Miracles Still Happen

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“Truth is certainly more entertaining than fiction.”

We documented elsewhere the incredible, true survival story of Juliane Koepcke, who survived a two-mile fall from the sky, then 10 days alone in the Amazon rain-forest. Naturally, it wasn’t long before a “true-life adventure” version of the story made its way to the screen, starring English actress Susan Penhaligon as Juliane. Outside of Penhaligon, and the actor and actress who play Koepcke’s father and mother (Muller and Galvani), the hook here is that everyone else plays themselves, such as the people involved in the search and rescue mission, for example.

Unfortunately, it isn’t much of a hook, because they didn’t really do much. Like finding the freakin’ plane, it being left up to Koepcke more or less to rescue herself, walking out of the jungle to be found by some very surprised loggers, ten days after the crash. Thus, you get a lot of footage of people flying planes, taking off, landing, radioing in for instructions… None of which adds significantly to the atmosphere, or adds any factual notes of importance. The film is also hamstrung by the very fact this is a saga of solo adventure, which means that once Juliana hits the ground like a giant lawn-dart, it’s her against the jungle. And the jungle isn’t exactly a witty, sparkling conversationalist.

Working around this, Scotese makes heavy use of flashbacks and voiceover. It does stick relatively closely to the facts of the narrative. There is some scathing criticism of this film in Werner Herzog’s documentary about her ordeal, Wings of Hope; Herzog describes it as “extraordinarily bad”, and Koepcke pans Penhaligon for stumbling through the jungle “with the look of a hunted doe” (as shown above!). However, she did apparently consult with the creators – likely further than certain Italian moviemakers would have gone, especially in the seventies. So most of the key moments do agree with what Juliane has said over the years. For instance, she did remember a key survival lesson about finding a stream and following it down, and she did stumble across some crash victims, briefly wondering if they included her mother, with whom she had flown.

It’s generally better off when it simply concentrates on the perilous jungle, especially the moments when you get some idea of scale. The Amazon is big, folks. Credit also due to Penhaligon, who gets steadily more disheveled over the course of what can’t have been an easy film to shoot. She certainly gets closer to a very large anaconda than I would have been prepared to go! But watching her stagger, increasingly bedraggled, around the rainforest is something that isn’t enough to sustain interest. We can only wonder what the results might have been like had Herzog, who narrowly escaped being on the plane which crashed (doing location scouting for Aguirre, Wrath of God), directed this instead.

Oddly, this is credited to ‘Brut Productions’, which was the film production division of cosmetics company Fabergé. I say oddly, because those of a certain age and location will remember 70’s commercials in which heavyweight boxer Henry Cooper touted “the great smell of Brut” aftershave. Seeing its logo pop up in the opening credits here was certainly unexpected. I may well remember that much more than the rest of the film

Dir: Giuseppe Maria Scotese
Star: Susan Penhaligon, Paul Muller, Graziella Galvani

The incredible, true survival story of Juliane Koepcke

Surviving when the plane in which you’re flying, disintegrates around you at a height of 10,000 feet is remarkable enough. When you land in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, one of the most hostile environments on Earth, and have to make it alone for more than a week, with virtually no resources, as you try to find your way to safety, that’s astonishing.

If you’re a 17-year-old girl? It’s off the charts amazing.

Admittedly, Juliane Koepcke was not your average teenager. Indeed, she could hardly have been better prepared for her ordeal. Her family moved to a research station in the Peruvian rainforest when she was 14, so her father, zoologist Hans-Wilhelm Koepcke, could continue his work. Juliane was initially home-schooled, and the curriculum covered much more than the traditional three R’s. She said, “I’d lived in the jungle long enough as a child to be acquainted with the bugs and other creatures that scurry, rustle, whistle, and snarl. There was almost nothing my parents hadn’t taught me about the jungle.” However, she was required to complete her education in the capital Lima. On Christmas Eve, 1971, she and her mother prepared to fly back from there to Pucallpa, the nearest airport to their home.

They would never arrive. The pilot made an ill-advised decision to fly through a thunderstorm, in a poorly maintained plane [the airline, LANSA, had a bad reputation for mechanical reliability, and would cease operations a few weeks later]. A lightning bolt hit the craft, igniting a fuel tank in the wing, and triggering catastrophic structural failure. Juliane fell two miles, still strapped to her seat; the protection it offered, together with the somewhat cushioned landing offered by the rainforest canopy, is likely why she became the sole survivor. She was not uninjured: she had a broken collarbone, a serious gash on her leg, a partial fracture of her shin and a torn knee ligament. Given the circumstances, though, it could have been much worse.

