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Kutuzov aka 1812


General Kutuzov (Aleksei Dikij) gives orders during battle.
Release Year: 1944
Country: Soviet Union
Director: Vladimir Petrov
Writer: Vladimir Solovyov
Cast: Aleksei Dikij, Semyon Mezhinsky, Ye. Kaluzhsky, S. Zakariadze, Nikolai Okhlopkov, Sergei Blinnikov, Vladimir Gotovtsev, A. Polyakov, Nikolai Brilling, B. Chirkov, M. Pugovkin, I. Ryzhov, K. Shilovtsev, I. Skuratov, A. Stepanov, G. Terekhov, N. Timchenko, V. Yershov
Music: Yuri Shaporin
Company: Mosfilm
Runtime: 102 minutes


S

tory: Napoleon (Semyon Mezhinsky) invades Russia in June of 1812 and quickly gains ground. General Barclay (Nikolai Okhlopkov) abandons Smolensk, causing General Bagration (S. Zakariadze) to denounce him to the Tsar (N. Timchenko) as a traitor. The Tsar calls in General Kutuzov (Aleksei Dikij) to save the homeland. Not long after, Russian troops are gathered around campfires, celebrating the change in command. Barclay was of Scottish descent, and the troops are tired of constantly retreating. Kutuzov is a real Russian, and they are sure his appointment will mean an advance. The next day, the amassed troops cheer wildly as Kutuzov rides past. But to their surprise, Kutuzov continues to pull back until he reaches the village of Borodino. On the day of September 7, 1812, the opposing armies clash on the field of battle near Borodino.


Napoleon (Semyon Mezhinsky) observes the battle.
As General Kutuzov sits in a hut reviewing his battle plans, messengers come in from all the generals asking for reinforcements. Kutuzov calmly denies that any reserves are available. After the messengers have left, the Cossack commander asks to send his Cossacks into battle, but Kutuzov tells him that he'll let him know when it is time. Meanwhile, Napoleon sits impassively on a hill overlooking the battle, one leg propped up on a drum. Great masses of soldiers rush through the smoke and explosions one way. Great masses of soldiers rush through the smoke and explosions the other way. Mounted soldiers mass and charge. We catch glimpses of close skirmishes where characters we've come to know from the celebrations when Kutuzov was appointed commander are injured and killed. Russian General Bagration leads a heroic charge against the French, and is mortally wounded.

As repeated assaults by the French army push back the center of Kutuzov's line, Napoleon's generals beg him to send in the Guard, who are being held in reserve, to finish the job. In the meantime, noting the weakness of his line, Kutuzov sends the Cossacks to harass Napoleon's flank. Worrying about the oncoming Cossacks, and fearful of committing the Guard so far from France, Napoleon orders them to stay back, permitting the balance of Kutuzov's army to escape the field. Napoleon is denied a decisive victory.


Kutuzov (Aleksei Dikij) orders a retreat at a conference in Fili.
After the battle, Kutuzov holds a conference in the village of Fili. He sits patiently apart from the table while General Barclay says that Moscow cannot be defended, and must be abandoned. The other generals argue that Moscow is too precious to abandon, and must not be subjected to the same fate as Smolensk. If Moscow cannot be defended, then they must attack the French. Slowly Kutuzov rises, and calls a halt to the debate. Knowing that he could lose the Russian army in another encounter with the French, he orders his army to withdraw and leave Moscow to Napoleon.

The French march into an evacuated Moscow and soon the city is in flames. Napoleon sits in an empty church waiting for a capitulation that will never come. Kutuzov positions his army between Moscow and Kaluga, preventing Napoleon from seeking supplies to the south. As Kutuzov sits waiting for Napoleon's army to starve in the abandoned Moscow, his army and the Tsar grow restless with the inactivity. But Kutuzov holds his ground and rebuilds his army, knowing it is the best way to defeat the French. With the city in ashes, and facing dwindling supplies and mounting pressure from Kutuzov's reinforced army, Napoleon reluctantly orders his army to begin their retreat.


Napoleon (Semyon Mezhinsky) watches Moscow burn.
As the weary French start the long march home, Kutuzov's army harasses them from the rear. At the Battle of Maloyaroslavets, Kutuzov forces the French to retreat towards Smolensk, over the same ground they had covered during their advance, ground that is now incapable of supporting the French troops. Napoleon hopes to winter in Smolensk, but when he gets there he finds insufficient resources to maintain his army. Ordering the retreat to Poland, Napoleon watches the ragged, freezing, and starving Grande Armée cut to pieces by Kutuzov's guerilla tactics.

