Enemy at the Gates (2001) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

The Recipe: Saving Private Ivan

You see, this is basically the same movie as Saving Private Ryan. It starts with a harrowingly accurate depiction of frightened men entering battle for the first time, then evolves into a story about how one guy won World War Two by himself. And we know that Jude Law couldn't have won WW2, because we already know Tom Hanks won it.

Now that I've gotten in my cheap shots, I should probably mention in passing that it's also one of the best damned movies made in the last decade.

The first twenty minutes are about as good as any filmmaking I've ever seen, every bit the equal to the opening of Saving Private Ryan. In the gray late Autumn, wide-eyed Russian boys are being ferried across the brown Volga to defend Stalingrad from the Wehrmacht, while their slow-moving scows are being assaulted from the air by the swiftly darting cream of the Luftwaffe fighter corps. Many die from the machine gun fire, while their neighbors are unharmed but terrified. Those who panic and jump in the water are shot by their own officers. When the survivors land, those capable of walking are herded by more officers into lines, to receive weapons, but there are only weapons enough for half of them, and one officer recites with a bullhorn "men without rifles, wait for the men with rifles to be killed, then pick up the rifles and move forward". They are herded further, and are told to charge across a city square, to a position held by German machine gunners. Most of them die. Those who do not, retreat, until their own officers start shooting at them with their own machine guns, yelling "go back. Death to cowards".

Powerful, powerful scene. 

In the midst of the chaos, Russia finds a hero. A shepherd-boy from the mountains, who learned marksmanship by defending his flock from wolves, turns out to have a unique talent for urban warfare. His sniper ability is capable of killing German officers from great distances away, as they shower, as they smoke, as they rest.  The Russian propaganda machine capitalizes fully on this new hero of the Soviet State, and he creates a genuine terror in the German command, because these victims are not dying in the heat of battle, but when they least expect it, and the attacks concentrate only on important officers, never foot soldiers.


Rachel Weisz shows her butt very briefly in a love scene with Jude Law (they are in the same room with hundreds of sleeping soldiers, and remain almost fully clothed)
The Germans counter with their own sniper, an aristocratic man who ran a sniper school in Bavaria. His eyes and his manner show that he is what the shepherd-boy is not, a cold professional killer. The Russian peasant boy knows he is overmatched, and is even briefly terrified, but must stay in the game.

The two men use their rifle skills, their wiles, intelligence and counter-intelligence to stalk each other through an urban landscape of burnt-out department stores, exposed sewers, sagging conduits, chemical factories, and the other bric-a-brac of a destroyed city, all the while simultaneously dodging the urban warfare which goes on beneath their feet, and the swarm of planes which continues to drop bombs from above.

Occasionally, we see the Stalingrad propaganda cadre and their boss, Nikita Krushchev. They maneuver in ways designed to help their careers as much as their country. Bob Hoskins plays Krushchev, with great panache and in multiple dimensions, not just as a monster, or as a country yokel, or as a naive Stalin loyalist, but as some of each, and also a shrewd politician and tactician with a human side.

That much was a brilliant movie, and if the movie had stayed focused there, I would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone.

Unfortunately, they decided to muck it up (and lengthen it) with two sub-plots:

  • A young Russian boy, perhaps ten years old, travels between the enemy ranks, planting bits of intelligence and counter intelligence here and there. We are first led to believe that he is conspiring with the Germans in return for food and supplies, but he turns out to have been planting disinformation. This sub-plot lacked credibility for several reasons: (1) the Nazi major is seen speaking to him alone. Exactly what language were they using to communicate? (2) are we supposed to believe that the Nazi was ever gullible enough to believe blindly anything a Russian boy would tell him about how to kill a Russian hero? C'mon now.
  • They developed a completely irrelevant and distracting love triangle between the Russian sniper, the Russian propaganda commissar, and a lovely Russian Jewess (Her religion was very convenient for anti-Nazi speechifyin'.) This just added running time, and slowed the development of the main drama. We even see the propaganda guy dictating unflattering memos about the "hero of the Soviet state", presumably out of pure jealousy because the gal loves the sniper more than she loves him. I guess not just pure jealousy, but also out of sheer stupidity, since Krushchev already explained to the lad that since the propaganda officer actually created the hero, their fates and careers were inextricably linked. 

Bottom line: Brilliant opening scenes. Excellent and imaginative re-creation of the battle of Stalingrad and urban sniper warfare. Interesting study of the Russian political machinations. Beautifully acted. A very, very good movie that would be a masterpiece if trimmed of the silly and unbelievable sub-plots.

Of course, it should be good. Saving Private Ryan was good, and this is the same movie.

DVD info from Amazon.

It is a good DVD, with an excellent 2.35:1 transfer, about a dozen deleted scenes, interviews, and two documentaries about the making of the film, but it disappoints by excluding a full-length commentary.

We had a full-length commentary for Dish Dogs, and not for this?

  1. Thank heaven Hitler was a nutbag. He spent several months trying to finish off a city which was already bombed to ruins, burned out and nearly deserted, a struggle in which his mighty tanks were nearly useless. And he lost! Most war experts agree that if he had simply diverted all those troops to the oil fields in the Caucasus, that he would have cut off Russia from the oil it needed to fuel its army. Stalin's stubborn refusal to abandon the city was seen as folly by many contemporaries, but proved to be an important element in winning the war, less for Stalingrad itself, than in distracting Hitler from the oil.
  2. Although Vasily Zaitsev, the Russian sniper, is a real historical character, the German Major played by Ed Harris is not. Some people say that there actually was a one-on-one showdown between Zaitsev and a certain German SS Colonel named Thorvald, who ran a sniper school in Bavaria. Neither German nor Russian records can confirm these details, and Zaitsev himself refused to confirm it. Many believe that the entire duel was fabricated by the Russian propaganda machine. (Zaitsev would not have been at liberty to deny the duel, of course, since Stalin said it was true.) For much more on Zaitsev and the sniper warfare in Stalingrad, see this link - a review of the book The War of the Rats

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: three stars. Ebert 3/4, Berardinelli 2.5/4, Apollo 83/100. While I always respect Berardinelli's insights, I just can't agree with his rating. While the film is not without flaws, parts of it are as good as anything you'll ever see on screen. 

  • Rotten Tomatoes summary. 62% positive overall, and 56% from the top critics.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it a near-classic 7.3, Apollo users a very impressive 82/100. 
  • With their dollars ... it cost $80 million to make this film. As I write this, it stands a good chance to make a profit, with $51 million domestic box office, plus overseas, and other sources of income.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a B.

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