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Film / Only Old Men Are Going to Battle

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Only Old Men Are Going to Battle is a 1973 film from the Soviet Union, shot in Ukraine.

It was directed by Leonid Bykov, who also stars as Captain "Maestro" Titarenko, the leader of a Red Army squadron of fighter planes doing battle against the Germans in Ukraine in 1943. His motley crew includes Sergei Skvortzov, his second-in-command who is suffering from battle stress, and newbie arrivals to the squadron Vitya "Darkie" Shchedronov (named for a song he sings about a dusky Moldovan woman), "Romeo" Sagdullayev (pretty-boy handsome, charms the ladies), and "Grasshopper" Aleksandrov, a serious young man who lied about his age to get into flight school, but still likes to catch grasshoppers. Capt. Titarenko is a devoted fan of music, and his squadron moonlights as a band of musicians when they aren't fighting Germans.


The phrase (or rather word) "old man" in Russian has the colloquial meaning of "experienced person", and in this case refers to the veteran pilots, who call themselves this to distinguish themselves from the newly arrived flight school graduates.

Compare The Dawn Patrol, a 1930 American film about British fighter pilots in World War I that deals with many of the same themes.


  • Amazon Brigade: A bomber squadron that is piloted excusively by women, and is based near Titarenko's 2nd squadron. Romeo falls in love with Masha, a pretty bomber pilot.
  • Anguished Declaration of Love: Romeo is nervous enough that he has to gasp out "I love you, Masha" in his native language of Uzbek before telling her again in Russian.
  • Banned in China: Not to the full extent, but the Soviet film officials had little love for the film, as they deemed the screenplay "unheroic". Only thrugh the support of WWII veterans, including the very influential ones, such as the famous Alexander Pokryshkin and Leonid Brezhnev himself, the film had seen the screens.
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  • Bittersweet Ending: Many key characters are killed during one dogfight or another. Capt. Titarenko actually survives. Also, the film ends on a hopeful note, as the Germans have been nearly pushed out of Soviet territory. Skvortzov regains his youthful vigor... only to get shot down during the next battle. Romeo lands his damaged fighter but dies from his injuries. As Titarenko is preparing to deliver the news to Romeo's Love Interest Masha, he receives news that Masha's bomber was shot down as well.
  • Bookends: At the beginning, Titarenko and Skvortzov greet the new recruits. When the alarm is raised they tell the newbies to wait, saying "Only old men are going to battle" and "Don't worry boys, you'll get our share of fighting." Towards the end of the movie, Titarenko and the now-veteran Grasshopper and Romeo greet more newbie recruits, and they tell the newbies to wait again when the Germans arrive.
  • The Danza: Titarenko's mechanic Makarych is played by a veteran Soviet character actor and Bykov's close friend Alexey Smirnov, whose patronymic is Makarovich.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: The film was shot in black and white. A colorized version was released in 2009.
    • Actually, the film was originally shot in b/w because of the dearth of color film in the USSR and the ease of matching the old newsreel footage with the newly shot scenes, but Bykov liked it so much that decided against any change. The colorized variant, ordered by the studio, was actually challenged in courts by his daughter.
  • Distracted by the Sexy: Grasshopper is trying to give a Rousing Speech, but he keeps getting distracted by the lady bomber pilots, who are changing out of their flight uniforms behind a translucent curtain.
  • Just Plane Wrong: Instead of the La-5 and La-7 fighters Popkov's "Singing Squadron" used in Real Life, Titarenko's men are flying Yak-18 sports planes, only loosely similar to the real ones. By the 70es there were almost none flying Lavochkins in the USSR, so the filmmakers were lucky to get what they've got, mainly through the support of the famous WWII ace Alexander Pokryshkin, who at the time was a commandant of DOSAAF, the Soviet sportng and military support organisation, and was able to procure a bunch of sports planes for them to use.
  • Match Cut: From an angry swipe of Titarenko's arm as the squad mourns a fallen comrade, to a Soviet plane swooping down on Germans.
  • Mood Whiplash: The opening credits play over a series of stills of Capt. Titarenko's band, as cheerful Russian folk music plays over the soundtrack. Then the film cuts to live action, showing the squadron in aerial combat against the Luftwaffe.
  • New Meat: Darkie, Romeo, and Grasshopper, who arrive at the 2nd squadron as wet-behind-the-ears graduates from flight school (Grasshopper is actually too young to fly, as he lied about his age) and become veterans.
    • Ironically, Bykov himself did the same in 1943, being 14 at the time (the lower bracket was 16), but was rejected anyway as too short (he wasn't very tall even as a grown man, and he was even shorter as a teen).
  • Nose Art: Capt. Titarenko's plane is decorated by a drawing of a bar of sheet music.
  • Old-School Dogfight: The Movie, as this is the squadron's job.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Skvortzov is having to deal with this. On two consecutive missions, he freezes up while in the air and breaks off from combat with the Germans. After returing to base, he admits that he doesn't even remember turning away.
    • Turns out he was traumatized by a near-collision with an enemy plane in the previous campaign that year.
  • Staggered Zoom: While the squadron is playing music and relaxing in the mess hall, there's a cut to a fighter plane being serviced, then a staggered zoom away from the plane, emphasizing the deadly danger that awaits them even as they're relaxing.
  • Stock Footage: The film is liberally dosed with stock footage of both aerial and ground combat on the Eastern Front.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Loosely inspired by Real Life fighter pilot Vitaly Popkov who had a "singing squadron" that played concerts when not in the air. And the lady bomber pilots are obviously inspired by the Real Life "Night Witches", an all-female Soviet bomber squadron.