The North Star (AKA Armored Attack)
Directed by Lewis Milestone
Written by Lillian Hellman
The Samuel Goldwyn Company
First viewing/Amazon Prime Instant Video
Iakin, bearded schoolmaster: It is not my custom to start your vacation with a lecture, but this is the summer of 1941 – a solemn time. No one of us knows what will happen. I don’t have to remind you that we are people with a noble history. You are expected to carry on that history with complete devotion and self-sacrifice. I think you’ll do that. And now, have a happy summer.
If you can set aside any knowledge of Ukrainian or Soviet history, this odd mixture of folk musical and Nazi-resistance drama is not half bad.
In the folk musical portion of the film, we are introduced to the happy villagers of North Star, a collective farm near the border. They sing and dance the hours away in happy teasing families. Dr. Kurin (Walter Huston) is the head of the Pavlov family comprised of his daughter (Ann Harding) and son-in-law (Dean Jagger) and grandchildren Marina (Ann Baxter), Claudia (Jane Withers) and a couple of younger ones. The Simonov clan is headed by Boris, a commune leader. His children include Kolya (Dana Andrews), a bombardier in the Soviet Air Force who is on leave and Damion (an impossibly young Farley Granger in his screen debut). Damion Simonov and Marina Pavlov are in love. Old Karp (Walter Brennan) is the repository of tradition, who fought in the “last war” (presumably the Soviet civil war) which made the village “free”. It is the end of the school year and, led by Kolya, the teenagers are thrilled to be making a walking tour to the big city of Kiev.
As the young people are on their blissful walking trip, they run into Karp who is driving a wagon and offers to give them a ride for part of the way. After they get into the cart, the Nazi bombers start to stream in and the cart caravan carrying the teenagers is hit. Simultaneously, bombs rain down on the village. The villagers decide to send the able-bodied men into the forest to fight as guerrillas and to set their houses, crops, etc. on fire at the first sight of Nazi occupying troops. Boris Simonov goes off to get guns and ammunition for the fighters. His cart is bombed on the way back with the guns. The young people discover Boris on the road and take over the dangerous task of taking the guns back to the village along back roads, aided by the wiley and experienced Karp. Kolya rejoins his unit.
In the meantime, Nazi troops start heading for the village. Their plan is to turn the local hospital into a regional field hospital for German soldiers. Dr. von Harden (Erich von Stroheim in one of his trademark “good Nazi” roles) heads up the German medical team. It turns out that he is familiar with the work of Dr. Kurin and respects him. The other doctors are not such “good” Nazis. They turn to the children of the village for blood to transfuse into German wounded soldiers. Many other barbarities and heroism by the villagers and teenagers on the road ensue.
With this cast, you know the film has to have its high points. One of them for me is a pretty glorious stand off between Walter Huston and Erich von Stroheim. Jane Withers is another delight as the plump, clumsy, and romantic Claudia. Andrews is quite good as the cocky, rather arrogant Kolya. The action scenes are exciting and well staged, as one should expect from Milestone (All Quiet on the Western Front).
One of the problem areas of the film is its inconsistent tone. The first thirty or forty minutes are devoted to patriotic and traditional singing composed by Aaron Copeland with lyrics by Ira Gershwin. It strains credulity that these Ukrainians are so darned happy to have been “freed” from their farms by the efforts of Stalin (unnamed in the film) to live in this collective paradise. But this is a screenplay by Lillian Hellman who must actually have believed this stuff at the time. The film also ignores the fact that the the “border” regions of The Ukraine had only become part of the Soviet Union following that country’s invasion of Poland in 1939. If you imagine that this film takes place in an alternative universe, however, lots of it works quite well.
Clip – singing at the beginning of the walking vacation