The Camera At War: Early War Photographs

Ever since 1914, we have been used to seeing images of wars. Soldiers, battles, and the mechanical weapons of war too. More recently, we can watch modern wars ‘live’ with reporters bringing us footage of battles as they are happening, in Vietnam, Iraq, Syria, or Afghanistan.

But war photography goes back much further than that. In The Crimean War of 1853-1856, intrepid photographers travelled to Russia with the armies, to try to capture the life of the Victorian soldier.

A British Guards Sergeant, proudly posing in his uniform.

CRIMEAN WAR 1854-56 (Q 71631) Portrait of Sergeant William Knapp, Coldstream Guards, with his pack and equipment. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

British Lancers, from a regiment that would have charged into The ‘Valley of Death’, at Balaclava.
(Photo obviously ‘colourised’)

From 1899-1901, The British Empire fought the army of Dutch settlers in Africa, known as The Boers.
Both sides wanted to retain their influence in two areas of South Africa.

Boer fighters. They were a tough and determined enemy.

British Troops manning a machine gun, taken in 1900 during that war.

But no war was ever previously photographed as much as the US Civil War, from 1861-1865.

Boy drummers, who would have marched into action alongside fighting troops.

Freed slaves and free black men were allowed to fight in the Union Army, though they mainly had white officers commanding them.
Here, some new recruits pose with their weapons.

This was one of the first times that the carnage of war was photographed for public consumption.
The bodies of soldiers after the Battle of Antietam, in 1862.

Confederate dead in the trenches at Vicksburg, Mississippi, 1863.

The body of a dead confederate after the Battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, 1863.
It was later discovered that many such photos were ‘staged’ by some photographers.
The bodies would be moved into specific locations, or arranged in the pose of a supposedly ‘heroic’ death.

There was also some attempt to portray the devastation caused by this long war.
Here is the centre of Charleston, South Carolina, in 1865.

Unforgettable films: Part One

My Film and Cinema category has been somewhat neglected of late. When I started this blog, short reviews of films by genre or country were one of the regular features. I stopped doing these, as I felt that I had played it out, and had nothing left to offer. Instead, I began the occasional series ‘Just been watching…’, looking at individual films in a random fashion, as I happened to watch them on DVD, or catch them on TV.

I follow a fair few other film blogs on the Internet. These dedicated bloggers deal with films and cinema as a single issue, and devote more time to watching films than I do, using services like Netflix, or watching on Smart TVs with an Internet connection. They obviously watch many more modern films that I can, and keep up to date with the trends. Many of them are avid fans of the recent crop of blockbuster films, or super-hero franchises, something I admit to avoiding.

Then there are the ‘Top’ film sites, those that like to showcase their opinion on the top ten or top twenty films loved by themselves and their readers. They also branch out into subjects like ‘Top Ten Horror Films’, or ‘Top Ten Romantic Dramas.’ There is nothing wrong with this approach, and it can often lead to healthy debate, lots of comments, and a big blog following. Good luck to them. Then there are the rather ‘serious’ sites such as, where I have been pleased to have had eighteen articles published. They deal with all sorts of film-related issues, from new releases, to reviews of documentaries, and film fairs.

On this blog, Film and Cinema is just one of many categories. yet I am often asked to write more on the subject, and frequently asked to offer ‘Top’ lists, as a comment on other sites. I have studiously avoided ever stating what I consider to be the ‘best’ films ever made, or to provide lists of my own, in any forum. This is because I would simply find it too difficult to do. I would need countless categories to even begin to attempt it. Best German film? Best War film? Best Gangster film? And so on.
However, I am willing to add some recommendations to this post, films that I personally consider to be ‘unforgettable.’ This does not mean that I consider them to be the best films ever made, or that I am asserting that they are better than others in the genre. Just that for me, they are unforgettable.

Many of these have been covered elsewhere on this blog, so apologies for duplication.