That was brought home later, after she came across some other victims: “When I turned a corner in the creek, I found a bench with three passengers rammed head first into the earth. I was paralysed by panic. It was the first time I had seen a dead body. I thought my mother could be one of them but when I touched the corpse with a stick, I saw that the woman’s toenails were painted – my mother never polished her nails.” With her sole piece of regular food a bag of candy, she had to try and make her way out. The key to her survival was finding a tiny rivulet, and following it downstream. She knew that this trickle would flow into a larger creek, and this in turn would join a river: eventually, she’d find people. Her quest was helped by hearing the call of a hoatzin, a bird Juliane recognized as nesting near open water.

Her wilderness knowledge helped when she reached the river too. The undergrowth along the bank was too dense to allow for progress, so Juliane opted to float down the middle. There, she knew potentially lethal stingrays won’t go, preferring the shallows, and also that piranhas are not a threat in quickly-moving water. But a cut on her arm had become infected with maggots, forcing her to extreme measures, after Juliane found a boat with a motor and a barrel of diesel fuel. “I remembered our dog had the same infection and my father had put kerosene in it, so I sucked the gasoline out and put it into the wound. The pain was intense as the maggots tried to get further into the wound. I pulled out about 30 maggots.”

She opted to spend the night there – her tenth in the jungle since the crash – and that proved to be her salvation. For she had stumbled across a seasonal camp belonging to some loggers, who were astonished to show up the next day and discover a blonde woman in their camp. Juliane recalls, “They believe in all sorts of ghosts there, and at first they thought that I was one of these water spirits called Yemanjá. They are blondes, supposedly.” They had heard about the crash on the radio, and took her downstream in their boat, to a local hospital that could tend her injuries, which now also included second-degree sunburn.

The authorities hadn’t been able to locate the crash site, but with Juliane’s help, they found it, and her mother’s body was eventually recovered on January 12, more than three weeks later. The creepiest thing? “My mother wasn’t dead when she fell from the plane. My father thought she’d survived for nearly two weeks – perhaps up to January 6, because when he went to identify her body it wasn’t as decomposed as you’d expect in that environment – it’s very warm and humid and there are lots of animals that would eat dead bodies. He thought she’d broken her backbone or her pelvis and couldn’t move.”

Juliane helped advise the makers of a movie based on her experiences (Miracles Still Happen, see below, or review here) and returned to the area in the early eighties, to study the area’s native bats. But it was close to two decades before she began to achieve closure. She returned to the crash site with German film-maker Werner Herzog, as part of his documentary Wings of Hope about her ordeal. Herzog was particularly well-suited to make the film, because when he was location scouting for his movie Aguirre, Wrath of God, he had initially been booked on the flight which crashed – only being saved by a last minute change in plans. Following that, Koepcke was able to write her own story, published as When I Fell from the Sky in 2011.

Below, you’ll find first Werner’s Herzog’s documentary Wings of Hope, and then the Italian feature film Miracles Still Happen, starring Susan Penhaligon, offering both factual and fictionalized versions of her remarkable story of survival. It’s truly one of the most incredible ever experienced and a testament to how knowledge can make all the difference between life and death.

Neerja

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“Sticks to the plane truth.”

Time to set up GirlsWithoutGuns.org, perhaps. For this film brings home that among the most courageous of heroines are the unarmed ones – especially when facing people who are not. Such is the case with Neerja Bhanot, the 22-year-old head purser on Pan Am Flight 73 from Mumbai to New York in 1986. Just before takeoff after a stop in Karachi, the plane was taken over by hijackers from the Palestinian Abu Nidal Organization, who intended to divert it to Cyprus. Bhanot alerted the pilots, allowing them to escape and thwarting that plan. She then discarded the passports of American passengers, stopping the terrorists from targeting them. When they believed Pakistani forces were about to storm the plane, she opened the emergency exits, help shepherd passengers out, and sheltered children from the terrorists’ bullets.

Yep, there are good reasons she became the first female recipient of India’s highest decoration for bravery in peacetime, the Ashok Chakra Award, and the youngest ever. Wisely, the film opts for a largely straightforward retelling of the events of those 24 hours, beginning with Neerja’s exuberant attendance at a birthday party the previous evening, through her trip to the airport and the mundane processes of the early, peaceful leg of the flight, before all hell comes storming up the stairs into her aircraft. Against a solid background, the only element which rings significantly false is the note given to her by a friend at the airport: its clichéd contents perhaps explain the disclaimer before the movie, about “Any resemblance to persons living or dead…”

Otherwise, however, it seems to stick to the truth, as far as my post-film Googling has been able to tell. Yes, Neerja was a part-time model as well as an air hostess. She also had already been through an arranged marriage which failed, to an apparently abusive husband (though here again: “Any resemblance…”). But it’s her amazingly calm, yet smart approach in the face of the four hijackers that is most incredible, with death never more than a hair-trigger’s breadth away. This hellish and escalating claustrophobia of the incident is the film’s strongest suit. Madhvani plays it expertly to a crescendo, as the hijackers become increasingly irritated by what they perceive (not incorrectly) as stalling tactics by the authorities in response to demands for new pilots.

