When this Russian film was made in 1959, it was the middle of the Cold War. American audiences certainly didn't see it. If we had, it would have softened our impressions of Russians, who were always depicted as cruel monsters whose only desire was to bury America. And yet, WW2 was devastating for them as it was fought on their soil and so many died. "Ballad of a Soldier" is the story of one such soldier.
We first meet 19-year old Alyosha as he is cowering in a foxhole on the front. We can identify with his fear at the German tanks that are advancing. He runs to a machine gun and shoots at the tanks. To his surprise, he hits a tank and destroys it. He keeps shooting and manages to destroy a second tank. All of a sudden he's a hero and his commanding officer wants to give him a medal. "Please, sir" he begs. "Instead of a medal, please give me one day's leave to see my mother." The hard-hearted officer is touched, and gives the young man a six-day pass.
It would be a two-day trip each way even at the best of times. But now it is wartime. And it's a difficult journey. Along the way we meets a one-legged soldier who's reluctant to face life, a lovely young woman who Alyosha begins to love, an unfaithful wife who he shames, and old man who he gives hope. He has to bribe his way into a train. And is traveling on another train when a bridge is destroyed. But he is determined to make it to his village to see his mother, even if it is just to give her one big hug before he has to return to the front. It's a wonderful story, full of setbacks and tension and just plain human feelings.
Filmed it black and white, and a mere 89 minutes long, it contains images of Russia that Americans rarely see. The countryside is devastated, but yet there's a spirit of a hearty people full of grit and determination to survive. It's a sad story too, and bittersweet. By the end of the film I was sobbing out loud. This is a fine film. Highly recommended.