Some films stay with you, and get better every time you see them. You can recall scenes at will, remember the lighting, the curl of cigarette smoke, even the view from a window. In 1982, I watched Ridley Scott’s new film, ‘Blade Runner.’ I had never seen anything like it, and left the cinema feeling completely overwhelmed. Next year, it will be thirty-five years old. Yet it is as fresh today as it ever was, and I can watch it again and again; whether the original version, or one of the numerous director’s cuts released since. I can see Daryl Hannah spraying black paint on her face, or the fear sensed by J.F. Sebastian, when he meets Roy Batty. I will certainly never forget this modern masterpiece of film-making.

I have watched a lot of war films in my 64 years. I could write a blog about those alone, and might just do that, one day. I have seen bad ones, great ones, and average ones. Some with subtitles, some made in the silent era, and others made in the 21st century. One has stayed with me far more than all of the others. Impossible to get out of my head. Images that are disturbing, yet fascinating, almost hypnotic in their sheer wonder. Elem Klimov made ‘Come and See’ in 1985. I didn’t get to see it for a long time after that, when I found a copy on VHS, later swapped for a DVD. This amazing film tells the story of a teenage partisan, fighting with Soviet forces against the Germans, during WW2. But that is too simple an explanation. The horrors, the surreal images, the documentary feel, all wormed their way inside my consciousness in a way almost impossible to explain. Once seen, never forgotten.

Musical films have been a popular genre ever since the appearance of talking pictures, and ‘The Jazz Singer.’ I have many favourites, not least the wonderful collaborations of Rogers and Astaire, and the eye-popping choreography of Busby Berkeley. Old or new, musicals charm audiences, and divide opinion too. To be honest, there are far more that I don’t like, than those that I do. But one has endured, providing images and memories that I can recall, as well as being able to repeat the lyrics of the songs featured. In 1972, I went to see the film ‘Cabaret.’ This cinema version had all the enjoyment of the stage show, and was able to escape the theatrical boundaries to expand the story. Liza Minnelli was not the obvious choice for Sally Bowles, but took the role and made it her own. I can recall her powerful rendition of ‘Maybe This Time’, or see her in her cheeky outfits, strutting around the stage. Like all the best films, I never tire of seeing it, and even though I own the DVD, I watch it whenever it is on TV.

When I was first taken to the cinema as a child, we never missed a chance to see the big films of the day, generally referred to as ‘Epics.’ I loved them all, from ‘The Ten Commandments’, to ‘How The West Was Won.’ In later life, I had cause to reflect that many of these films were not very good. Wooden acting, dodgy special effects and unconvincing sets can all be seen now, with the benefit of experience. However, one remains in my memory. Every scene, every set-piece from the intimate scenes, to the huge battles. I can forgive it almost anything, as I have never forgotten it. One line from the film has passed down into everyday use, and featured in many spoofs too. I just have to type this line, and you will immediately know the film I refer to. “I’m Spartacus…”

CGI has transformed everything we used to understand about films. Love it or hate it, the possibilities are endless. No need for thousands of extras in a film like ‘Troy.’ Just paste them in on a computer later on. Why build expensive sets, when the actors can just perform against a screen, and you can paint in the surroundings later? Anything from Ancient Rome (‘Gladiator’), to the far reaches of an imagined galaxy. (‘Avatar’) The only limitation is imagination. In 1963, computers were the size of houses, and if film-makers wanted special effects, they had to be produced the hard way. Stop-motion filming, using tiny models, with actors having to imagine the foe that they were fighting, or fleeing from. But to my 11 year-old self, they were no less exciting. Fifty-three years later, I can still recall every effect conjured up by the marvellous Ray Harryhausen, for the film ‘Jason and the Argonauts.’ From sword-wielding skeletons, to the flapping harpies. Simply magical.

I could equally do this post just about foreign films. I have watched many in my time, and almost half the films in my DVD collection have subtitles. As soon as I was old enough to go to the cinema on my own, some of the first films I sought out were made in Russia, Japan, or France. There are just as many of these wonderful films that I have never forgotten, so it is hard to choose just one to feature here. For imagery alone, as well as as an almost insane performance from Klaus Kinski in the lead role, I have to mention Werner Herzog’s spellbinding 1972 film, ‘Aguirre, the Wrath Of God.’ This story of European conquistadors in 16th century South America never ceases to impress, and to remain in the memory. Thrilling location filming, near-impossible conditions and scenes including Aguirre being mocked by (real) monkeys, add up to a truly unforgettable cinema experience.