It’s likely one of those cases where less knowledge may be useful in appreciating it. For I’m sure most of the original Indian audience was already well aware of the story here; in contrast, as someone who hadn’t heard about it before, I found myself holding my breath on more than one occasion, with no clue of how it would end. As we enter the New Year of 2017, it certainly qualifies as one of the strongest entries of 2016, even if – or perhaps because? – the movie goes in a different direction from the more-traditional kind of action heroines, which we usually cover on this site.

Dir: Ram Madhvani
Star: Sonam Kapoor, Shabana Azmi, Yogendra Tiku, Abrar Zahoor

Forest Child, by Heather Day Gilbert

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2action2

“A cleaved head never plots.”

“I swear to you, this death will be avenged. And not in the afterlife.” –Freydis Eiriksdotter

Most readers with any knowledge of early American history are aware that Viking sailors, faring south-westward from Greenland, discovered mainland North America around the year 1000 A.D. No lasting settlements were made, but archaeologists have excavated the temporary settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in present-day Newfoundland (probably the one referred to in the sagas as Straumsfjord). Our main contemporary historical sources for the Viking voyages to “Vinland” are two oral Icelandic sagas, committed to writing about 250 years after the events, which differ in details but basically present a common core of factual information. (The skalds who composed and transmitted the sagas weren’t composing fiction; they were recording history for an aliterate society, although they sometimes garbled or misunderstood details.)

Evangelical Christian author Heather Day Gilbert has taken these sagas, coupled with serious research into the Viking history and culture of that era, plausibly reconstructed a unified picture of the events they present, and brought it to life in a masterful historical series, The Vikings of the New World Saga, consisting of two novels, God’s Daughter and this sequel. Faithful to known facts, she uses her imagination to flesh them out, and to reconstruct believable personalities for the major and minor players in the events. (I’ve read modern re-tellings of the sagas, though not the sagas themselves, and could recognize persons and events in both books.) The first book focused on Gudrid, former pagan priestess (now a Christian) and healer; I wouldn’t really characterize her as an action heroine, though she does pack a blade and is psychologically prepared to fight if she has to. However, this one focuses on her half-sister-in-law by a previous marriage, Freydis, out-of-wedlock daughter of Eirik the Red, and she’s most definitely a butt-kicking lady.

Historical fiction about real-life people uses imagination to reconstruct the details history leaves out, and especially the inner personalities and motivations that history may record imperfectly or not at all. The Icelandic sagas don’t remember Freydis kindly: she’s depicted as a vicious, treacherous psychopath who becomes the New World’s first mass murderer. BUT…. 1.) No historians, medieval or modern, are wholly free from biases that shape their reaction to their material. Gender relations in early Scandinavian/Germanic and Celtic society, as reflected in these books, were comparatively more egalitarian and meritocratic than those of the “civilized” states of southern Europe. By the 13th century, though, when the oral sagas were being committed to writing, the more patriarchal and stratified attitudes of the latter were re-shaping thought and practice in the northern lands. To these historiographers, a woman who clearly didn’t fit their picture of proper gender roles may well have been seen as an obviously deviant villainess by definition, whose actions called for censorious treatment. 2.) Even some of the details recorded by the saga compilers themselves, if one reads between the lines, cast doubt on the supposedly innocent and pacific intentions of Freydis’ adversaries. And 3.), the two key conversations in the sagas that cast Freydis in the worst light, taken at face value, were totally private conversations that none of the original tellers of the material could actually have been privy to. They’re imaginative reconstructions, just as much as Gilbert’s dialogue is –and they’re reconstructions created by writers with an ideological agenda of their own.

Gilbert follows the factual account of events in the sagas faithfully (even including the two conversations I find suspect). But she fleshes out the picture with a more sympathetic vision, and a broader reconstruction of a plausible context, that gives us a very different picture of what (may have) actually happened on the Vineland coast a thousand years ago. The Freydis who emerges here isn’t an evil harridan, and isn’t psychotic. What she is is a tough-as-nails young woman who’s the product of a society that puts a premium on physical courage and fighting ability, who’s had to fight tooth and nail for anything she’s ever gotten, who didn’t feel loved as a child, never knew her birth mother, and doesn’t show love or give trust very easily, a female warrior (in her culture, that wasn’t a contradiction in terms) who killed men in combat while she was still in her teens, who doesn’t readily take orders from any man, woman, or deity, and who isn’t a total stranger to the effects of the special kind of dried mushrooms imbibed by Viking “berserkers” –which are as potent as modern-day “angel dust,” and just as dangerous. She’s also a smart, competent woman (it says something that she’s the expedition leader here, not her husband) with principles as strong as steel, and deep reserves of love and loyalty. And like all of us, she’s a woman on a spiritual journey … which might not end where it began. In real life, the Vikings of succeeding generations never forgot her. Modern readers probably won’t, either.

