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Film / The North Star

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The North Star is a 1943 Hollywood war drama film, directed by Lewis Milestone, produced by Samuel Goldwyn, and written by Lillian Hellman. The film is a rare example of American propaganda on behalf of the Soviet war effort during World War II, and the story is set in the then-Soviet Republic of Ukraine during the summer of 1941. As expected, it doesn't end well for all involved.

The titular "North Star" is a small hamlet in Ukraine, possibly connected to a collective farm, and the movie begins at the end of a school year and the beginning of the summer hiatus. Three students at the local school are granted a scholarship, and are allowed to take up studies in Kiev. We follow the three, Marina (Anne Baxter), her boyfriend Damian (Farley Granger), and her best friend Clavdia (Jane Withers), while they prepare for this, all looking into a shiny, bright future— if only. The small party has only just gotten on their way when news arrive that the Barbarossa is launched with German troops breaching in from the west. Thus, their every hope of getting to Kiev is shattered, as the problems at hand come crashing down on them.

During the movie, all the townsfolk take up arms in different ways and resort to guerrilla warfare, or they simply burn down the village after the "Scorched earth" model. Damian's older brother Kolya (Dana Andrews), an officer in the Soviet air force, is the first to take the lead. The last part of the movie shows a heroic effort by the core gang, helped by Karp (Walter Brennan), an Old Soldier from WWI, to get a cache of guns to the home front. The confrontations with the Germans are harsh to say the least, and the ending is determined, bittersweet, with Marina as the only one alive and well, but visibly hardened by her recent experience.

Erich von Stroheim plays von Harden, an evil Nazi doctor. Walter Huston plays Kurin, a heroic Russian doctor who helps the partisans. Ann Harding appears as Marina's mother Sophia. None other than Aaron Copland composed the score.

For other examples of American pro-Soviet propaganda during World War II, see Days of Glory and the truly odd Mission to Moscow.

Tropes to be found in this movie:

