After the 1973 Yom Kippur War, a close friend who commanded a tank in the Sinai and killed at least 35 Egyptian tanks—“You forget to count after a while”—in a drunken moment said to yours truly: “You know what’s great about desert warfare? No civilians. No cities. No nothing. Just you and the enemy. If it wasn’t so damned bloody and awful it would be romantic.”
Ice Cold in Alex (1958) is such a desert war film, a British production based on the novel of the same name. It’s 1942, the British have retreated from Tobruk. John Mills plays Anson, a British ambulance officer, suffering battle fatigue and alcoholism, who tries to get back safely to Alexandria where he dreams of downing an ice cold glass of beer. His passengers include the great character actor Harry Andrews, who nearly steals the show, two nurses, and a mysterious South African officer. Well crafted movies use a simple device to build tension and drama: obstacles. Your main character wants something so you put an obstacle in his path which he must overcome. And then you do it again, but with an even bigger obstacle. The obstacles keep getting bigger, and your hero acts even more heroically. In this film, the main obstacles are not Nazis—they appear as chivalrous knights of the desert—but the truck in which our group rides, a rickety hunk of steel that huffs and puffs its way across the Libyan desert. There’s a love story between Mills and Sylvia Syms, but it’s sadly unconvincing. Mills is no one’s idea of a dashing leading man and Syms is, well, where is the great Madeleine Carroll when we need her? Thanks to our Irish friend Ted Leddy, of Gubu World, for bringing this rather obscure film to our attention.
1612, is a Russian movie that was, apparently, commissioned by the Kremlin in advance of the 2007, parliamentary elections. The film was released on November 1, 2007, to coincide with the celebrations of National Unity Day, marking the expulsion of Polish troops from Moscow. One must ask: Is this Soviet propaganda? In a sense, I suppose it is. Yet it’s still a rousing historical drama that takes place during the time of The Troubles in 17th century Russia. After the brutal slaughter of Tsar Boris Gudunov and his family chaos engulfs the land. There is war and famine. Andrei, a slave, answering the call of patriotism and his deeply held mystical faith—this is a very Russian movie—sets out on a quest to rescue Princess Ksenia, in a beautifully modulated performance by Violetta Davydovskaya, the missing daughter of Godunuv. Some of the images in this film are absolutely riveting. The Polish cavalry—this film will not be popular with a Polish audience—are outfitted with feathered wings that make them look like destroying angels. And Princess Ksenia’s relationship with her captor is perversely fascinating as a study in the Stockholm Syndrome.
Ambush (1999) from Finland, takes place during the Continuation War, in which Finland reluctantly allied itself with Germany in order to resist Russian invasion. It should be noted that Finnish Jews fought with conspicuous bravery in this war and Marshall Mannerheim, the great Finnish leader refused to hand over Finnish Jews to the Nazis. Anyway, our film follows the exploits of Lt. Eero Perkola, Peter Franzen, and Irina Björklund as Kaarina Vainikainen, Lt. Perkola’s love. Sent out on a dangerous mission—this is a bicycle squad, quite the odd image for American viewers—to scout Russian positions, Lt. Perkola leads a platoon of soldiers who, in classic dramatic fashion, represent various moral and religious points of view. There is a communist, a religious mystic, a psycho killer, and a clumsy but lovable dork. Lt. Perkola is all square jawed and noble as the squad leader. The film is strictly a local affair. The Finnish alliance with Germany is never mentioned. Patriotism and an old fashioned love story are at the heart of this handsome movie and along with some very impressive battle scene “Ambush” marks yet another fine movie that views Finnish history through the prism of war.