Gilbert brings Freydis’ world vividly to life here, without employing info-dumps or cluttering the narrative with excessive details. (She includes a family tree for Freydis and a short list of other characters in the back, along with a short glossary of Viking terms used in the text; but I personally didn’t need the former, and with my Scandinavian background, the latter only included a couple of words I didn’t know –and I’d roughly deduced the meanings of those from the context already. Even readers who haven’t read much about Vikings, I think, could guess the definitions of all these terms the same way.) This is a very taut, gripping read, with a lot of suspense in the first part even when you know the general outline of the history, and the plot continues to hold dangers and surprises up to the denouement and beyond. It’s written in first-person, present-tense, which puts us inside Freydis’ head and bonds us to her quickly. As in the first book, the characterizations are believable and vivid. All told, this is historical fiction at its finest! I give it my highest recommendation, and I’m looking forward to reading more of Gilbert’s work.

I would strongly advise reading both books in order; they have many of the same characters, and it will help you as a reader to come to this book with the better and deeper understanding of the relationships, personalities and general situation that reading the first book will give you. Action heroine fans usually like other kinds of strong heroines as well, and Gudrid easily fits into that sorority.

Full disclosure: I was gifted with a free copy of this work by the author, just because she knew I wanted to read it. I wasn’t asked to give a favorable review (or, really, any review at all) –that had to be earned, and it was earned in abundance.

Author: Heather Day Gilbert
Publisher: WoodHaven Press, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

The Girl King

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“Queen of Arts”

girlkingThis isn’t the first biopic about Christina, Queen of Sweden from 1632 to 1654. Most notably, Greta Garbo played the role in 1933’s Queen Christina, though one sense the focus here is rather different. Certainly, she’s an interesting character, the only child of King Gustav II Adolph. She became queen at age six on his death, then was brought up as if she were a prince, taking over actual rule on turning 18. She caused major ructions with the established order with her plans to end the Thirty Years’ War, educate the population and turn the capital city, Stockholm, into the “Athens of the North”. It didn’t help her case in a strongly Protestant Sweden and a very fraught religious time, that she was influenced by Catholic writers such as René Descartes. Nor her reluctance to marry, or the (according to this telling) passionate relationship with one of her ladies-in-waiting, Ebba Sparre (Gadon).

This focuses on the period between her 18th birthday in 1644 and abdication a decade later – she left the throne to her cousin, turned Catholic and headed off to live the rest her life in Italy. The film suggests this was largely a reaction to an enforced separation from Sparre, which is depicted as causing Christina a breakdown. [The mentally-fragile apple depicted, apparently didn’t fall far from the tree. Her mother was barking mad, who preserved her husband’s embalmed corpse for two years after his death and, again per the movie, made Christina kiss it good morning and good night] That seems a little too trite of an explanation, for someone who spoke nine different languages and was as much driven by admiration for her “virgin queen” predecessor, Queen Elizabeth I of England, as any passion.

It’s more successful in documenting the struggle between Christina and the nobles who had no interest in an educated underclass, or even peace, the loot “liberated” from enemy countries being a major source of income. Mind you, the peasants aren’t necessarily interested either: an amusing scene has the monarch about to quote Marcus Aurelius to them, when she’s interrupted by an offer of free beer from a rather more down-to-earth adviser. The tension between a high-minded – possibly too high-minded? – queen and the realities of 17th-century European politics, would have benefited from additional exploration.

It would likely have been preferable to a rather uninteresting love affair, one which seems to say more about 21st century sexual politics than anything at that point. While I generally liked Buska’s performance, there were a couple of points I felt like I watching a modern teenager, rather than one of the most well-educated women of her time. I have to think there was rather more to Queen Christina, than the slightly-unstable lesbian portrayed here, but the true depth of that character only occasionally pokes its head over the large dresses and even larger wigs seen here.

