hard. Two wonderful movies, well-acted, well-directed, both staying close to the original source material and each dedicated to different film aesthetics. It’s an embarrassment of riches, really. Let’s break this down.

The most intriguing thing about this pair of films is how they both follow Boris Lavrenyov’s tale and yet are as unalike as can be, even belonging to different genres. The 1927 version is a war picture while the 1956 version is a romance.

How did the directors manage this? By selectively focusing on different aspects of the novella to create their cinematic world. Both films were also influenced by the zeitgeist of their Russia.

Romance or war? Romance!

The setting in the sound film may be bleaker but there is no doubt that there are rougher Bolsheviks in the silent film. The lieutenant is treated harshly, subjected to beatings and abuse by his captors. When he and Maryutka meet for the first time, there is no banter. She simply walks up and pulls open his shirt to see how close her bullet came to killing him. His reaction is pretty natural (“Seriously, lady?”) and the palpable tension between the White and the Reds continues throughout the desert trek.

Madam, do you mind?

In the silent film, you get the idea that the Reds may kill their prisoner in the desert just for something to do. In the sound film, both the lieutenant and the Reds keep a reasonably polite distance with a few barbs traded but not that much overt hostility. Everyone is more philosophical and seems to accept that they are all in the same boat.

The emotional turning point of both the original novella and the 1956 film is the poetry scene. Maryutka’s dream (other than building up her kill count and bringing down the monarchy) is to become a great poet. She has written poems detailing her adventures but no one wants to print them. Still, she keeps writing when she gets the chance.

Big emotional turning point…

The night that the Reds reach the Aral, Maryutka waits until her companions are asleep and then returns to her literary pursuits. The lieutenant is awake. He sees her and offers his help, explaining he knows something of poetry. After some hesitation, she shares her work. (Anyone who has done any writing knows how hard this is.) It’s clear why she cannot get them published, it’s awful. The lieutenant manages to hold back most of his laughter and gently explains that Maryutka has a lot of feeling but she needs to study technique before she can hope to be published. Maryutka says she will take his advice—after they crush the Whites.

Breaking the ice.

Since his capture, the lieutenant has been obliged to sleep with his hands bound behind his back, which he correctly points out is useless. Where is he going to escape to? They’re surrounded by sand, sea and jackals. These protests fall on deaf ears as Maryutka is not above inflicting a bit of pain on a member of the aristocracy. However, as the lieutenant has done her a good turn, Maryutka returns the favor and unties him. It’s the first kindness that she has shown him and the start of something more.

Or not…

The silent film severely cuts this scene. (Censors?) Maryutka reads her poems, the lieutenant snickers and calls them bad. She ruefully agrees and unties his hands as kind of an afterthought. It’s all over in a few seconds without the beats and reactions required to make the thing work as the start of a romance.

In the silent film, Maryutka never entirely succumbs to the lieutenant’s charms, which are not all that charming anyway. There are a few near-kisses and one real kiss but she manages to avoid surrender. In the sound film, the surrender is complete and mutual—at least for a while. Ideological differences enter the story and are one of the major wedges between the pair. They love each other but they don’t always like each other.

But you’re still a rotten Bolshevik. Nya nya nya.

Oh, one other thing. In both silent and sound film, it is the leading man whose appearance is objectified (Ha! Take that, boys!), his “exotic” blue eyes fetishized by Maryutka. (I should note that Polish release posters for the 1956 version made ample use of the coed wet clothes scene but in the film itself it was very much equal opportunity and tastefully handled. Sigh. What can I say? Polish posters. Sheesh.)

Maryutka

She is the main character, the symbol of Bolshevik perseverance and the eventual executioner of the only White Russian in the cast who also happens to be her lover. It’s not an easy part to play and both Izvitskaya and Vojtsik are good in their roles.

A gentler Maryutka…

I’m going to have to give acting honors to Vojtsik. Her Maryutka seems older and harder, like a woman who has been fighting for months. Izvitskaya’s sweeter, more innocent take on the roles makes her eventual relapse into her death-dealing ways less believable. (In fact, Vojtsik was only twenty-two when she played the role, while Izvitskaya was twenty-four.)

