October 1917 (1928)

Tomorrow, it was exactly one hundred years ago that the Russian October revolution started (Russia was using the Julian calendar at the time; hence the confusion about the specific month). That was the final stage of the Russian revolution, which led to the forming of the Soviet Union and, some forty years later, to the Cold War. And even though the Soviet Union has since been dismantled, it is no great exaggeration to say that those events still contribute to shaping the world into what it is. The most famous film about these events is Sergei Eisenstein’s October 1917, perhaps more commonly known as October: Ten Days that Shook the World, or in Russian Октябрь (Десять дней, которые потрясли мир).

The cruiser Aurora in Sergei Eisenstein's October 1917 / October: Ten Days that Shook the World (1928)

A great many of Sergein Eisenstein’s films are connected, one way or another, with the causes and effects of the Russian revolution. Strike (1925) and Battleship Potemkin (1925), for example, deal with events that in the official communist history writing are essential steps on the way to the forming of the Soviet Union, while films like The General Line (1929) detail the wonders that the revolution led to. October 1917 is the essence and the focal work of these two themes, as it deals directly with the revolution itself, and the events surrounding the Bolshevik uprising.

I am sure that a historian would have much to say about the plot of the film. Like any other Soviet film dealing with history or communism in any way, the historic events have naturally been adapted to fit into the communist ideological perspective. The first Russian revolution, the February revolution (which, for the same reasons, was in March, Gregorian time), is briefly depicted, then the depravity and corruption during the next few months, as the new government turned out just as bad as the Tsarist regime. Then, after Lenin has convinced the Bolsheviks that action is necessary, the events during the night between October 25 and October 26 are told in some detail. We see how the cruiser Aurora moves up to the place where the cannons could be fired as a starting signal. We also see how the cossacks and the female Death Squadron are won over to the just cause, and many other key events.

This film is best enjoyed for Eisenstein’s artistic and skillful telling of a story, whether historically accurate or not. His amazing cutting and use of imagery and metaphor must be experienced by anyone who has the least interest in cinematic history. And though I would recommend Battleship Potemkin first if you want to watch just one Eisenstein film (especially considering how much better that Internet Archive copy is), October 1917 is should also be on your to-see list.

Sergei Eisenstein's October 1917 / October: Ten Days that Shook the World (1928)

October
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Year: 1928
Running time: 1 h 42 min
Language: English
Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: Good; classical music
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Cinepack (689 M)

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U-Boote westwärts! (1941)

When I first discovered and read about the German World War II film U-Boote westwärts!, I was struck by the extreme story similarities with the British film We Dive at Dawn from two years later. So struck that for a while I speculated whether the latter might actually be a loose remake of the former.

German submarine U-123 in U-Boote westwärts / U-Boat, Course West (1941)

The initial story structures are, indeed, strikingly similar. A submarine returns to port after a long and hard mission at sea (scenes of surfaced submarine moving steadily forward through picturesque sea and port backgrounds). The crew is looking forward to a long and well-deserved shore leave. They meet up with families, fiancées and various other female friends. One is about to get married. But duty calls. The Queen/Führer needs them and they have to set to sea immediately in order to fulfil an important mission.

However, even during the brief shore leave sequence, the differences between these two films start to become apparent. Beyond the abovementioned similarities, these films are very different at their cores.

Compared with the British film, U-Boote westwärts! seems much more realistic, both in terms of the submarine interiors, and in terms of the missions and situations that a World War II submarine would typically face. On the other hand, the story lacks the intensity, action and adventurous touch that the British production has. Which version you prefer thus depends on whether you prefer realism or suspense.

This film is best enjoyed if you like old war films. U-Boote Westwärts! is not a great film, and some will be further put off by the propagandistic portrayals of British seamen. Nevertheless, it has several good qualities, including some very solid actors.

Herbert Wilk in U-Boote westwärts / U-Boat, Course West (1941)

U-Boote westwärts!
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Year: 1941
Language: German (English subtitles)
Running time: 1 h 37 min
Director: Günther Rittau
Stars: Herbert Wilk
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Matroska (681 M)

Stukas (1941)

I have had an almost lifelong fascination for aviation movies. When I was a kid, I dreamt of becoming a pilot, and I guess the best aviation movies sort of made that dream seem true for a brief time. For several years now, I have wanted to see a number of German World War II propaganda films on that topic, and in particular the film Stukas, about the infamous dive bombers that totally dominated the sky during the successful Blitz in the early parts of the war. I was therefore very excited to find, at last, a good copy of the film at the Internet Archive some time ago, and my expectations were completely met.