Dir: Mika Kaurismäki
Star: Malin Buska, Sarah Gadon, Michael Nyqvist, Lucas Bryant

Warrior Women

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“If Xena was a history teacher.”

warriorwomenThis short series, originally produced for the Discovery Channel in 2003, consists of five, 45-minute episodes, each one focusing on a different historical figure. Specifically (and in Netflix-listed order), they are Joan of Arc, Grace O’Malley, Boudica, Lozen and “Mulan” – quotes for the last used advisedly, but we’ll get to that in a moment. The episodes themselves seem a little disjointed, composed of three separate elements that don’t quite mesh. You get talking-head interviews with academics and historical experts; dramatic re-enactments of events from the women warriors’ lives; and Lucy Lawless stomping around the locations, occasionally doing semi-practical demos like sword-wielding. The last seems particularly pointless, and seems inserted purely to appeal to Xena fetishists – not least the sequence where Lawless is getting woad applied on her face, and is informed by the giggling painter, that “the binding agent in this particular agent is semen.” And a thousand fan-fics were born…

The other main issue is, particularly in the early episodes, there isn’t anything new here – Joan, Grace and Boudica are all women whom we’ve written about here in the past, and you are largely watching them go over well-worn territory here. For example, it’s hard to imagine anyone interested enough in the topic to watch the show, will also not already have heard of Joan of Arc. The only one I hadn’t heard of before was Lozen, an Apache warrior and contemporary of Geronimo; however, the approach for this story is deadly dull, batting so straight down the “noble savage” archetype, that I literally fell asleep. The final episode is entitled “Mulan”, and I wondered how they were going to squeeze 45 minutes out of this, given virtually everything known about her is a single poem.  The answer, it turned out, was to spent 80% of the show talking about someone completely different from the late 18th century, whose sole connection to Mulan was being Chinese. This is a bit like titling your show “King Arthur” and then talking mostly about the Duke of Wellington. They’re both Brits, right?

That said, the actual topic, Wang Cong’er, a leader of the White Lotus Sect who rebelled against imperial rule, was a very good one. The story is one that certainly deserves to be better known – I’m quite surprised the movie industry there, which has mined many less interesting characters in the past, hasn’t developed anything based on her life, which had a nice, “heroic bloodshed” arc to it, right up to Wang flinging herself from a cliff, rather than let herself be captured. This is one where the various approaches mesh to excellent effect, despite the rather tenuous efforts to connect her to Mulan; not just building a living character, but putting her in a historical context that makes sense. It’s a shame the other four episodes only manage to achieve the same success on a sporadic basis.

Dir: Noel Dockstader and Patrick Fleming
Presented by: Lucy Lawless

Enemy of the Reich: The Noor Inayat Khan Story

khanBorn three years before the Russian Revolution in St. Petersburg, Khan was perhaps the most unlikely of secret agents. Her father was an Indian of noble birth, descended on his maternal side from Tipu Sultan, and a noted Sufi mystic; her mother, a cousin of Mary Baker Eddy’s from New Mexico. The family also lived in London, before settling in Paris until the invasion of France in 1940, when Khan returned to the United Kingdom. Keen to help free her country from the Nazis, she joined the Women’s Auxilliary Air Force as a wireless operator. However, her additional talents as a native French speaker, brought Khan to the attentions of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), tasked with organizing resistance groups in France.

After being trained in undercover work, she was sent to France in June 1943, and began work in Paris, transmitting agent reports back to London. It was a ferociously dangerous job, with the average lifespan of radio operators only a few weeks. A sweep by occupying forces gathered up almost all her colleagues, leaving Khan the only operator still at large. She was the most wanted British secret agent in Paris, with her description widely circulated; wireless detection teams meant she was constantly on the move and could only transmit for 20 minutes at a time. According to a post-war commendation, “She refused to abandon what had become the most important and dangerous post in France and did excellent work.”

It eventually took betrayal from within the organization before she was captured after three and a half months in October 1943. Even then, she managed to escape custody, only to be recaptured once again. Another unsuccessful attempt followed. The Germans were taking no further chances, and shipped her from France to Germany, where she was imprisoned in solitary confinement, with her hands and feet shackled. After more than nine months she was transferred to Dachau concentration camp, along with three other female British SOE agents. On September 13, 1944, all four were executed. Khan was 30 years old. Her final utterance was: “Liberte”. She was posthumously awarded the George Cross, the second-highest British decoration – one of only four women to receive it – and also given the Croix de Guerre by the French government.

Enemy of the Reich: The Noor Inayat Khan Story
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khanScreened on PBS in 2014, this uses a combination of interviews, with scholars and Khan’s descendants,  as well as dramatic re-creations, to tell her life-story, touching on most of the aspects mentioned above. It also delves into her psychology, suggesting that the tenets of strong Sufi philosophy instilled during her upbringing were both a source of Khan’s strength and, potentially, her biggest weakness. She was, according to the film, almost incapable of telling a lie, which could be a literally lethal flaw for a secret agent in wartime. In his memoirs, cryptographer Leo Marks (played here by Isenberg) gives some blackly amusing anecdotes to illustrate this. But the film concentrates on how he used the trait to strengthen her encryption skills, another area of concern from her training.

