Grigorly Chukhray’s “Ballad of a Soldier,” a 1959 Soviet film, manages to perfectly blend an effective love story, a road picture, and an antiwar message into a poetic and moving visual and emotional experience. The Russian language movie stars Vladimir Ivashov as Alyosha Skvortsov, a soldier assigned to man the observation point at the front. Tanks advance against Alyosha’s position and he’s forced to run before he chances upon a bazooka and destroys two of the tanks. His commanding officer hails him as a hero and offers a medal, but he asks instead for leave to see his mother (and fix the roof) in his home village of Sosnovka. The commanding officer obliges his request and Alyosha takes to the road.
Interestingly, Ballad of a Soldier does not begin on the battlefield but in idyllic village of Sosnovka, where the breeze blows gently through the trees, chickens feed along the path, and Alyosha’s mother wanders down the long road with a fixed gaze upon the horizon. A voice-over tells us that we’re about to hear a story about a son and a hero, and we become aware that it will be about the sacrifices one makes when called upon to leave home and become a liberator. Only then does the image fade out to the battlefield.
Once on the road, Alyosha meets people who represent various ideals of love and loyalty. At a train station, he meets a crippled soldier, who is returning to his waiting wife with serious doubts about his future. When the soldier refuses to board the train out of shame, Alyosha admonishes him to be strong. The later reunion of the crippled soldier with his wife proves to be one of the most moving scenes in the film. Alyosha moves on by hopping a freight train, where he meets a beautiful young female stowaway named Shura (Zhanna Prokhorenko). Their initial distrust of each other turns to romance as they face adventures and obstacles on their way home. The straw-filled train car interior becomes an oasis from war as the camera shoots the bleak and war-torn landscape on the way to Sosnovka.
Director Chukhray and Valentin Ezhov wrote the screenplay for Ballad of a Soldier, which would be an excellent item on the reading list of a university film school. Cinematographers Vladimir Nikolayev and Era Savelyeva photograph the excellent lighting effects in the closeups, and they capture the extensive feeling of movement along the road from trains, trucks and cars. The musical score sounds authentically Russian, simple and seductive, and it adds much to the emotional atmosphere of the film.