Some films are intended to make you feel sad. They are known as ‘tear-jerkers’ in the industry, deliberately playing to your sentimental side, or presenting a tragic situation designed to cause upset to the sensitive viewer. One example of this type of film might be ‘Love Story’, the 1970 film starring Ryan O’Neal. Better films are content to tell a story, to show it in an unflinching way, and let the viewer conclude that it is sadder than anything contrived to make them cry. Based on real events in Ireland, ‘The Magdalene Sisters’ is a 2002 film written and directed by Peter Mullan. It shows the harsh treatment and sexual abuse dealt out to poor young women who have been incarcerated in a Catholic laundry run by nuns, for the simple reason of having had sex, or becoming pregnant. Watching this film is like being put through an emotional wringer, as the marvellous cast pluck at your every heart-string. It is not only unforgettable, it relates events which were shameful in the extreme. This is not ancient history. It is not even Victorian history. The film is set in 1964.

We all like a good laugh now and again. Comedies were the most popular films in the silent era, and continue to attract huge audiences today. My own favourites include most of the hilarious Marx Brothers films, and nearly everything starring W.C. Fields. More modern chuckle-inducing fare would see my shoulders moving to ‘Animal House’, ‘The Blues Brothers’, and ‘Hot Fuzz.’ Then along came this film. A foul-mouthed talking bear, humans having sex with cuddly toys, and a buddy-buddy relationship steeped in hilarious set pieces and snappy exchanges of dialogue. Against everything I held dear, I had to admit that I loved it. I laughed a lot. Real laughs, not chuckles. I have watched it more than once, and still laugh every time. I even enjoyed the sequel, and that’s saying something. If you haven’t got it yet, it is ‘Ted.'(2012) Here’s a trailer.

Since the early days of cinema, film-makers have tried to scare the paying audience. Send them home with nightmares, and visions of monsters lurking in the shadows. The public have paid untold millions to be frightened out of their wits, and writers and directors have continued to pile on the gore, the scares, and the horrors. As time has passed, events and visions that would once have been considered to be unspeakable, or tasteless in the extreme, have simply become run-of-the-mill. My own opinion is that the scariest things are those unseen. The manifestation of the fears that we all have in our own heads, imagining uncomfortable situations from which there is no escape, or are beyond human comprehension.
In 1999, a low-budget horror film took America by storm. With a small cast, negligible special effects, and the new idea of ‘found-footage’, ‘The Blair Witch Project’ had hardened audiences running from cinemas, and even managed to frighten hackneyed old film critics. I decided to see it when it was released here. I still can’t forget it. This is how to make a scary film, with little money, but a lot of talent.

I hope that you enjoyed the first part of this look at unforgettable films. There will be at least a part two in due course, if not more.

My DVD Films: Still working through them

This was a popular theme, and I have not revisited it for a while. I turned my chair around, and slid six films from a stack in front of me. There are two foreign language films; also a suspenseful psychological horror, an historical epic of importance, a modern crime thriller, and even a musical. One of the foreign language films is a powerful war film, and perhaps one of the best films ever made. See what you think.
Now with added clips or trailers!

*****Most contain plot spoilers*****

Elizabeth (1998)

This film covers the youth of Queen Elizabeth I, during the turbulent times of that period in history. Australian actress Cate Blanchett might seem an unlikely choice as the queen, but she not only looks the part, she takes the role, and makes it her own. The complex politics and religious divides at the time are handled without lecturing, and soon made clear to the viewer. Intrigues abound in the Royal Court, as various factions compete to marry off the queen, and gain power and favour for themselves. The young queen has to grow up fast, making decisions about who to trust, and what advice to follow. Blanchett is always believable in her journey from youthful innocence, to become one of the most powerful monarchs in British history.

The cinematography is excellent, as are the accurate period details, costumes, and music. But what made this film stand out for me, and remain a joy to watch to this day, is the quality of the whole cast, however small their part. Cathy Burke is heartbreaking as the dying Queen Mary, and Christopher Eccleston excels as the scheming Duke of Norfolk. Fanny Ardant captivates as Mary of Guise, and the whole film is almost stolen by the incredible performance of Geoffrey Rush, as the spymaster and power behind the throne, Walsingham. Even one of cinema’s tough guys, Vincent Cassel, gives a very amusing turn as one of Elizabeth’s suitors, the Duke of Anjou, who is discovered to be a bisexual transvestite, of all things.