Unfortunately, rather unimpressive are the interviews with her nephew, Pir Zia Inayat-Khan who delivers slabs of philosophical mumbo-jumbo that makes little sense and is even less interesting. I’d rather have seen more of the re-enactments of Khan’s time in occupied Paris, which manage to do a fairly good job of capturing the sense of danger and perpetual tension for an agent in those times. Srinivasan, as Khan, doesn’t appear to have anything of an acting resume in the IMDb, yet is successful in depicting Khan’s idealism, which ultimately led to her death. Curiously though, the film appears almost to soft-pedal the treatment received at the hands of the Nazis after her capture. Still, there’s no denying the impact of the final sequence, which cuts from the execution, shot almost in stark black-and-white, to Khan reading from the book of stories she had written, to two young children.

Though running little more than 50 minutes, it does highlight the cinematic potential in the story: the modern resonance of a Muslim woman taking up arms and participating in a Western war is particularly undeniable. There was word, back in 2012 [around the time a memorial statue of Khan was unveiled in London], that such a project was in the pipeline. Producers Tabrez Noorani and Zafar Hai announced they had bought the rights to Shrabani Basu’s book, Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan. You’d think a Hollywood-Bollywood partnership would be all over the story. Yet since then? Little or nothing. Maybe some day, Khan will finally receive the global recognition she likely deserves.

Dir: Robert H. Gardner
Star: Helen Mirren (narrator), Grace Srinivasan, Joe Isenberg, Mike Sullivan

Below, you should see another documentary on the same topic, Princess Spy. This formed part of BBC’s Timewatch series in 2006, and if perhaps a little dry, is also a good overview of a heroine who isn’t as well known as she should be.

Maria Bochkareva and the Women’s Battalions of Death

wb01We’ve previously written about the Soviet Union’s wholehearted embrace of women soldiers in World War II, but it was not the first time Russia had gone to the female well in defense of their nation. Almost a century ago, while the country was going through a turbulent transition out of Tsarism, combat battalions consisting entirely of women were formed, to fight against Germany in the latter stages of the Great War. At a time when women were not quite yet able to vote in Russia – suffrage would come there, later in 1917 – this was still more advanced in terms of equality on the battlefield, than the United States is currently.

The purpose of the units was initially for morale purposes. The long grind of the trench-warfare which characterized World War I on the Western front is well-known, but the situation was no different in the East, where the Germans and Russians were locked in a lethal stalemate of artillery bombardments, poison gas attacks and futile assaults which gained trivial amounts of territory at horrendous cost. As the government collapsed, the Tsar abdicating in March 1917, army morale went with it. Soldiers no longer answered to their officers, and spent more time fraternizing with the enemy than fighting them. However, many volunteers still wanted to defend their homeland, and these were organized into groups, in the hope of energizing and/or shaming the regular forces into picking up their arms again.

These volunteers were not just male. On the women’s side, the front runner was Maria Bochkareva, who had already been a trail-blazer in the field of female combat. At the outbreak of the war, she had obtained the personal authorization of the Tsar to join the regular army, and served almost three years there, being both wounded and decorated on multiple occasions. However, growing disenchanted with the collapse in discipline, she quit the army, but shortly after requested permission to organize a group of women. Speaking to the Russian Parliament, she said: “You heard of what I have gone through and what I have done as a soldier. Now, how would it do to organize women like me to serve as an example to the army and lead the men into battle?”

wb04There were 2,000 volunteers initially, but Bochkareva’s strict approach to discipline winnowed out 85% of these. Part of her disenchantment with the regular military was that it was now largely run by “soldier’s committees”, with discipline severely restricted, and even mutineers could no longer be executed. She insisted that her battalion had to be committee-free, run on old-school lines, and this caused conflict, both with the military hierarchy and many of her recruits. But she persevered: the women who stayed were shorn of all their feminine fripperies (as shown in the contemporary photos) and given intensive instruction under male trainers and support staff. A month later, led by Bochkareva, the 1st Russian Women’s Battalion of Death were sent to the front, and took part in the Kerensky offensive.

The women saw action near the town of Smarhon, and accounts indicate they performed well, along with the other “shock troops”, and Russian forces initially were able to gain ground. However, the regular army barely showed up, and the Germans regrouped, taking back the territory and then some. This failure marked the last significant Russian action of the war. Bochkareva was injured once more, and sent back to recuperate. However, if her acts had minimal impact on the soldiers they were intended to inspire, they did help create as many as fifteen other women’s battalions, some evolving from existing units. Most of these did not see the war, but in October, the 1st Petrograd Women’s Battalion did join regular Cossack troops in the defense of the Winter Palace against Bolshevik forces. Though history records, that didn’t end well either.

