Chapaev (Soviet Union, Vasilyev Brothers)
Like Happiness (which made this list at number 10), Chapaev is an example of the escapist fare the Soviet film industry served during the uncertainty of Stalin’s purges. What better way to forget the horrors of the present than to revisit the heroes of the past? Filmmaking team Georgi and Sergei Vasilyev, commonly known as the Vasilyev brothers (though they weren’t brothers at all) adapted Dmitri Furmanov’s popular book about the revolutionary military leader and hero Vasily Ivanovich Chapaev.
A former peasant, Chapaev worked his way up the ranks in the Red Army to become a commander and distinguished himself in battle against their anti-Revolutionary forces, the White Army. The movie picks up toward the end of Chapaev’s career, chronicling his victory over White Army forces and eventual death. He is played well by Boris Babochkin, as a principled, but uneducated man, eager to prove himself, as though his success or failure would reflect on the entire communist experiment. He can be demanding and harsh, but for him his intransigence serves the interests of the people whose hardships he knows only too well.
The Vasilyevs did paint a dull hagiographic portrait of their protagonist. He can be impulsive and derisive of intellectuals. He always comes around to the right decisions, but not without error. That they are willing to show his faults and weaknesses demonstrates that he was an everyday man, not a superhuman god that the rest of us could never hope to live up to – a mistake so many admiring biopics make. At one point a peasant asks Chapaev if he is a Communist or a Bolshevik. Chapaev is visibly taken aback. Is there a difference? He dodges the question by saying he is an Internationalist. When his fellow commander Furmanov (the character based on the author of the book on which the movie is based played by Boris Blinov) follows up by asking if he is for the Second or Third International, Chapaev clearly doesn’t know what the “correct” answer is. He shrugs it off and says he is for whichever one Lenin is for. In this one moment we see the simplicity of Chapaev’s worldview, dedicated to doing the right thing for the people, but not understanding the big picture. It also indicates the weakness of a revolution driven by ideology, especially a revolution that purports to be of the people but only the most educated can really understand its principles. This point though is overshadowed by the heroics of Chapaev. Though he doesn’t truly understand Marx’s philosophy and Lenin’s thought at least, in the eyes of the filmmakers, he was on the right side of the war.
Visually the movie has some stunning moments. One that especially stands out in my mind is a battle that comes toward the end. We see the White Army soldiers steadfastly marching in perfect formation to the steady drum beat while the Red soldiers nervously wait. Everything about the build up to the battle works, visually and aurally. The White soldiers, seemingly oblivious to the enemy, move forward in perfectly pressed uniforms in step with the haunting and intimidating drums. It’s a beautifully directed and edited scene, but there are several others that also stand out as cinematic gems like a standoff between Chapaev and Furmanov over who has final authority over the men, Chapaev’s speech about what they are doing delivered to villagers of an occupied village, and the final battle and Chapaev’s death. The Vasilyevs also devote a large chunk of the movie’s time to the new legendary romance of Chapaev’s orderly Petka (Leonid Kmit) and a woman he trains to shot their machine gun, Anka (Varvara Myasnikova). Petka and Anka add a human touch as a counterpoint to Chapaev’s single minded brusqueness. Their romance seems, at first, to be a distraction from the story, but as we move closer to the inevitable conclusion we see that it was essential all along and Petka and Anka’s journey is just as crucial for Chapaev, the revolution, and the future of Russia as Chapaev himself, if only metaphorically.
We don’t need to buy into the Communist ideology to relate to Chapaev or his goals and that is why it is still such a great movie. It stands apart from a lot of other pro-Communist or Leftist film in that it universalizes Chapaev (really as any good Communist should set out to do). The movie doesn’t alienate non-Communist viewers because anyone can sympathize with this self-made man fighting for the rights of an oppressed and battered people. That we would later learn of the terrors under Stalin does not take away from the fact that the original principles and goals of the revolution were noble. They would later be appropriated and subverted by power-hungry despots, but that doesn’t mean we can’t, even today, appreciate the principled and dedicated leaders that helped overthrow Tsarist oppression. Chapaev is still a great movie for anyone who can empathize with the desire to right the wrongs of society – and hopefully that is all of us.