You know, the good ol’ USSR had a lot of things about it that sucked, rampant anti-semitism, starvation, oppressive government, but there is one thing that my anti-socialist/anti-communist family does like quite a lot, and that is Soviet films. Of course, a lot of the films were propaganda, or steered within the party lines, or went to great lengths to quietly defy them, there was a second group of films that was more whimsical, that were made for entertainment. These films were fantasy, historical, or simply life based. Without politics as an outlet, directors looked for other avenues to create films.
A lot of the time the films had to be “campy” and friendly for all audiences and of course had little to do with gore and sex, in the later years of the Soviet Union, some of these regulations were loosened. I figured that with so much talk about the true horrors of the Soviet Union and its government it may be nice to look at something more fun. So I’ve compiled a few of my favorite Soviet Films or mini-series that are meant to be enjoyed. The list below is some of my favorite films that I’ve enjoyed since I was a kid.
- 1. Gardemariny Vpered: Naval Cadets Charge (1987) Mini Series
This fantastic four episode series (not counting the sequels) is about three young naval cadets, studying at Peter the Great’s school for Navigation while Elizabeth is ruling Russia. IMDB summarizes the series as follows “Three naval cadets accidentally get possession of a secret diary that was stolen from Bestuzhev, a vice-chancellor of Russia. If this diary ever gets abroad, the consequences for the country would be grave. The cadets are trying to return the papers to their owner, but there are others who want to get the papers…”
But this movie is so much more than stolen documents, there are amazing songs, plenty of romance and of course, my favorite part, fantastic sword fights. It is an incredible story of adventure, friendship, love, and politics. No, not Soviet Politics, but the politics of 18th century Russia with a lot of credence and attention given to historical accuracy…as much as you can get in a movie anyway.
This movie was also directed by a woman, Svetlana Drudginina. She also co-wrote the script with Yuri Nagibin and Nina Sorotokina. I love this movie for its balance between the vice-chancellor, to the trio of guys and what they’re doing, and the lovely Anna Bestuzheva and what she is up to with the French man played by Mikhail Boyarsky.
2. Kidnapping, Caucasian Style (1967).
Yeah, this movie title sounds weird and it kind of is because this is a bit of quirky film. It’s a comedy written by Yakov Kostyukovsky, Moris Slobodskoy, Leonid Gaidai and directed by Leonid Gaidai.
The story follows Shurik, a young Folklorist who goes to the Caucasus to write down toasts, folktales, myths, and traditions. He is given the opportunity to take part in the traditional kidnapping ritual of the bride. Then it turns out the “bride” was not a willing participant and Shurik tries to save her. It’s witty, funny, and has 1 musical number, but has fantastically frivolous chase music and great acting by the trio seen at the bottom of the picture. It is a very timeless comedy that is prime pickings for any fans of goofs and frivolity.
- 3. Diamond Arm (1969).
Your average family man goes on vacation, your average man enjoys a cruise and a trip abroad, and your average man then gets accidentally mistaken for a jewel thief and ends up with a cast with jewels inside of it. Yup, that is the premise for another classic comedic tale. Once again it has fantastic songs (the USSR really loved their musicals) and great acting by the leadning man Leonid Gaidai who also wrote and directed this film, and Andrei Mirnov (seen Bottom left with the eye patch) who plays opposite him. It’s a witty comedy of a con gone wrong and mistaken identity.
4. Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future (1973)
I am on a comedic roll. This one is a doozy and also has the ever loving and nerdy Shurik, this time as a brilliant inventor living in a multi-floor apartment building with a cranky building manager and his nagging, and gossip loving wife. After Shurik’s wife tells him she is leaving him for another man he becomes even more desperate to make his invention work. That invention is a time machine which ends up making an opening in the space time continuum to the era of Ivan the Terrible, who looks exactly like the building manager. Two go in, the building manager and a thief, who was robbing the apartment next door, and out comes the strong and terrifying Ivan the terrible. Told from a mix of black and white and color this comedy is amusing to watch. Though, the more literal title of this movie should be Ivan Vasilievich Changes Professions, the title chosen does illustrate the movie’s plot, of Ivan the Terrible traveling to the then, present, Russia. This is not a musical, though like Kidnapping, Caucasian Style, has one musical number done by the illustrious thief, seen bottom right in the photo.