Everyone knows the story behind this powerful queen, so there are few surprises to be had, naturally. What makes this film so good, is that you can watch it, knowing the end, yet still be immersed in the story as if you had no idea. This is historical drama at its very best.

When A Stranger Calls (1979)

One of the best examples of psychological horror ever made, and yet almost unknown to many modern film fans. This original version (forget all remakes-please) is as riveting to watch today, as when I saw it on release. Wide-eyed Carol Kane stars, as babysitter Jill Johnson, alone in a house looking after the children of the Mandrakis family. She gets a ‘phone call from an unknown man, with the famous line, “Have you checked the children?” At first she thinks it is a prank, but the calls continue, so she contacts the police. They trace the call, and in a wonderful moment of cinematic terror, tell her that the caller is inside the house, on another line. She runs outside, and when the police arrive, they discover the children have been horribly murdered.

Charles Durning, the reliable overweight father figure of American cinema, arrives as investigating detective, John Clifford. He eventually tracks down the killer, who is sent to an asylum.

Events then move on. Seven years later, Clifford has left the police, and is now a private detective, employed by the Mandrakis family to hunt down the killer, who has escaped from the mental hospital. Jill Johnson is now married, with children of her own. One night, she is at a restaurant, and receives a telephone call. Did you You guess it? The voice at the other end asks, “Have you checked the children?”

It doesn’t get much better than this, and the film inspired many later cliches in the horror genre, as well as at least two remakes. Don’t watch it alone. And don’t answer the telephone.

Dreamgirls (2006)

By complete contrast, a modern American musical drama, based on the successful stage play of the same name. This is a star-studded big-budget production, with the feel of old-fashioned Hollywood musicals factored in nicely. It is essentially a take on the story of the career of The Supremes and Diana Ross, but they are naturally never mentioned. All the usual musical elements are there. A struggling backing group, following a famous singer around on tour (Eddie Murphy) find themselves discovered by a slick new manager (Jamie Foxx) who moulds them into a top-selling girl group.

On the way, there are romances, affairs, betrayals, and some insight into the record companies and corruption that was widespread during the 1960s. Beyonce Knowles is very good as the star of the group, Deena Jones, who eventually goes solo, and even appears in films. Others in the group fare less well, with one falling pregnant, and another badly used in a love triangle. Jennifer Hudson, who was a TV talent show contestant, manages to convince in the role of Effie White, single mother and bitter member of the group. If you have ever seen a musical, you can guess the rest. After all the break-ups and heartaches, the girls reunite for a triumphant return concert, and it all ends happily ever after.

So why do I have this film? Despite winning countless awards, some of the acting can be best described as wooden, and the cliches are so signposted, you can easily make a snack and catch up afterwards. I have it because of the songs. There are some really great tunes on this soundtrack, all sung with real talent and raw emotion by both Knowles and Hudson. The rest of the music is good too, and showcases the changing styles over the years that the film is set in.
But one thing holds true. If you don’t like the songs, you won’t like the film.

Fiesta (1995)

This is a French film, about an incident in the Spanish Civil War. It is also about power, and a young man coming to realise how cruel life can be. I confess from the start that this is a niche-market film, and I have it because I am interested in the subject. However, the star is Jean-Louis Trintignant, one of the best and most famous actors ever to come out of France, and that alone makes it worth watching.

It is told from the point of view of a teenage officer, recalled from school in France to join the Nationalist army led by Franco. He is sent to be taken under the wing of his father’s old friend, the arrogant and gay Colonel Masagual. This man determines to toughen up the young Rafael, by having him assigned to an execution squad. Franco’s army are killing all their enemies in the areas that they have conquered, whether prisoners of war, communists, or union militia.