Carl Raddatz and O. E. Hasse in Stukas (1941)

Set during the Battle of France, which had ended only about a year before the film’s release, the film depicts the joys and hardships of a Luftwaffe group of Stuka pilots. The need of constantly being on the alert and the sorrows of losing dear friends in battle, but also the strong comradeship and the sense of accomplishment after a successful mission.

The film is well paced for the most part. In the beginning the constant victorious missions over French territory may feel a bit repetitive at times, and the final segment of the film is too long and drawn out. But these are minor quibbles over a film that, in spite of the subject matter, is overall very enjoyable.

The choice of Stukas was not coincidental. It was one of Germany’s most important and efficient weapons during the early parts of the war. Later, however, such as during the Battle of Britain, the Stukas would suffer considerably when they no longer could enjoy the luxury of full air superiority and therefore much less fighter support. This knowledge gives an unintended ironic twist to the final scenes, where the brave pilots fly off towards England, singing a gay patriotic song (yes, really!).

The copy I downloaded appears to be spliced together from at least two copies of vastly varying technical quality. Fortunately, the larger part of the film is in good shape, but during some short scenes, sound and image are barely tolerable.

This film is best enjoyed if you can stomach some pretty thick German propaganda, but if you do you will be treated with a number of effective and often spectacular flight scenes. As far as I know, no flying Stukas exist anywhere in the world, so films like this one are the only chance to see actual Stukas in action. This is not to be missed if you are an aviation history nerd!

Junkers Ju-87 Stuka in Stukas (1941)

Stukas
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Year: 1941
Language: German (English subtitles)
Running time: 1 h 38 min
Director: Karl Ritter
Stars: Carl Raddatz
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: DivX (903 M)

The Battle of China (1944)

In Frank Capra’s classic Why We Fight series, where he tried to explain to the American public why it is important to participate in World War II, the turn has now come to The Battle of China.

Frank Capra's The Battle of China (1944)

Actually, there never was a battle of China as such. There were a great many battles fought in and around Chinese territory during as well as before World War II. And, unlike The Battle of Britain (which was also not a “battle” in the traditional sense), the term “The Battle of China” has not stuck in people’s conscience.

Ok, so the title is a misnomer. Big deal. The film is brilliantly produced, and while it does not exactly present any right out lies (that I can detect, anyway), it bends and omits facts to suit its purposes. The Chinese people in general and Chiang Kai-shek in particular are glorified to the heights of heaven. They are brave, strong and hard-working. They are a worthy ally to the American people.

Like other parts in the series, and like many other American propaganda films from the war, it does not shy away from presenting some of the cruelties of war, such as wounded soldiers, or even dead children. That may seem surprising, but was probably done because it would presumably strengthen the American people’s will to fight.

This film is best enjoyed if you like the other parts in the series, or if you want to watch an episode to see what it is all about. I know that many hold it as their favourite of the entire series, and I am not going to say that they are all wrong.

Frank Capra's The Battle of China (1944)

The Battle of China
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Year: 1944
Running time: 1 h 3 min
Directors: Frank Capra, Anatole Litvak
Stars: Walter Huston (narration)
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (2.9 G)

Bronenosets Patyomkin (1925)

I have loved silent film for nearly forty years, ever since I saw a series of Chaplin films on TV. But it was not until about half a year ago that I watched my first silent with live accompaniment – which is of course the way they were meant to be seen. The film was one of the greatest of all silent classics, Bronenosets Patyomkin (Броненосец Потёмкин), best known in English as Battleship Potemkin.

Sergei Eisenstein's Броненосец Потёмкин / Bronenosets Patyomkin / Battleship Potemkin (1925)

The scoring of silent films on the Internet Archive is rarely unproblematic. Even though the films themselves have often fallen into the public domain, and therefore can be freely uploaded to the archive, this is not necessarily the case with the music. For many commercially released silents, a new score has been composed; often the original music has been lost, if there even was an official score in the first place. And even when the music itself is free, the performance as such may be copyrighted. If these things bother you (I have no idea if the excellent score for this particular edition is copyrighted or not), then you are in luck, because the Internet Archive contains many examples of groups or individuals who make it their hobby to produce new free scores for old films. These are, of course, of wildly varying quality, but for this particular film, a pretty decent one exists, created by a group called Apskaft. Their version, unfortunately, suffers from inferior image quality, but you cannot have everything.

Battleship Potemkin tells the story of how the crew of a Russian battleship revolt against their cruel officers when several crew members are ordered shot after refusing to eat bad meat. The film was released the same year as director Sergei Eisenstein’s first feature film, Strike, but already we see Eisenstein perfecting his craft, progressing into the halls of the greatest cinematic artists of all time. There is a reason why this film is often mentioned when the greatest films ever are discussed. Among many other things, Eisenstein shows excellent technique in composition and cutting, and there are also many facial close-ups, for great effect.

