Issue 41 (2013)

Oleg Fesenko: 1812. Ballad of the Uhlans (1812. Ulanskaia ballada, 2012)

reviewed by Frederick C. Corney © 2013

1812A film entitled 1812, released on the bicentenary of Russia’s first Patriotic War (otechestvennaia voina), might reasonably be expected to arouse certain hopes in the knowledgeable viewer. Perhaps a young filmmaker is applying the latest digital wizardry to update earlier celluloid versions of this war, such as the Franco-Russian production, 1812, which aired in 1912, or the 1944 Soviet version of the same name. Perhaps the subtitle, Ballad of the Uhlans, promised to evoke memories in some older citizens of the much-loved musical from the Soviet era about the Napoleonic Wars, Ballad of the Hussars (Gusarskaia ballada, 1962). Perhaps the film would even arouse disquiet in the more world-weary watcher about yet another heavy-handed installment in the resurrection of great Russian nationalism.

1812Oleg Fesenko (Streetracers, 2008) has directed a film that fulfills no such expectations or fears. It has neither the pretensions nor the ability to do so. The opening sequence is promisingly imaginative, as the action on the ground is revealed through the lens of two observers in a steampunk-style dirigible. The director obviously intends to allude to the old romantic adventures based on Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, with the action moved to picturesque settings in Russia, Belarus, and Poland, and the earlier 17th century costumes replaced with extravagant Russian, French, and Polish costumes of the 19th century. The action opens somewhere near Borodino, soon to be the site of the decisive battle in 1812 between the French forces under the Emperor Napoleon and the Russian forces under Marshal Kutuzov. The D’Artagnan figure here, the young Russian noble Aleksei Tarusov (Anton Sokolov), has discovered that a spy, Count De Witt (Valerii Nikolaev), has revealed to Napoleon the disposition of the Russian forces. Aleksei informs Kutuzov of this, and the marshal sends his three best lancers (uhlans), played by Sergei Bezrukov, Anatolii Belyi, and Stanislav Duzhnikov, to capture the spy. In a side-story, the Emperor Alexander also wants them to retrieve the imperial crown that has been purloined during the French occupation of Moscow. A series of adventures ensue, bookending a clichéd romantic triangle involving Aleksei, his object of affection Beate (Anna Chipovskaia), and the spy De Witt who wants to force her to marry him. In the resolution of the film, as in Dumas’ tale, young Aleksei is trained in sword-fighting by his comrades, and eventually avenges an earlier embarrassing defeat at the hands of the spy and master swordsman, De Witt. Aleksei returns the crown to Tsar Alexander, receives a medal, gets the girl, and, like D’Artagnan, is finally accepted into the band of brothers.

1812So does it work? It certainly has all of the eye-catching elements that generally feature in these kinds of romanticized historical adventures: attractive actors, pretty costumes (the costumes and weapons were in many cases originals) and evocative settings (the final fight sequence takes place above a castle near Wrocław), sword fights and brawls galore, a “reenactment” of the Battle of Borodino, mustache-twirling intrigue and betrayal, comradely banter and derring-do. The dirigible provides the setting for the final fight sequence between Aleksei and De Witt over Beate. Unfortunately, the film has a tedious and rote feel about it. The scenes feel like a mish-mash of scenes and cinematic techniques seen all too often in a myriad other films where they have at least been executed with more finesse. The action dashes so breathlessly from fight scene to fight scene that they soon all blend into one. Enemy bullets rarely seem to hit their targets, and our heroes’ sabers always kill with one cut or thrust. Noteworthy for all the wrong reasons is the threadbare version of the Battle of Borodino. The director was apparently only able to muster a few dozen extras, or perhaps the uniforms were in short supply. Frequent recourse to explosions helped produce plenty of useful smoke. The director also distracts from the lack of personnel by (over)compensating with frequent slow-motion takes. At the crucial moment where a saber thrust meets a soldier’s tunic, Fesenko invariably slows down the action. Unfortunately, the slow-motion merely highlights the poor execution of many of the fight scenes, sometimes rendering them almost comical. Every recent special effects-assisted cliché is crammed into this film.

1812If comedy is the intention in this film, it does not really work. The strong and silent member of our “Musketeers” often resorts to whatever is at hand to vanquish his enemies in battle, a cannon barrel at Borodino, a leg of meat in a tavern brawl, but the effect is tired. There have certainly been humorous adaptations of the Dumas’ tales, notably the genuinely funny The Four Musketeers (1974) by Richard Lester, but 1812 is not one of them. I did find amusing the scene in which the three lancers try to persuade Beate to jump from the dirigible, adrift high in the sky, into the makeshift safety net of their interlocked hands, while still holding their sabers, although I’m not sure this was intentionally funny. Finally, even the sound that accompanies 1812 is distracting. In the opening 20 minutes or so, French dialogue is overdubbed with Russian, making for a very distracting cacophony of voices. It is common in films today to slow down violent action and accompany it with soaring symphonic chords. This can work brilliantly, as in Master and Commander (2003) when the sounds of cannon-fire in one epic battle are gradually eclipsed by the soft strains of ‘Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.’ Fesenko cannot resist trying this, accompanying some fight scenes with cloying duets. More effective is his use of an 1812 poem, Ia liubliu krovavyi boi (I love a gory battle), by Denis Davydov, a participant in the campaign. It is set to music by Maksim Dunaevskii, and sung by three of the actors, Bezrukov, Belyi, and Sokolov, in a guttural rendering à la Vysotsky, which offers an interesting counterpoint to the mayhem in these scenes, although it is also overused throughout the film.

1812Still, this is one of the few marginally bright spots in the film. For the most part, 1812 seems like a tired pastiche of scenes from other films and poorly executed cinematic techniques. The director just seems to be going through the motions here, and his actors seem to have followed his lead (at least those who were not gratuitously over-emoting throughout). The disgruntled viewer, although it is hard to identify the intended audience for this film, might be entertained by looking for continuity errors, such as the disappearing and reappearing snow in the final fight sequence aboard the dirigible.  

Frederick C. Corney
The College of William & Mary

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1812. Ballad of the Uhlans, Russia, 2012]
Color, 135 minutes
Director: Oleg Fesenko
Script: Gleb Shprigov
Camera: Arunas Baraznauskas
Editing: Karolina Machievska, Igor’ Pashkevich
Sound: Maksim Dunaevskii
Cast: Sergei Bezrukov, Anna Chipovskaia, Anton Sokolov, Vladimir Gostiukhin, Erik Fraticelli, Dmitrii Isaev, Valerii Nikolaev
Producer: Gleb Shprigov
Production: Central Partnership, Television Producers' Center

Oleg Fesenko: 1812. Ballad of the Uhlans (1812. Ulanskaia ballada, 2012)

reviewed by Frederick C. Corney © 2013