Review of “The North Star”

Date Produced: 1943

Reviewed by: O’Connell

The movie “The North Star” is an old American film written by Lillian Hellman, an American dramatist and screenwriter. She was a political activist who, because of her left-wing sympathies, was blacklisted by the HUAC committee. Her movie “The North Star” was produced by the producer Samuel Goldwyn and directed by Lewis Milestone.

I do wish to add, before reading this review, if you haven’t watched The North Star and wish to, and don’t wish to have scenes spoiled for you, watch the film first. However, if you wish to read a review of the film before watching, just to know what to expect, carry on reading this review. As you can see, this review is very lengthy, and very in depth.

Plot:

The overall plot, summarized, of the film is about a Ukrainian village living in peace in 1941. A group of friends decide to travel to Kiev, and to their horror are greeted by German aircraft’s who came to invade the Soviet Union during Operation Barbarossa. Shortly after, the village comes under the occupation of the Nazi forces while men and women who left prior form partisan militia’s in the hills.

Start of the film:

The start of the film (after the title screen) starts with a man (Karp) on a horse carriage, specifically one that looks like it is used for farming, that has pigs in it, going through the village greeting the locals. He stops off at one of the residents he is, presumed, to be friends with, looking forward to being Dr. Pavel Grigorich Kurin’s diner guest. However decided to come back later after being informed that he is asleep. He shortly after decides to meet more friends of his, Boris Simonov and his son, Damian Simonov, working on a tractor. Damian climbs from under the tractor and greets Karp, and informs him that tomorrow they will be leaving for their vacation to Kiev, Ukraine. He says two friends of his (Clavdia Kurina & Grisha Kurin), a girl he is interested in (Marina Pavlova), and his brother (Kolya Simonov), who is a Red Army Air force Soldier, will be with him. This is where you get a feel for the kind of life this is in the film; Quiet, peaceful, normal. It sets the mood for how life was before the invasion. It starts getting the viewer familiar with the characters, what they are doing, their story and role, and builds a bond with the viewer. Later in the start of the film, Damian and Kolya are eating dinner, joking around as Kolya tells him not to worry about the maps, that he knows all the roads. Near the end of their family discussion and joking, the radio plays with a broadcast from Moscow alerting their people of German movement on the Polish border, and that there was bombings in London by the German Luftwaffe, and 112 children dead in a Polish city due to being forced to give blood transfusions to German soldiers. This was a subtle, and very intelligent way of foreshadowing for later in the film. After this point of the film, it goes back to normal lifestyle in this peaceful little village. From the young men and women leaving on their last day of school, to what appears to be a special village event of singing, feasting and dancing.

Character Development:

The one thing the viewer will notice in the start of the film, is there is a amazing amount of character development. The characters you are mainly centered around in this film aren’t just random protagonists with no depth or personality or no connection to them. They have detailed lives expressed at the start of this film that feel normal and peaceful. They are able to be sympathized with by members of the audience. Such as Damian, he is a regular young man who attends school, has a love interest, and has a brother in the army. Or Dr. Pavel Grigorich, he takes care of the people as a Doctor and does his job to help people. The characters the film is centered around interact with each other in ways that can be sympathized with, they have concerns that can be sympathized with. Such as Marina’s concern of being away from Damian for an entire year due to university, and worried he may not love her the way he use to. In which he told her not to be worried because he states, quote, “I’ve Loved you since I was old enough to see you, I will love you until I die.” And misunderstanding her original statement, thinking she didn’t want them to be apart by going to universities, states “would make me sad if you didn’t, ashamed. But it wouldn’t matter, I’d go anyway. I’m a citizen of this country. I intend to go forward with it and to give it all I have. I have strong feelings about it. You come along with those feelings. But you don’t come before them.” Because of the town being small they know each other and communicate with each other like normal, everyday people. This is really a good way to build a bond from the audience to the characters because it makes you understand them because they are just like you. Not in the aspect of fighting an invading army, but in the context that they live normally like the everyday viewer up until the invasion. In which, it places the question in mind. If invaded, would you fight back for that normal life again?