  • Anyone Can Die: Of the core gang, only Marina is alive and well at the end of the movie.
  • Bond One-Liner: The Russian doctor at the end of the movie, stating that the German doctor had deemed him unfit to kill anyone. He was dead wrong.
  • The Cavalry: Literally, as the men of the village mount horses and raid the town to save their children from being bled to death by Nazi doctors.
  • Chummy Commies: A rare example in an American movie. Nobody can dislike those commies.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: The Nazis break an arm and a leg on Marina's mother when she does not cooperate.
  • Cool Old Guy: Several of the older Russians. Karp stands out, leading the younger ones into battle.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Kolya.
  • Death of a Child: Several. A young girl is shot down in the street by a German fighter plane. A little boy is literally bled to death by a German doctor who wants blood transfusions for his soldiers.
  • Determinator: Every single Soviet citizen involved.
  • Dressing as the Enemy: The climactic raid on the town by the partisans starts with some of the men quietly jumping and strangling a German sentry, after which one of them puts on the German's uniform and goes back on patrol.
  • Due to the Dead: The man driving the truck filled with guns for the resistance is the father of Kolya and Zimion. When he dies, he is buried at the spot by both his sons, after they both have promised him to carry on the fight, and to Take Up My Sword (or guns, in this case).
  • Girls with Guns: Both Marina and Clavdia at the end of the movie. They have to go full sniper mode to stall the Germans long enough to get the guns over to the resistance.
  • Glorious Mother Russia: Even being a positive take on the Soviet Union, it's still very stereotypical. Most notably, behind-the-scenes material makes it clear that no one working on this film was aware that Russians and Ukrainians are not the same thing.
  • Heroic BSoD: After the first air raid, with several dead, Marina nails it: "We are not young anymore".
  • Herr Doktor: The Big Bad is a German Mad Scientist who bleeds Soviet children so he can give blood transfusion to German soldiers.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: This being a wartime film, it goes without saying that Josef Stalin's Soviet Union is glorified. The movie is set in Soviet Ukraine in 1941, a.k.a. the very place that was devastated by The Holodomor less than ten years earlier. Not only is there no mention of this, the film makes Soviet Ukraine look like some kind of perfect Arcadia, creating the false impression that Stalin's collectivization totally worked. At one point, Marina, who would clearly be old enough to remember the Holodomor, mentions that she has never really experienced hunger until now. There is also no mention of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, making it look like the Soviet Union was a neutral bystander before the Nazis attacked.
  • Lyrical Dissonance: The aftermath of the first air raid on the North Star is shown to the soundtrack of The International, being the Soviet national anthem at the time. Dissonant in spades. Triumphant lyrics as death and destruction rain down on the town.
  • The Medic: The local doctor, and also two of the Germans. One of them is fairly reasonable, but gets shot anyway, the other is an ice cold sadist.
  • Mood Whiplash: The story goes immensely dark when the Germans enter stage.
  • Musical Episode: The first part of the movie has a lot of song and dancing. Nothing of the sort after the invasion.
  • Old Soldier: Karp, having done his duty during WWI. He is quick to teach the teenagers guerrilla tactics.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: All actors are of course American, and it shows. Most audible on Jane Wuthers as Claudia, who keeps her Texan drawl all the way. Possibly justified if you consider that the movie wished to show that Russian/Ukrainian and American citizens essentially are alike, fighting the same battle. The Germans portrayed do their lines with a thick German accent however.
  • Public Domain: The film is now in the public domain, and can be seen in its entirety here.
  • Punch-Clock Villain: Von Harden offers Kurin a drink and says in an admiring tone that he saw Kurin thirty years ago—it turns out that Kurin the country doctor is a pathologist of international renown. Later he says he's sorry that the boy he bled died. Kurin is having none of it, saying in a contemptuous tone, "I have heard about men like you, civilized men who are sorry."
  • La Résistance: Obviously - everyone takes up the fight.
  • Rousing Speech: Marina's last words, ending the movie.
    "All people will learn and come to see that wars do not have to be.
    We will make this the last war.
    We will make a free world for all men.
    The Earth belongs to us, the people, if we fight for it. And we will fight for it!"
  • Salt the Earth: The villagers burn down their houses to stall the German advance. Unfortunately, the Germans arrive sooner than expected.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: The three youths all have traces of this after the first air raid.
  • Stuka Scream: Heard more than once, including during the first German bombing of the little wagon caravan traveling cross-country.
  • Sugar Bowl: Before the Nazis show up, Soviet Ukraine is portrayed this way, complete with cheerful musical numbers. If you watched only the first half hour of the movie, you'd probably think it was a light-hearted musical along the lines of Oklahoma!. When the Nazi invasion does arrive, the Mood Whiplash is severe.
  • Re-Cut: In The '50s, the film was re-edited and released under the title Armored Attack. This version runs 26 minutes shorter than the original, cutting the most overtly pro-Soviet material, and adds an anti-communist narrator, effectively changing the film from pro-Soviet propaganda to anti-Soviet propaganda. At the time, a spokesman noted that, "The only thing we couldn't take out was Dana Andrews running around in a damn Soviet uniform." Both versions are included on the Blu-ray release, which oddly has Armored Attack as the main feature while the original North Star is included with the extras. This may be because the Armored Attack version is still copyrighted whereas The North Star is a public-domain film that can be released by anyone.
  • That Russian Squat Dance: During the summer revels, many of the male (and American!) actors do this. One man even does it while holding an accordion!
  • Taking You with Me: Kolya the airman, his crew dead, decides to crash his plane straight into the German tanks, destroying several. A Dying Moment of Awesome.
  • Those Wacky Nazis: Oh dear. The first one to be seen is an airman who takes out the lorry carrying guns, with Psychotic Smirk nonetheless.
  • Wandering Minstrel: Kolya, during the opening scene, carries and plays on a balalaika while the gang sings along. The balalaika is seemingly lost with all other music after the German attack.
  • The War Has Just Begun: Marina states just as much during her last words: "We will fight for it!" Justified because both the peasants turned partisans would not surrender at any cost. The regular audience of the movie knew pretty well that the Soviets did turn the tide two years later - at the time this movie was released.
  • Would Hurt a Child: The German air raids flatten everything, including several children during the movie. Of the more jarring losses is Marina's younger sister, killed while running for shelter. Later, the Germans force the children to give blood to their wounded soldiers. When a small boy dies from blood loss, the local doctor crosses the Despair Event Horizon.