Under bombardment by the Russians, the French soldiers cross rickety, makeshift bridges over the Berensina River. Learning that the Russian troops are nearly to the bridges, Napoleon asks if the Old Guard has already crossed. Assured that most of them have made it to the other side, he orders the burning of the bridges, sacrificing the remainder of his army to ensure that the Russians will be left behind. Napoleon calls a meeting with his downhearted generals, who argue about the point at which things began to go wrong. Breaking into the conversation, Napoleon tells them that they are all wrong. The mistake was made when he first decided to invade Russia. Telling them that there is nothing more that can be done, he informs them that he is leaving them to return to France. The army is nearly destroyed, and he must build a new one.




Napoleon (Semyon Mezhinsky) contemplates defeat.


C

omment: During World War II, German forces invaded the Soviet Union in June of 1941 and quickly advanced deep into enemy territory. However, despite early successes, the German army eventually proved incapable of taking Leningrad, Stalingrad, or Moscow, though these sieges and the other Nazi actions within Russia caused millions of casualties. Operations bogged down in the winter of 1941, and the Eastern Front, known as The Great Patriotic War in the Soviet Union, became a protracted struggle that ate up men, supplies, and civilians.

Although they were being pushed back, the German army was still on Soviet soil in 1944, when Kutuzov was first released. The movie is an inspired piece of propaganda, designed to keep up morale and encourage patriotic resistance. Thousands of Red Army soldiers were used as extras in the battle scenes, and although the direction is a bit static for modern tastes, and the horrors of war are more hinted at than graphically shown, the scenario effectively covers the important aspects of the Battle of Borodino and the strategies of the antagonists involved.

Aleksei Dikij (also spelled "Dikiy") does an excellent job of portraying Kutuzov. Having appeared on stage since the age of 6, Dikij had been accused of anti-Soviet activities in 1937 and exiled to a Gulag prison-camp in Siberia. After his release in 1941, he began acting again and was cast in the title role of Kutuzov. His performance so impressed Joseph Stalin that he became something of a favorite of the dictator. Dikij went on to play Stalin in a number of Soviet films, and was awarded the Stalin Prize five times. He died in 1955.

Given that he was the chief bad guy in the film, Semyon Mezhinsky gives a brooding and thoughtful performance as Napoleon. His resemblance to the Emperor is near perfect, and though his screen time is limited, he effectively conveys Napoleon's growing realization that invading Russia may not have been that great of an idea. Seymon Mezhinsky had a distinguished career on stage and appeared in a handful of important films. He had also made a name for himself as a theater critic. He died in 1978.

Kutuzov opened in American theaters in September 1944, and received a favorable review by Albert Goldberg in the Chicago Daily Tribune for November 7, 1944. Goldberg described the film as being of absorbing interest, and one not to be by-passed by any student of history. He concluded his review by noting that "the restraint with which the picture avoids the obvious and omits distasteful propaganda is noteworthy. While the photography and production as a whole do not compare with the best American standards, the battle scenes are impressive and the acting of A. Dykki as Kutuzov, of N. Okhlopkov as Barclay, and of S. Mezhinsky as Napoleon, is distinguished."

To the extent that modern film audiences are familiar with Napoleon's invasion of Russia at all, their exposure to the events on film has been mostly through the various versions of War and Peace. Kutuzov tells much of the same story, but without the soap opera elements of Tolstoy's great work. Kutuzov solely tells the military side of the story, and there is no room for romance. But even so, it is at least a minor classic, and has been unjustly neglected.


H

istorical Context: Keeping in mind that this film is a propaganda piece, it is also a fairly accurate depiction of the events of 1812 in Russia. The major deviation from historical fact is the whitewashing of Kutuzov's character to the point of saintliness. As dramatized in the movie, Kutuzov came to be disliked by many of his generals, so it's hard to judge some of the negative things that have been reported about him, but the movie always shows him in an extremely positive light. The movie makes no mention of his fondness for strong drink and young women, and what the movie portrays as brilliant strategic thinking must occasionally have been more the product of pure luck. But given the situation that the Soviet Union was in at the time, one can easily forgive them for any liberties that may have been taken in the portrayal of their national hero. After all, the movie quite effectively and movingly makes the point that foreign intruders shouldn't mess with Mother Russia.

Availability: This was a hard film to track down. I finally purchased a DVD copy through Peter Shop, but it was in Russian without subtitles. After searching around a bit more on the web, I found subtitles for the film in Bulgarian, but none in English. Downloading the Bulgarian subtitles, I translated them through Google Translate, and added them to the film through a conversion program. The results made the dialogue understandable, but it makes for a rather awkward translation. If any film cries out for the Criterion Collection treatment, this one is it.

References: IMDb; Wikipedia; Chandler, David G. Dictionary of the Napoleonic Wars (Wordsworth Military Library) New York. Simon & Schuster, 1993.



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