The Start of the Invasion:

The five characters, Clavdia, Damian, Kolya, Grisha, and Marina set out on their long 3-4 day hike to Kiev. They run in to Karp, who, along with other what can be assumed farmers, are going towards the crossroads and asked if they’d like a ride. After hesitation from Clavdia, and at the start Marina, they accepted and hitched a ride with Karp. As they ride with Karp, Karp and Kolya hear something off in the distance. What they was hearing was planes, German planes. The mood of the film quickly shifts from peaceful to concerning. As the other farmers and his friends and brother joked about how they was hearing things, Kolya jumped off the carriage to listen, and hears the planes getting closer. This concerning theme of this scene grows the louder the plane sounds get. It wasn’t until explosions from bombs being dropped in the distance was seen that Kolya told the others to get down. He told them to get out of the wagons and get in to the ditch for protection. This scene was perfect because of the fact that, just like the German invasion of the USSR, it was very sudden, and very unexpected. It came out of no where, much like war in general. After being greeted with death, injury and destruction, the five’s tune turns from happy and peaceful, to concern and scared. They was now faced with a new reality they must come to grips with.

The Invasion of the Village:

Right after the bombings on our five main traveling protagonists, the planes head for the village. They fly toward the ground shooting up everything that moved, shooting at buildings with hope to kill who is inside, and shortly after flew away leaving multiple dead and injured. While this was taking place, a broadcast over the intercoms warned the boarder cities that the USSR has been invaded by the German army. After the planes left the city,  Boris Simonov got on to a platform to tell the village residents, quote “this is not the time for mourning, it is time for revenge!” and told them they will form two groups, one to form in to a militia, and one to be left behind to burn and destroy everything. What he called “the dangerous job.” The reason for this was to leave the German invaders with nothing to aid them in their invasion. To leave them with no buildings to use, no cattle to eat from, nothing. The people who, on horse back, formed the group to become militia fighters, was united by an oath to fight till death or victory. The village as a whole, united and swore under the statement “This is our land! Our village! We remember we fought another war to make them ours, we swear to give our lives if they be needed!” This scene shows that strong willed people, once living in peace, now greeted with destruction and death, have found no other options for peace and freedom from oppression to be sustained unless defended to death against those who seek to take it away.

Shortly after leaving the garrison with guns and ammo, Boris had his truck shot up by a German plane down the road from the five traveling protagonists. Boris, after falling to the ground bleeding and dying, tells his sons to save the guns from the truck. After they take the guns out, they speak to their dad as he tells them, with his last dying breaths, to take the guns to the militia troops at the hill’s location. This is a touching moment because, while Boris wasn’t given as much screen time as his sons and the other protagonists, he shows the character of a family man who deeply loved his country and village and would defend to death its defense. His sons, having to watch and grasp the reality of their father dying, is a touching scene that is difficult to watch once the audience has built that sympathy for these characters. Kolya leaves his brother and friends, telling them to stick to the woods, and tells Karp to look after them and that he will be heading for the air field.

The Germans, spotted by one of the villagers on horse back, heading towards the North Star village leads the villager on horse back to go warn the village that the Germans was coming and to burn their homes. The villagers begin lighting everything on fire before the Germans down the road take notice to the smoke and begin to speed up towards the city. They arrive to the city shooting anyone and everyone who is burning buildings. Platoons of entire soldiers, desperate to save any resources they could use, begin to stop anyone trying to destroy the buildings. They even begin to take water from the river to put out the fires. They saved, at most, half the village. They told the villagers that because of the burning of the village they declared them enemies of the German army.

The brutality expressed by the German army in this film is not too far off from the reality of the invasion of the USSR back in 1941. In fact, its a good way to show how far the Germans was willing to go if it meant continuing the war. As history has shown, millions of Soviet citizens, around 13 million to be specific, died under German occupation. They stole anything of value to the army, they killed entire towns by the order of the generals, and they left villages filled with bodies. From what can be found, the German government planned to kill the majority of the populations of all the states under the Soviet Union, with numbers ranked from 50% and up.

Clavdia, Damian, Karp, Grisha, and Marina hiding in the woods are greeted by a small group of German scouts who begin to investigate near them when their dog begins to bark. Their wagon of weapons is discovered and before one of the Nazi’s is able to throw the grenade, Damian and Karp shoot them down. An interesting part of this scene is Damian, scared and shocked from shooting someone for the first time, greeted with the fact he took a man’s life, forces his head behind the tree to, from what can be assumed, vomit. He has been greeted with the fact a man is now dead by his hands, which is a traumatic and difficult situation to take in, which thankfully the director and screenwriter of this film took in to account, since it is lacking in many other films.

Another thing I rather like about this film is after Kolya left to the air field, he made it successfully, and joined the pilots in four bombing trips with no sleep for thirty hours. This is very interesting to add to a film because it’s realistic. When you are in an intense war situation, sleep is a privilege that may not always be guaranteed. Especially if the enemy is a well organized imperialist army invading in large numbers. The focus of fighting back would require a lot of labor, hours fighting, and safety for sleep if it is possible. This little detail is a nice addition since it continues to build this realistic aspect of the film. This is shortly followed by Kolya taking control over the plane after German anti-air tanks shoot and kill his two fellow pilots, seeing that he is alone, without a father, no idea if his brother or mother is alive, it makes the most daring decision of his life. He aims the plane downward, and crashes it directly in to the tanks. An act of vengeance and selflessness.