It’s a great ball of laughs and like other comedies reveals a lot about the kind of life that existed in the Soviet Union, though, obviously, with a lot of details left out, much like how American movies rarely accurately show American life. This movie was also Directed by Leonid Gaidai, though he does not star in this. Original play:
Mikhail Bulgakov with screenplay: Vladlen Bakhnov
5. D’Artanian and the Three Musketeers (1979)
Yet another musical! But this one is the most accurate version (despite the songs) of the Alexander Dumas book The Three Musketeers. It follows the book surprisingly well, though of course, takes a few liberties and cuts a few things out. I lavished watching this film as a kid, I sang along to the songs, and much like the Naval Cadets above, it features incredible acting, incredible talent, and amazing swordfights. Swordfights make this all the better, just remember that they use rapiers in this. This film is credited as being written by Alexander Dumas and adapted by Mark Rozovsky and directed by Georgi Yungvald-Khilkevich.
This film is an excellent honor to the author of the book. It is split into three parts, first of course is the beginning and introduced D’Artanian to the fantastic trio of Athos, Porthos, and Aramis. The second part is the quest for the pendants of the Queen, and the third is the continuation of their adventures and deals with the assault on La Rochelle. It stars Mikhail Boyarsky, Veniamin Smekhov, Igor Starygin, Valentin Smirnitsky.
6. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson (1979).
So…I’m cheating a little bit, as this is again a mini-series spanning two initial parts and many further “episodes” lasting about an hour and a half. But the reason I included this on the list is because the theme of our new site is a reference to the mystery world, and our title, Elementary Politics refers very much to Sherlock Holmes and thus I decided to put this into place. With Vasily Livanov as Sherlock Holmes, Vitaly Solomin as Dr. Watson, and Rina Zelyonaya as Mrs. Hudson. Not only does this series follow the book exceptionally well it was heralded by the Queen of England herself, as it was created for an adaptation contest, which it won. Vasily Livanov actually got to sit next to the Queen at the formal dinner. The daughter of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle said that her father would have been proud of how Livanov portrayed Sherlock Holmes, and in 2006 he became an honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire for his services to the theater and the performing arts.
This series encompasses the vision of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson that I had when I read The Hound of the Baskervilles. Since then I have seen, much like with the Three Musketeers some of the newer adaptation, such as the Robert Downey Jr Sherlock Holmes, BBC’s Sherlock, and the American show, Elementary. My mom spoke of some of the earlier American adaptations that were more true to the books and said that despite how nice they were, Livanov and Solomin would always be her Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.
7. Truffaldino From Bergamo or the Servant of Two Masters (1977)
Wow, the 70’s were good for Soviet Cinama it seems. This 2 episode film is an adaptation of the Italian comedy called the Servant of Two Masters, where the foolish Truffaldino ends up serving two masters, originally written in the mid 18th century. These two masters are Beatrice, who is disguised as her twin brother Frederico, and Florindo Aritusi. It has fun, amazing dancing by Konstantine Raykin, whose singing voice is provided by Mikhail Boyarsky and other incredibly talented actors and actresses with amazing voices and strength. It is a comedy of errors on Truffaldino’s part as he tries to keep the two masters from finding out about the other and ends up screwing everything up, wrong letters getting delivered, wrong money, wrong books, but all ends up well with the world and you end up with not one, but three happy couples.
So here you are, seven amazing films/mini-series, that are nostalgic, historical, whimsical, fun and encompass a lot about not just Russia, but the worlds they open, from post-Peter Russia to Renaissance Italy, to Victorian England, and the Soviet Union. These films transcend their centuries.