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Film / Night Witches of the Sky

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Night Witches of the Sky is a 1981 film from the Soviet Union, directed by Yevgeniya Zhigulenko.

It is about the 588th Night Bomber Regiment of the Red Air Force, nicknamed the "Night Witches". They were an all-female squadron of precision dive bombers that served on the front lines of the war against Germany from 1942 to victory in 1945. They flew obsolete canvas biplanes that were surprisingly effective in tactical bombing against German infantry, due to their ability to glide silently to their targets, their ability to fly low, and their slow speed, which was too slow for the German fighter planes that tried to shoot them down. (The German planes would stall out.)

The date is not specified but it is sometime 1943-44, during the long Soviet liberation of their country but before the final push into Germany in 1945. The central characters are two pilots, partners in the same plane, Oksana and Galya. Oksana has a husband out there, somewhere; they have lost touch with each other in the chaos of war and she's not even sure if he's alive. Meanwhile, Galya has struck up a romance with Kostya, a fighter pilot who gave her a lift when she was discharging herself from the hospital and sneaking back to the front.

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On one particular mission Oksana and Galya spot a peasant farm cart which is lying on the side of the road, shot up by a German fighter pilot. They land their plane and find that the mother is dead, but her son, a boy of maybe 12 named Fyodor, is alive and unhurt. Oksana and Galya toss Fyodor into their plane and fly him back. Soon tension arises as both Oksana and Galya seek to mother the boy, while the squadron commander points out quite reasonably that a front-line bomber unit is no place to keep a child and Fyodor needs to go to an orphanage.

Director Yevgeniya Zhigulenko was, believe it or not, a Night Witch herself.


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Tropes:

  • Action Prologue: Starts out with action right away, as the Night Witches bomb a front-line German position.
  • Amazon Brigade: A Real Life example and one of the most famous ones in history, namely, an all-female regiment of tactical dive bombers.
  • Beach Episode: A scene with the Night Witches enjoying some rest and relaxation by a lake or river seems to be in the movie only to show them all in their underwear.
  • Blackface: A rather weird moment during the scene at the beach has Galya cover herself completely in black mud, then come dashing out and do some sort of parody of a native dance, as her comrades hoot and giggle.
  • Call-Back: In the early scene where Galya is escaping from the hospital, her friend Soldatova wants to go with her. At the end Soldatova shows up and joins the Night Witches, having gotten posted to the regiment as an armorer.
  • Distant Finale: The last scenes of the film skip forward from 1943-ish to 1945 and Germany, near the end of the war.
  • Fatal Family Photo: Oksana keeps a snapshot of her husband Grigory in the cockpit of her plane. A sailor who is just passing through recognizes him, and it seems that Oksana will soon be in contact with her husband again—but she's killed in the next attack.
  • Heartwarming Orphan: Little Fyodor, who finds himself a uniform, starts calling himself "Private Pavlov", and bonds emotionally with the Night Witches. He's eventually sent off to an orphanage, only to escape and find his way back to them.
  • I Want My Mommy!: The tragic version of this, as one of the Night Witches screams for her mother as her plane bursts into flames.
  • Left Hanging: The movie ends with Galya having failed to return from a mission. Fyodor makes his way back to the regiment only to find her missing in action. Kostya tries to cheer Fyodor up, noting that Galya has come back before (she has, once making her way back on foot after she was shot down), and could again. Then the film ends.
  • Letting Her Hair Down: The women of the Night Witches always wear their hair pinned up, so it's notable when Galya takes out the pins and shakes her long, lustrous hair loose for a date with Kostya.
  • Like a Son to Me: Oksana says this about Fyodor. It's made more poignant when she mentions a "wound" that rendered her unable to have children.
  • Narrator: Maria Ivanova, the commander of the squadron, is sometimes heard narrating events, like when she mentions that the Night Witches have moved into Germany for the last actions of the war.
  • Old-School Dogfight: Sort of. The Night Witches are flying old canvas biplanes without any armament. They do sometimes encounter German fighter pilots, but instead of a two-way dogfight, it's a matter of the Night Witches trying to evade, using their slow speed which makes it difficult for the German pilots to get a bead on them before zooming by.
  • "Pan Up to the Sky" Ending: A final shot of the clouds as the closing theme song says that the Night Witches who once fought up there are still up there, forever.
  • The Political Officer: Oksana is one; she's addressed as "Commisar" many times. Her job doesn't play much of a part in the story, though.
  • She's Got Legs: A comic relief bit has Zhukovsky, one of the pilots, crawling back into her plane to change into uniform after the trip to the beach. Her long, bare legs are sticking up out of the cockpit, at the exact moment that a senior and male general has arrived to conduct an inspection of the squadron.
  • Shrine to the Fallen: Commander Ivanova has a map tracing the westward progress of the Night Witches, apparently since their formation. Whenever a pilot is killed, Ivanova cuts out a picture of her from regimental records and glues it to the map at the point where the pilot was lost.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The costly action in which a German fighter pilot manages to time his attack correctly and shoot down several of the Night Witches, is probably based on an incident that happened July 31, 1943. A German fighter pilot managed to shoot down four of the Night Witches, and the whole regiment was grounded for a while.
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