The Blood Transfusions:
The blood transfusions was foreshadowed earlier in the film, but you see it in all its evil near the end of the film, when the Nazis have fully established themselves in the village, and begin stealing the blood of children for their soldiers. To the point Dr. Pavel Grigorich tried to sneak in and stab the German doctor, before being caught and let off the hook. He opposed the doctors and their thieving of blood, especially since the large amounts of blood they was taking turned the children white from the lack of necessary blood count. One of the children, stumbling and fainting, falls in to the Grigorich’s arms. As he carries him out, the one doctor was asking why Grigorich was let go and not arrested, and as the other doctor responded with, summarized “He’s not a threat,” The kid in Grigorich’s arms dies. Truly amazing way to characterize the Nazi’s evil interest of thieving for their own wants. And good character development of making Dr. Grigorich become more hateful and vengeful.

Stopping the German Convoy:
Damian and Clavdia stay behind to hold up the Germans on the road so Marina and Karp can get the guns and ammo across the road. This was successful at the price the Clavdia dying and Damian becoming blind from the blast of a grenade exploding next to them. After he finds out Clavdia is dead and he is blind, he crawls away, unable to know where he is or where he is going. Marina and Karp go back for them, greeted by blind Damian laying on the ground and the news that Clavdia is dead. This scene comes off just on the grounds of the kind of hell war truly is. The damage that one can gain from war isn’t always death, but permanent injury or damage. It is scary to accept, if ever in a war situation, what we might have to deal with.

The Ending of The Film:
Near the end of the film, after Dr. Grigorich informed the militia of the blood thieving. The militia decides to pull a difficult measure; launch a suicidal attack, with lacking guns and ammo, against the Nazi occupied village. They sent a messenger to the comrades transporting the guns to meet them at a different location. The militia soon gets on horse back heading to the village and sneaks in. They kill a German soldier, steal his clothes, and send someone out in disguise while they poured gasoline in to the river with the intent to light it on fire. Since some of the machine gun nests was alongside the river. Once the fire was started, the entire militia came charging out, shooting and killing. While the attack was starting, the message of the attack in the village reached Clavdia and Karp, who took the guns and ammo to the village. Which once reached, guns was handed out to militia members and village civilians. Dr. Grigorich, landing next to and taking the revolver of a dead militia soldier, aims for vengeance. He begins to head for the hospital, with the aim to kill the Nazi doctors. And does so with success. It shows the reality of what war can do, what oppression can do. He was angry at the occupation and the death of his people in the name of furthering the Nazi invasion, and he wanted blood. After the death of the Nazi doctors, the next scene shows the village people leaving in wagons. Perhaps to a safer land. The film ends with Marina saying “Wars don’t leave people as they were. All people will learn that, and come to see wars do not have to be. We’ll make this the last war! We’ll 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!”

Criticism and Conclusion:

I only have two criticisms on the film, mainly with the start and end. I love how it builds character development in the start because its lacking in many films, and truly I love how it gives the viewer a understanding of life in Ukraine before the invasion and how it can put the viewer in the shoes of the characters. My only criticism is that it is really long in this regard, but I understand why it is. Truly, it is something that many modern viewers would either become bored by and won’t pay attention to due to the high demand of action in our current society. However, this is definitely the kind of film you should never watch just once, but watch two or three times, and pay attention to the details of the interactions between characters. My second criticism is the end. It just feels to me, after Dr. Grigorich killed the Nazi doctors, the fight just seemed to end, no real hunting down the last Nazi and killing him or charging on the few who try and retreat or anything. Which is fine, but it feels a bit abrupt.

I feel the criticisms given by firm anti-communists who reviewed this film did so based specifically on hatred of the protagonists in the film and not on the grounds of what the film’s aim was, which was to promote anti-fascism, anti-imperialism, and bravery for freedom and liberation. It never dips in to ideological beliefs until the end with the promotion of the earth belonging to the people if they fight for it, and even on the grounds of that statement there is nothing wrong with that belief. This film was a masterpiece of its time due to amazing character development, great acting, historical significance, details of war and its damages, and many other aspects. The hatred of this film is specifically based on the grounds of ruthless anti-communism, and nothing more.

Out of ten stars I would give this film a nine.