cast: Fyodor Bondarchuk, Aleksei Chadov, Mikhail Yevlanov, Ivan Kokorin, and Artyom Mikhalkov
director: Fyodor Bondarchuk
134 minutes (15) 2006
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Contender DVD Region 2 retail
reviewed by Richard Bowden
9th Company (aka: 9 Rota) the domestic top-grosser of its year, is a film about a lost war – the campaign in Afghanistan, based on events that took place in early 1988, during the last large-scale Soviet military operation there. And yet, like John Ford’s They Were Expendable (1945), it manages to snatch a sense of victory from the jaws of defeat, and some dignity from disaster, at least as we are told in the closing moments, made whilst army remnants begin their weary retreat back home. In this sense it’s as much a belated morale raiser as more, overtly patriotic productions, but there’s more to be found here than crude propaganda.
The father of debut director Fyodor Bondarchuk, Sergey, had a flair for epic war films, being responsible for a mammoth version of War And Peace (1968), Waterloo (1970), as well as They Fought For Their Country (1975). Following in such illustrious combat boot steps, 9th Company has its sense of scale too, but it’s very much the human one, covering the military careers of a group of conscripts and volunteers from boot camp to final engagement. The audience sees the group painfully form themselves into a capable unit, even discovering something of their common humanity, before facing up to the enemy in a war viewed less through great clashing armies than the perils and fears of a smallish group of men, isolated and unnerved, stationed out in the inhospitable Afghan terrain.
It’s a story of military preparation and ordeal that has been told before and, as such, Bondarchuk’s film is hardly an original one. The director has claimed that the biggest influence on his film was Black Hawk Down, Ridley Scott’s gung ho piece which was essentially an excuse for an extended on screen fire-fight set in Somalia, and there’s certainly a sense of that in the final attack and desperate defence on show here. But closer similarities can be found more easily in Full Metal Jacket (1987), Platoon (1986) or any of those other American films that showed recruits entering a futile war in a tailspin.
While western audiences may find the theatre of war on show relatively unusual (although it has appeared on our screens before in such films as The Beast Of War, 1988) what ultimately marks out the production is its sense of authenticity, achieved on a budget of just $9 million – although admittedly some at home have criticised some of the details. This is no bloated Hollywood impersonation of a distant, bitter conflict; rather a taut staging of principal events made by those much closer to home, and that is what gives it memorability. It’s a point emphasised by the cast who are, by and large, plain looking men, with none of the honed physiques and perfect dental work, which an American producer might have insisted upon when casting such a project. To be sure, there are stereotypes here: the youthful artist Gioconda (Konstantin Kryukov) for instance, caught up in the webs of war, along with his various comrades in arms; or the tough sergeant Dygalo (Mikhail Porechenkov) who drills the new arrivals into shape during the first part of the film, before displaying such rage and regret at not being able to join them at the front.
Fyodor Bondarchuk plays army veteran Khokhol, the hard man who leads the soldiers in the second half and his close involvement, both behind and in front of the camera, makes one wonder where he stands on one key moment of dialogue in the film. Fledgling artist Gioconda, so often the centre of attention, contemplates the meaning of war’s ‘beauty’, seen where everything unnecessary is stripped away, with “not a line out of place,” leaving only the matter of life and death behind. But its also a time of terror and death, where grunts as viewed as ‘pieces of shit’ by their drill sergeant, then being packed to a conflict where they are left ‘forgotten on remote heights’ before dying off or disappearing into obscurity. It is out of this contradiction that Bondarchuk fashions the uneasy ‘victory’ mentioned at the end of his film, when we know the fates of all concerned, creating an uneasy balance that ultimately makes the bare propagandist claims made against his film hard to accept.
Other moments in his film standout in the memory too: notably one with the character of ‘Snow White’ (supposedly based on a real character, according to the director). She’s the promiscuous young woman who frequently gives soldiers their last, sweet taste of pleasure at boot camp before they disappear off to fight. Her scene with the current batch ends in an extraordinary moment, close to orgiastic revelry as, after having screwed her, the men fall at her naked feet in mock obeisance. She hardly says a word but its clear that it that second she has been transformed into something more luminous and significant than the camp tart, a Madonna/ whore that is particularly effective. In another impressive scene the newly arrived soldiers see a disastrous take off from the busy airstrip they have just disembarked at. A troop carrier is shot at, turns back and crashes in a fireball. In more than one sense, it is a baptism of fire for the experiences they have to come.
The splendid two-disc edition of 9th Company adds a number of extras, including a ‘making of’ documentary, in which Bondarchuk emerges as very energetic and enthusiastic in his first assignment, and contains a useful potted history of the conflict. There’s also a 20 Years Later segment, featuring interviews with real veterans of the conflict, very useful in adding credibility to the film as dramatic reconstruction. There are trailers too and a less interesting coverage of the premiere. But it all adds to a film that, if it is not exactly as striking and original as one might hope, it at least does exactly what it says on the field rations tin.