This film, of course, cannot be discussed without mentioning the Odessa stairs, one of the most famous scenes in all of cinematic history, and a favourite example for film theoreticians. It is a bit unfortunate that this scene has been so over-analyzed, because it really deserves to be seen with fresh eyes. I will therefore say nothing substantial about it, and if you happen to be among the lucky few who are unaware of what it is, then you will be able to enjoy it in full, without preconceived notions.

The ending of the film is typical of how propaganda film is tweaked in order to create a mood and serve a political lesson, rather than try to tell any kind of truth (Hollywood, by the way, does this all the time in order to make historical events fit better with what the producers and writers perceive the audience wants, and the messages they wish to convey). In the film, the battleship sets course straight for an armada of ships sent by the government to force the mutineers to surrender, but instead the Potemkin makes the entire armada change sides without firing a shot. In reality, only a single ship sided with the Potemkin, and both crews eventually had to give up.

This film is best enjoyed with live music, the way I had the fortune of watching it. But if you cannot get that, the music for this version, or for the other version mentioned above, will do very nicely. A good score definitely adds another dimension to silent film, and I actually prefer no sound at all to a poor score.

Sergei Eisenstein's Броненосец Потёмкин / Bronenosets Patyomkin / Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Bronenosets Patyomkin
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Year: 1925
Running time: 1 h 11 min
Language: Russian (English subtitles)
Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Image quality: Excellent
Resolution: High (928×738)
Soundtrack: Excellent; perfectly synchronized music
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.3 G)

49th Parallel (1941)

One of the first films made by the famous British team of writers/producers/directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (jointly known as “The Archers”) was the World War II propaganda 49th Parallel.

Finlay Currie, Laurence Olivier and Eric Portman in 49th Parallel (1941)

The film begins with a German submarine that tries to hide in Hudson Bay after being hunted by the Canadian navy. The submarine is eventually caught up with and sunk, but a small group of survivors start to make their long way across the enormous nation of Canada, trying somehow to find a way to neutral or allied territory.

The film has an interesting structure. It is basically a series of short stories, strung together by the evil protagonist in the shape of Leutnant Hirth. Hirth is well played (though not exactly delicately) by Eric Portman. As he and his small group of Germans go from one place to the next, they also move from story to story. And there is where we meet the true heroes, played by Laurence Olivier, Leslie Howard, Raymond Massey, and others. They are true-blooded Canadians, who stand up for their country, against oppression and tyranny.

49th Parallel in some ways forms an interesting counterweight to One of Our Aircraft Is Missing, Powell’s and Pressburger’s joint project from the following year. Both films share the theme of a crew that has lost their vessel and now have to make their way through enemy territory. The two stories share many similarities, but through the filter of propaganda they still emerge as completely different films. They are also very good, so I can only recommend that you download and watch both.

This film is best enjoyed for its powerful and well played drama. Even though Powell and Pressburger were yet to develop their true mastership in film making, we can already see many of the techniques that were to be used to make some of the best films in the history of cinema. 49th Parallel may not be quite up to that standard, but it is still excellent.

Peter Moore and Leslie Howard in 49th Parallel (1941)

49th Parallel
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Year: 1941
Running time: 2 h 2 min
Director: Michael Powell
Stars: Laurence Olivier, Raymond Massey, Leslie Howard
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (664×502, not counting black border)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.2 G)

A Diary for Timothy (1945)

It is 1945. The tide of war has finally turned in Great Britain’s favour. The Germans are retreating on all fronts, and victory is now more than just a vague dream. But many cities in southern England are in ruins, and the V2 rockets are still a very real threat. It is into this world that Timothy is born. As a tribute to him, director Humphrey Jennings tells the story of A Diary for Timothy.

A Diary for Timothy (1945)

I am not sure if Timothy actually existed, but whether he did or not is of minor importance. In this film, the infant baby is a storytelling device, and an effective one. Though the film is not really about Timothy, or his mother, the film repeatedly returns to them and their home in Oxfordshire.

But the stories told in this film are about other people. About the Air Force pilot recovering from his wounds. About the coal miner doing his best to produce as much coal as possible for the war effort.

This is pure propaganda, and well made. It stresses how both military and civilian personnel must work together to take Britain through the war. As a factual documentary, A Diary for Timothy has very little to offer, even though many factual events are doubtlessly recorded.

This film is best enjoyed for its effectively woven image of a strong and resilient country. A country that will not give in, no matter what. Additionally, it is interesting because of its narration, written by famous author E. M. Forster.

A Diary for Timothy (1945)

A Diary for Timothy
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Year: 1945
Running time: 37 min
Director: Humphrey Jennings
Stars: Michael Redgrave (narrator)
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (768×576)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.4 G)