Or a hardened soldier…

I must say again that both women are excellent but Vojtsik has a better handle on the character.

A point to the silent.

The Lieutenant

Snobby but nice…

Our hero and love interest is even more challenging. He has to be desirable enough to tempt the staunch Maryutka but he is still a White. While Koval-Samborsky does a marvelous job of putting forth his arrogance and spoiled personality, Strizhenov easily walks away with the acting honors. His interpretation of the character is a sort of quirky bookworm, just the sort to fall head over heels without a Bolshevik without considering the implications. Truly a man born in the wrong time.

A romantic nerd or a nerdy romantic.

With Koval-Samborsky, it’s more a case of the pair being thrown together. One rather gets the impression he would have picked up on just about any woman under the circumstances. Strizhenov’s character is deeper and more sympathetic.

A point to the talkie.

The Supporting Cast

Grizzled…

The 1927 version has a much smaller cast with the only major character besides Maryutka and the lieutenant being the commissar, Yevsukov. He is played by Ivan Shtraukh, who was only thirty years old. In the 1956 film, the commissar is played by Nikolay Kryuchkov, who looked every one of his forty-five years.

The age difference changes his relationship with Maryutka. The younger Yevsukov is a brother-at-arms and they almost share command of the unit. The older Yevsukov is much more paternal and while Maryutka is his most trusted soldier, there is no question as to who is in command.

Youthful…

I enjoyed both performances (I know I keep saying that) but I liked Shtraukh’s virile interpretation a bit more. The sound film has the use of local tribes as extras and side characters (always a plus) but it’s not enough to beat Shtraukh.

A point to the silent.

Cinematography

Wow

After all my gushing? You know the answer.

A point to the talkie.

Narrative

Both films are masterful adaptations of their source material but the talkie is slightly more faithful. Further, it was made in an era when the production crew was freer to pursue the emotional core of the story and make a proper romance of it.

Well, proper-ish…

A point to the talkie.

And the winner is…

The Talkie!

Yes, the silent film has grit and grime but, like Maryutka, I fell in love with the fairy tale. As I said before, both films are well-made and artistically satisfying. The sound film just spoke to me a little more.

Good stuff!

Availability: The 1956 film was released on DVD (which also included the interviews with Chukhrai and Strizhenov) but it is now out-of-print, though used copies are not that hard to find. In any case, all is not lost! You can see the movie freely and legally with English subtitles on Mosfilm’s official YouTube channel. A pity the interviews are not included.

10 Replies to “The Forty-First (1927) A Silent Film Review”

  1. Both of these look great. I need to see more Russian films; my sole experience with that nation’s cinema are two animated films, The Snow Queen (1957) and Wild Swans (1963). From your descriptions of the two, I think I would prefer the talkie more as well; I’m a sucker for fairy tale motifs turned on their head.

    1. Yes, they’re both wonderful, I had a hard time choosing.

      If you want to take the Russian plunge, The Forty-First (1956) is a good place to start. I also recommend 12 (2007 remake of 12 Angry Men), Chess Fever (1925), and Girl with a Hatbox (1927), the latter two are uproarious comedies with great wit and incisiveness. Destiny of a Man (1959) is haunting but good luck tracking it down. If you want to see one of the greatest female directors of the Soviet Union in action, try Shepitko’s The Ascent (1977), a WWII Passion play that is beautiful but depressing as heck.

  2. I have never heard of either film I must say. But they sound intriguing. As always an excellent review of both. I love your “no sound bites” approach to them. Something to sink ones teeth into!

  3. Fritzi: thanks for the return of the DVDs; they arrived today. Based on your enthusiasm for THE FORTY-FIRST I ordered copies of the book (in English, here waiting for me to read it) and the DVD (on its way from Germany, where it was reasonably priced). You are teaching me.

    1. Great! Glad they arrived safe and sound.

      I hope you enjoy THE FORTY-FIRST as much as I did. Do let me know if the quality of the German DVD is superior to what I was able to scrounge up.

  4. I like the way you compared and contrasted, Fritzi. I’ll watch the sound version on youtube and watch for the silent. They both sound like wonderful movies. Thanks for sharing with all of us.

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