Trintignant is spellbinding as Masgual, coldly ordering killings, or arguing with his juniors whilst wearing a hairnet. He strives to drive all humanity from Rafael by immersing him in the constant executions. Some scenes will stay in the memory; blood being cleared after the shootings, and the blank wall where the prisoners are shot. But it is the interplay between the main characters that holds the viewer’s attention, with a sharp and incisive script, alongside compelling performances.

This film may be hard to track down, but it will reward your time.

Eastern Promises (2007)

Directed by David Cronenberg, with a terrific cast, including Viggo Mortensen and Vincent Cassel, this is a convincing modern gangster film, set in London. It tackles the sex-traffic trade, and the involvement of the Russian Mafia in illegal activities in the capital of the UK. Sexual abuse of young girls, drug addiction, and secret police, all feature in this exciting film, that delivers some pretty convincing twists in its plot too. (Which I will not reveal.)

Despite some use of graphic violence in fight scenes, this is not a run-of-the-mill gangster film. It strives for as much authenticity as possible, from the locations in London, to the accurate Russian Mafia tattoos displayed on the body of Mortensen’s character. Because of the plot twists, I will not go into great detail, but with Cronenberg at the helm, and a cast including such stalwarts as Naomi Watts, Armin Mueller-Stahl, and Sinead Cusack, you can be sure that you are in for a treat.

Come and See (1985)

I have written about this film before, so I will just repeat what I said previously. It is one of the most powerful films I have ever seen.

‘This is a Russian film from 1985. It is set during the German invasion of Belarus, and follows a young man, and a girl he meets, on their journey to join a band of partisans. It is not a film of great set piece battles, but does not shrink from depicting the horrors of the German atrocities carried out during this period. Over half of the film is a build-up to the final section, and concerns the confusion and terror experienced by the young couple, as they find themselves plunged into this unexpected war after losing their families. It has to be remembered that this is a Soviet-era film, so portrays the German troops as little more than beasts. However, the situations depicted are all based on truth, so the actual behaviour of the real Germans was never less than questionable, to say the least. With strange surreal imagery, and odd, dream-like situations, it is something of an ‘Art House’ film. It is also, very possibly, one of the finest films ever made; at any time, anywhere, about anything.’

I hope that I have managed to introduce you to some films that you might enjoy. Please let me know in the comments, if you agree, or disagree, with any of these short reviews.

Significant Songs (72)

Spill The Wine

I had always admired Eric Burdon as a singer and performer, since his arrival on the scene as the lead singer of The Animals in the early 1960s. The band included Chas Chandler, and Alan Price, who both went on to have successful individual careers later. I had enjoyed the bluesey sound of the band, and Burdon’s gravelly vocals. They had huge hits with what were mainly cover versions, including ‘The House of The Rising Sun’, and ‘Paint It Black’.
By 1969, Burdon had left the band and departed for America where he still resides, now aged 73. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, he teamed up with a band of black musicians called ‘War’, and released albums of experimental funky music. I was entranced by this unusual sound, and bought them eagerly, lapping up their output.
This track is from the 1970 release, ‘Eric Burdon Declares War’. It was a little self-indulgent, and some tracks went on for too long. However, there was nothing to compare with it at the time, and Burdon’s English tones, backed by the west coast funk, have rarely been bettered.

Tourist London: An unlikely destination

Most tourists, foreign or domestic, are unlikely to venture south of the Thames to visit the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth. There is little else nearby, and the area is not that attractive. However, I would urge you to make this trip, as I can guarantee that it will be worthwhile. A short walk from Waterloo Station, or accessed from the underground stations at Lambeth North, or Elephant and Castle, the imposing building is easy to find, and well sign-posted too.

With the centenary of WW1 fast approaching, the museum has recently undergone a massive facelift, and there has been a lot of coverage on TV about the new exhibits, not least a special exhibition about the Great War. From the time you see the huge naval guns outside the main entrance, to your first walk into the grand atrium, with its suspended aircraft, and displays of tanks, rockets, and field guns, you will soon realise that you have found somewhere very special. And what’s more, it’s free!

