Director: Vadim Shmelyov
Screenplay: Vadim Shmelyov, Igor Ugolnikov
Starring: Artyom Gubin, Lubov Konstantinova, Igor Yudin
Duration: 136 min
BBFC Certification: 15
Out of all the World War Two movies that the West has been exposed to, very few have focused on the Eastern Front. This is not at all surprising. As the Allies mainly fought in Europe, the Far East and Africa, the vast majority of WW2 films made by American and European studios have naturally focused on the conflicts and battles in which their respective counties were involved.
Yet viewing those films provides an extremely unbalanced view of how WW2 was fought and won. While Dunkirk, D-Day and the campaigns in Western Europe and Africa were inarguably decisive, the war on the Eastern Front between Stalinist Russia and the Nazis was more significant in ensuring Hitler’s eventual defeat, no matter what Hollywood may want you to think.
Of course, that is not to suggest that great films haven’t been made about the savage and brutal conflict that took place across Russia and Eastern Europe between 1941 and 1945. Joseph Vilsmaier’s Stalingrad from 1993 remains a severely underrated war movie, while Come and See, focusing on the Nazi Einsatzgruppen’s (killing squads) campaign of terror in Belarus remains the most emotionally devastating war film ever made. Even Hollywood has occasionally taken a stab, such as in 2001’s Enemy at the Gates (admittedly with less success).
The Final Stand, a new Russian film from director Vadim Shmelyov, is the latest attempt at telling a story set on the Eastern Front. It takes place in October 1941, several months after the start of Operation Barbarossa, which saw the most powerful invasion force in history enter Russia. More than three million Nazi troops waged a blitzkrieg (lightning) war that, like they previously had across Western Europe, left their enemies tumbling in their wake. Advancing far further and far quicker than the Russians had anticipated, by the autumn of 1941 Hitler and his army were in terrifyingly close reach of Moscow. What made the situation worse was that the Russian army was severely lacking troops to defend the city.
In the face of this dire situation, 3,500 cadets from the Podolsk Infantry school (a special academy used to train future Russian officers and commanders) were recruited and sent to the Ilyinsky front line, a key stop on the Nazi’s route towards Moscow. Badly outnumbered, they were told to hold the line until reinforcements arrived…
It’s ironic that a film about a side of WW2 that Hollywood hasn’t generally been interested in begins very much like a Hollywood movie. The Final Stand opens at the Podolsk School, where a love triangle between Sashka, a talented artillery gunner, Demitry, a fellow cadet and Masha, a nurse, is swiftly established. At this point, you feel you are firmly in Wings or Pearl Harbour territory, where the war is going to provide the backdrop to a sweeping love story; yet as the film goes on, the initial romantic entanglements get lost in a broader overview of the battle on the front lines.
The Final Stand is most successful during these opening twenty or so minutes. The plot may feel unoriginal but it is nevertheless engaging and Shmelyov does well to focus on just how young and innocent the cadets are, with some of them not yet looking to be out of their teens. A sudden airstrike is also handled with aplomb, shot in one dexterous, uninterrupted take that shows off The Final Stand’s lavish production values. Indeed, for a few minutes, the film takes flight and soars.
Unfortunately it comes crashing back down soon afterwards. This isn’t due to Shmeyov’s subsequent handling of the action. In fact, he deploys great skill during the set-piece battles, which, despite their scale, are cohesively filmed and edited. If you are a fan of Zack Snyder’s hyper-stylisation (i.e slow-mo) you’ll find lots to like here. Yet despite the cinematic flair of the action scenes, their tone soon grows wearying.
For anyone used to the existential brutality of warfare established in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (and seemingly deployed in every war movie ever afterwards) The Final Stand may come as a bit of a shock. To put it bluntly, the film feels resoundingly old fashioned, frequently hovering uncomfortably between realism and a dated sense of superficial heroism. The film paints war not as hell but as a brutal yet noble undertaking that casts its soldiers as two-dimensional cyphers fulfilling a heroic duty. The death of Russian soldiers is often met with a grandiose swell of cheesy music, depicted not as a senseless tragedy but as an honourable sacrifice. Their Nazi adversaries, meanwhile, are portrayed with more depth in the Indiana Jones movies.
With a shallow love story that struggles to work and a failure to truly capture the overwhelming scale of the threat facing the young soldiers (they only ever seem to fight a handful of German tanks and soldiers at a time) The Final Stand only really convinces during its battles, helped along by the no doubt large budget and the already mentioned fantastic production values.
By painting in broad, unsubtle strokes, The Final Stand arguably works as a heartfelt tribute to the incredibly brave young men who lost their lives at Ilyinsky and is noteworthy in shining a light on a little known story (in the West at least) about the war on the Eastern Front. Yet as a piece of cinematic storytelling it lacks anything approaching subtly or nuance, trading in modern cinema’s conflicted view of conflict for a simplistic tone that arguably belongs more to the time in which film is set than a movie that has been made in the first quarter of the twenty-first century.
The Final Stand is out now on DVD.
The disc does not contain any extras I’m afraid. The picture quality is sharp and vibrant throughout however, while the disc offers both a 5.1 and 2.0 audio track. I watched the film in 5.1 and it was wonderfully punchy in all the right places.