It was likely a concept too far ahead of its time, and as Russia descended into anarchy and chaos, the struggle to keep the battalions supplied and organized proved an unequal one. For a while, they served in auxiliary roles behind the front lines, but the death knell came on November 30, 1917 when the new Bolshevik government officially dissolved the units. Those who had been members were free to go, but a number stayed in action, fighting on both sides during the looming Russian Civil War. That included Bochkareva. While holding no great love for the Tsar, she was thoroughly unimpressed with the Communist regime, and toured America and the United Kingdom in 1918 soliciting support against them. On her return to Russia, she tried to organize a further women’s unit as part of the White Army, but was captured by the Bolsheviks, and executed by firing squad in May 1920, at the age of thirty.

Yashka: My Life as Peasant, Exile, and Soldier

“Woman is naturally light-hearted. But if she can purge herself for sacrifice, then through a caressing word, a loving heart and an example of heroism she can save the motherland. We are physically weak, but if we be strong morally and spiritually, we will accomplish more than a large force.”

wb02It’s likely Bochkareva would have fallen into the darkness of historical obscurity, a nine days’ wonder from late in the Great War, except for her trip to the West to rally support against the Bolsheviks. While here, she worked with Russian-born writer, Isaac Don Levine, on her autobiography, telling her story to him over 100 hours and three weeks of interviews, which he translated and transcribed. The resulting book is the source for virtually everything we know about her life to that point, though obviously skips its tragic conclusion, in front of a Communist firing-squad. As such, it largely has to be taken on faith, since there’s little or no corroborating evidence available. Occasionally, it does feel stretched, in a /r/thathappened way, with Bochkareva adored and feted to a suspicious degree. But there’s a lot here, too, which has the ring of authenticity – her depictions of the hell which was the trenches, for example, sounds very much like direct experience.

It takes a while to reach that, beginning with her early life as the daughter of a peasant family. Put to work while still only aged eight, she was married at 15, but her first husband was an abusive alcoholic, and she left him. Thereafter, she had jobs ranging from laundry to construction foreman, and allegedly had a narrow escape from a life of prostitution [looking at her pictures, I have to say, that… seems a bit unlikely?]. She also met Yakov Buk, with whom she began a common-law marriage, but he fell foul of the tsar’s secret police and was exiled to Siberia, Maria accompanying him there. After some more implausible adventures – one chapter is titled “Snared by a Libertine Governor”! – war broke out, and according to our heroine, “My heart yearned to be there, in the boiling caldron of war, to be baptized in its fire and scorched in its lava. The spirit of sacrifice took possession of me. My country called me. And an irresistible force from within pulled me.”

Returning to Tomsk, she applied to join the army – while turned down, she made such a good impression on the local commander that he drew up a telegram to the Tsar with his own recommendation. To the surprise of all, the Tsar authorized her enlistment, and this is where the story takes off, offering a glimpse into the front-lines from a very personal perspective. Initially, Bochkareva was eager to see battle: “Were we nervous? Undoubtedly. But it was not the nervousness of cowardice, rather was it the restlessness of young blood. Our hands were steady, our bayonets fixed. We exulted in our adventure.” Bochkareva was injured and also, briefly, captured by Germans, but fought free, according to her account:

We threw ourselves, five hundred strong, at our captors, wrested many of their rifles and bayonets and engaged in a ferocious hand-to-hand combat, just as our men rushed through the torn wire entanglements into the trenches. The confusion was indescribable; the killing merciless. I grasped five hand-grenades that lay near me and threw them at a group of about ten Germans. They must have all been killed. Our entire line across the river was advancing at the same time. The first German line was occupied by our troops and both banks of the Styr were then in our hands. Thus ended my captivity. I was in German hands for a period of only eight hours and amply avenged even this brief stay.

wb07She eventually realized the upper levels of command lacked the same mettle and commitment, resulting in failed offensives. This undercut army morale, and as the civil turbulence within Russia increased, this also reduced the will to win – not helping matters, were German soldiers, crossing the lines bearing brandy. Eventually, Bochkareva grew so disenchanted, she quit the military in May 1917: “I can’t stand this new order of things. The soldiers don’t fight the Germans any more. My object in joining the army was to defend the country. Now, it is impossible to do so. There is nothing left for me, therefore, but to leave.”

