“Robinson Crusoe during wartime.”
It’s the war between the Bolsheviks and the White Guard. A platoon of the former is left with no route of escape except across the desert to the Aral Sea. They begin the perilous trek, under Commander Yevsyukov (Kryuchkov), aided by the unit’s best sniper, Maria Filatovna (Izvitskaya). During the journey, they capture a White officer, Lieutenant Vadim Govorkha (Strizhenov, who looks kinda like Cary Elwes in The Princess Bride!) who is carrying information vital to his side. The Bolsheviks take him with them, as they head back to HQ, with Maria given the task of guarding him. But when she is separated from her comrades, and left with Vadim to fend for themselves after a storm, duty and loyalty to the cause of Communism becomes conflicted with other less revolutionary emotiona.
Given this was made in 1957, during the height of the Cold War, with Joe Stalin barely cold in the ground, it’s relatively even-handed, with Govokha portrayed sympathetically, especially given he was The Enemy [his colleague in the White Guards are definitely bastards, as we see when they ruthlessly interrogate an torch a native village in pursuit of the Bolsheviks]. This apparently led to some issue with the censors, who were less impressed. Anyway, Maria is an engaging character, well ahead of her time, and prone to random outbursts of “Fish cholera!” when vexed [look, I’m just reporting that’s what the subtitles say]. She takes surprising glee in gunning down the enemy, keeping count as she does so: Vadim almost becomes kill #41, hence the title. It’s the middle section where she really comes to the fore, taking charge of a difficult situation until the more romantic elements take over.
Even these, which would normally have me rolling my eyes, aren’t too bad, because of the political angle, leading to lines such as “You’re asking me to loll on a feather-bed with you and eat chocolates? When those chocolates are all smeared with blood?” Not your usual romance, shall we say. The ending is just superb: it’s one of those which you absolutely should see coming (it’s foreshadowed enough), but still comes as a surprise. Add in some great settings, both in the desert and by the sea, as well as an interesting visual style and, if this isn’t as action-packed as one might wish, given its era, this remains a surprisingly worthwhile watch.
Dir: Grigori Chukhrai
Star: Izolda Izvitskaya, Oleg Strizhenov, Nikolai Kryuchkov