As well as the famous static displays of military equipment, weapons, uniforms, and paintings, the museum is now completely up to date, with interactive displays, computer generated graphics, and extensive use of new technology. There is a haunting Holocaust exhibition, which alone is worth the visit, as well as extensive displays of photographs, fascinating artifacts, and personal memorabilia. This is not a place that seeks to glorify war, but a reminder of the devastation it brings, and the effects it has on society and individuals alike. To be able to see objects only imagined, or previously seen in films or on TV, has a profound affect on the viewer. I have a close personal association with this building, and it played an important part in my youth.

After its foundation in 1920, the museum had two homes, before finally settling into the current building, in 1936. This had been the former home of The Bethlem Hospital, a psychiatric institution that had moved to this site from the City of London, in 1815.  Despite some demolition, the remaining parts were well-suited for use as a museum, and the Imperial War Museum was able to move there, from its previous premises in Kensington. The museum was affected by the outbreak of WW2 in 1939, when some exhibits were actually removed, to be used by the armed forces during that war. As a result, the museum closed, re-opening fully in 1949, with new galleries, and a restored collection. So, by the time I was born, it was still seen as a relatively new museum, and it was very popular, especially with the local people. By coincidence, I was born a stone’s throw from the site, in the former Lambeth Hospital, long since closed down.

My first experience of this museum was on a school trip. Herded around in a well-behaved group, we had to look at what we were told, and other than the larger exhibits, I don’t remember a great deal about that visit. Once I was old enough to venture out on my own, in 1960, I was soon able to find my way there, by a short bus trip from home. When I got a good cycle soon after, I could ride up there anytime I desired, and made frequent trips, usually alone. Now I had as much time to spend as I wanted, I could wander the galleries for hours, staring at the contents of the numerous glass-fronted cases. There was every type of rifle, pistol, and machine-gun to examine in detail. Their names and types were listed on small cards, and I got to know them all intimately. There was even a rifle with a bent barrel, and a periscope mounted on the top. This ingenious device had been invented to fire around corners, allowing the user to remain safely concealed.

I also became interested in the numerous paintings, many depicting events during WW1. They hung on the stairs, on landings, and in dedicated galleries. As well as commemorating the two world wars, there were also memories of the past. Zulu war shields, Indian knives with curved blades, and examples of the weapons that we used against these native adversaries. They had also decided to keep up to date with more recent conflicts, and featured items from the Korean War, as well as the many colonial wars that Britain was engaged in at the time. I recall being fascinated by one cabinet that displayed different sized bullets and cartridges. I was amazed how large many of them were, and tried to imagine what it must have been like, if one of them struck your body. Similarly with bayonets; gazing at rows of these terrible weapons, some with jagged teeth, finding it incomprehensible that they were once plunged into soft bellies. Displays of uniforms made me realise that men were significantly smaller in the past, at least those that had to go and fight. Medals from long-forgotten campaigns gave testament to past bravery, cleaned and polished in long rows, with their colourful ribbons beside them.

There were later school trips. Older now, we were taken to see the films of Leni Riefenstahl, ‘Triumph of the Will’, and ‘Olympia’. These Nazi propaganda films are well-known today, but to us at the time, the imagery was overwhelming. The teacher was trying to make us aware of the power of film to change minds, and persuade people. He succeeded. Once I left school and started work, I had no time for more trips to Lambeth. Over the years, I moved around, and it was always inconvenient, or too far to travel, to visit the museum I loved. In 1986, I found myself living once again in Rotherhithe, after an absence of nearly twenty years. I went back to Greenwich, and revisited the places of my youth, on the now regenerated riverside.

Eventually, I found my way back to my favourite museum, making a special trip to see the Holocaust Exhibition when it opened. It was much as I remembered it. The aircraft still suspended, the rockets looking intimidating; the artillery and tanks might have seemed a little smaller, but no less interesting. The museum had expanded. It had taken over the old airfield at Duxford, and built a marvellous aircraft museum there. It had also refurbished HMS Belfast, providing a floating museum of great distinction, right next to Tower Bridge. They later opened a branch in the north of England, near Manchester. Despite modernising the whole experience, and making it an attractive proposition for the i-pad generation, I can still remember the first time I went there alone, and the impact the place had on me. It left me wanting to know more, and with a respect for history, and war, that has stayed with me ever since. Here are some links for you to follow. I hope you decide to go there one day. With the new exhibition about the Great War, there has never been a better time.