This retirement was short-lived, because she quickly came up with the idea of the Women’s Battalion of Death, as described above, eventually leading it into battle. She sustained its strict discipline herself, berating offenders: “You are not worth the uniforms you are wearing. This uniform stands for noble sacrifice, for unselfish patriotism, for purity and honor and loyalty. Every one of you is a disgrace to the uniform. Take them off and get out!” She recounts that when she came across one of her girls making love to another soldier, she bayoneted the girl to death – the man, wisely, ran off before suffering the same fate! However, the rest of the army had a laxer approach. Bochkareva and her soldiers became seen as reactionaries, with some even lynched; it eventually became necessary to disband the unit to prevent further casualties.

Bochkareva’s adventures were not over, as she became a messenger for the anti-Bolshevik forces. She was captured by their opponents, on the way back from meeting General Lavr Kornilov, and the account of her near-execution is chilling – not least, in view of its likely eventual occurrence: “We were surrounded and taken toward a slight elevation of ground, and placed in a line with our backs toward the hill. There were corpses behind us, in front of us, to our left, to our right, at our very feet. There were at least a thousand of them. The scene was a horror of horrors. The poisonous odors were choking us. The executioners did not seem to mind it so much. They were used to them.” While she escaped this fate, in part because one of the committee members had been rescued by her earlier in the war, that was it, and she opted to leave the country, going through Siberia to Vladivostok.

It’s an interesting read, offering a unique perspective on the Russian Revolution and war, though at times, it seems we are hearing more of Levine’s voice than Bochkareva, who hardly sounds like the uneducated peasant girl described. On the other hand, his filtering likely ensures events are explained in a way which makes sense for the intended Western audience; this probably helps equally, with regard to the near-century in time which has elapsed. Despite the yawning chasm in era and location between author and reader, this should be perfectly intelligible to the modern citizen. Certainly, Bochkareva comes over as a true heroine: strong-minded, prepared to go to any lengths to achieve her goals, and an irresistible force. Emmeline Pankhurst, doyenne of the suffragette movement, called her the greatest woman of the century, comparing Bochkareva to Joan of Arc. If premature, considering more than four-fifths of the century was in the future at that point, she still deserves to be considered one of its greatest unsung heroines.

Author: Maria Bochkareva, as told to Isaac Don Levine
Publisher: Frederick A. Stokes, 1919 – available, in full and for free, online.

The Battalion

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“War is hell.”

The above is an equal-opportunity truism and, as we see here, applies just as much to the first matriarchal unit in the modern world. This was the charmingly-named 1st Women’s Battalion of Death, created late in World War I, as the Russian Revolution was taking place. Its aim was to encourage the disillusioned regular army into continuing the fight against Germany, in a “If the ladies are fighting, surely you should be, too?” kinda way. At least initially, it’s the story of two sisters, Nadya (Kuchkova) and Vera, daughters of a rich family, who volunteer for the unit after Vera’s fiance, Petya, is killed at the front. Their mother sends their maid, Froska (Rahmanova), to try and protect her daughters, as they go through the training that will turn them into soldiers capable of taking on the enemy. The film climaxes with an initially successful, but ultimately futile, offensive – while the women initially gain ground, the regular army’s morale is so broken, they don’t support the push, allowing the Germans to counterattack [this aspect is largely true to history].

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However, as the film unfolds, it gradually becomes more about the founder of the battalion, Mariya Bochkareva (Aronova) and her story. That’s perhaps wise – to be honest, it’s kinda hard to tell the rank and file soldiers apart, once they’ve had their heads shaved and are wearing the same uniform! This posed particular problems once battle was joined; on at least one occasion, I was convinced a character had been killed, only for her to pop up again, entirely alive, it having been someone else who bit the bullet. Fortunately, it seems Meshiev is more interested in Bochkareva, and it’s a wise decision thanks to a thoroughly convincing performance by Aronova. If she’s hardly the “girls with guns” archetype in looks, her commanding officer is smart, capable, patriotic and ferociously brave, leading from the front; you can see why she inspires the devotion necessary for the troops to follow her into the hell of trench warfare.

And that hell is appropriately portrayed in all its grim unpleasantness from poison gas [a sequence reminiscent of the end of Fraulein Doktor] through to brutal hand-to-hand combat, where we see the soft heart of a raw rookie is no match for a grizzled veteran’s sheer ruthlessness. It’s an approach which does allow the viewer to read this in several ways: it is commending the courage of those who fight, or condemning its pointlessness? The director made his opinion on this fairly clear. In a press conference promoting the film, when asked whether the events portrayed should be taken “as a feat or as a futility”, he replied, “Why would we give birth to a child if everyone will die anyway?” Oh, those wacky Russians… It may be militaristic propaganda; I’d not argue with that as an assessment. However, I don’t care, when it is as effective and well-made as this, with the cinematography and soundtrack standing out, in addition to the fine central performance.

Dir: Dmitriy Meshiev
Star: Maria Aronova, Mariya Kozhevnikova, Irina Rakhmanova, Alyona Kuchkova