Some Russian films

I first became interested in Russian films in 1967. It was the 50th anniversary of the revolution, and the NFT were showing silent classics, such as ‘October’, ‘Battleship Potemkin’, and ‘Strike’. These were all directed by the master of Soviet Cinema, Sergei Eisenstein, and are epic in scale, as were many films of that time coming out of Russia. Since then, much of the output of the Russian film industry has concerned their Civil War, and World War Two, or has been historical sagas. I list my usual five recommendations below, trying as best as I can, to offer a mixed bag of interests.

Burnt by the sun. Despite being a hero of the revolution, and leading Bolshevik, Colonel Kotov is aware that his privileged position is under threat, during the time of Stalin’s purges of the 1930’s. The arrival of a cousin from Moscow interrupts the idyllic summer he and his family are spending at their holiday home. Things begin to take a darker turn. This 1994 film, starring and directed by Nikita Mikhalkov, won the Oscar for best foreign film the following year, and it is easy to see why. Even if you have no interest in the historical subject matter, you will soon be able to pick up on the political machinations, and the unstable lives, so common in Stalinist Russia. This film is also exceptionally photographed, with the hot summer portrayed so well, you can almost feel the heat. Here is an early scene, with English subtitles.

1612. This film  covers a period when Russia had no ruling dynasty in place, and goes into some detail about the different factions that were trying to gain control of the country, from the Polish invaders, to the Russian pretenders to the throne. If that sounds dull, don’t worry, as excellent battle scenes make the viewing worthwhile. Historical period detail is first class, though the leading actors are very much in the Russian style, that is somewhat stilted and old-school. The locations reek of authenticity, as does the portrayal of everyday life in a country torn by war. This is a period rarely covered in historical drama, (The Last Valley is in a similar period, though some years later) so it is worth seeing for this aspect alone. Here is a scene that gives a good idea of the content of this film.


9th Company. This is a full-on, old-style war film, set during the Russian occupation of Afghanistan. Although made in 2008, it is set some twenty years earlier, on a remote hilltop base, towards the end of the Russian involvement in the conflict. Following the traditional format of war films, we see the young recruits in training, then follow them to the war zone, where they are to defend this isolated hill. It is bloody, violent, and full of action. Unusually, it also portrays the Afghan enemy as brave and resourceful soldiers, not just as fanatical cannon fodder, as in so many films. One for the war film fan only, I suspect, but a good one nonetheless. This is the trailer.


The Return. Winner of numerous awards, and nominated for a Golden Globe, this 2003 film was part of a new movement in Russian Cinema, taking a different path to the traditional films, so often set during war, or conflict. Two teenage boys are startled by the return of their father, who has been away for twelve years. He takes them on a holiday to a remote island, and his domineering ways, and cruel nature, change the lives of all involved. A haunting drama, set amid a dysfunctional family, filmed in unusual, and often startling locations. One for the thinkers out there. This trailer is unfortunately from the dubbed version, in English. I would recommend watching it in the original Russian, with subtitles.

Dersu Uzala. I confess to including this as a personal favourite, though it is also a cinema oddity to some degree. Filmed in Russia, with a Russian cast, this was written and directed by one of the greatest directors in the world, the Japanese film-maker, Akira Kurosawa, in 1975. This film is the simple tale of a Russian military exploration team, and the man they meet in Siberia, Dersu, of the indigenous Goldi people. He helps them as they struggle in the wilderness, and then we see him out of place, when he returns with them to civilisation. It is the performance by the actor playing the title character, and the cinematic nature of the remote locations, that together with the masterly touch of Kurosawa, turn this film into a small masterpiece. This clip has no subtitles, but really shows the vast expanses where the film was shot.

I have tried to find you some examples of typical Russian Cinema, with a warning that the acting style, to this day, is very different to what you may have come to expect. They still value expressive gestures, long-winded speeches, and occasional slapstick, so be prepared for a slightly unusual viewing experience. I have avoided all the silent films, as well as some of the better-known epics, such as Sergei Bondarchuk’s 1967 version of ‘War and Peace’, which runs for a full eight hours, on two DVD discs! Try some of the above for size, and I will revisit the work of Russian Cinema another time.