Issue 53 (2016)

Fedor Dmitriev: The Fortress: With Shield and Sword (Krepost’ shchitom i mechom, 2015)

reviewed by Natalie Kononenko© 2016

krepostIt is the beginning of the seventeenth century and the Smolensk fortress is about to be attacked by a mighty Polish force. As the film opens, we see the famous winged Hussars approaching the city, along with countless infantry. In Smolensk itself all is quiet. Two boys, a young monk named Fedor and our hero, the rag-tag Sashka, are working in a bakery. Only Sashka has bombs rather than bread on his mind. Instead of mixing the dough as he ought to, he fills it with gunpowder and sticks in a wick. Just as the head baker comes in, one of the dough bombs that Sashka had hidden in the rafters falls down, lands near the oven, and explodes. Furious, the baker sets off in pursuit of Sashka. The boy momentarily escapes, only to be captured and whipped. Fedor tries to tend to Sashka, but Sashka seeks no comfort: he speaks of escaping his lot when his father comes to fetch him and take him to Moscow. Having heard the story of the father-rescuer before, Fedor is skeptical. When Sashka insists, however, Fedor asks to be taken along, giving Sashka the idea that the two should go on their own rather than waiting for an adult to save them. To test their mettle, the boys go to the graveyard in the middle of the night. Frightened by one thing and then another, the boys start to flee, only to run into the Polish encampment. They decide that Fedor will alert Smolensk while Sashka distracts the enemy with his remaining dough bomb. The bomb does little damage and Sashka runs back to the fortress where he comes upon Voevoda Shein, the military commander, preparing his men for the impending attack. Sashka and Fedor want to join in the fight but are rejected because of their youth.

It is at this point that the fortress deacon joins the action. Noting that Fedor is educated and can read and write, he takes the boy into his service. Sashka is left with nothing to do and no companion. As he keeps insisting that he be allowed to help, the Voevoda tells him to go make his foodstuff bombs.  Sashka takes this mission seriously and goes to steal dough, then powder. As he is stealing powder, he is seen. More importantly, however, he spots a rope and a masked man climbing it. He tries to pull the man back down and cannot. The man cuts the rope and Sashka is forced to let go. When he runs up the stairs to where the man must have entered the building, Sashka, finds the remains of the hanging rope and, attached to it, a Catholic cross, which Sashka takes.

krepostBy this point the attacks on Smolensk have begun and we see the Russian forces engaged in courageous battle. The Poles, guided by a fat, beardless, and cunning Cardinal who acts as the advisor to Sigismund III, the Polish commander, and frequently overrides the decisions of the hetman, plan to use a sophisticated battering ram to break the main gate, let in the Polish cavalry, and take the city. The Russians see the battering ram and surmise what is being planned. Voevoda Shein, in consultation with his men, form a counter-plan. They will set off a small explosion near the gate to fool the enemy into thinking that the gate has been breached, let the enemy approach, then hit them with all of their firepower at close range. The plan works perfectly—except for one thing—when the Russians go to fire their cannons, they discover that they are useless. The powder has been sabotaged and, instead of propelling shot over great distances, it merely pushes the cannonball out of the barrel, where it plops ineffectually. The problem is soon discovered—the gunpowder has been mixed with sand and Sashka is accused of the dirty deed. As punishment, he is exiled to an old bathhouse somewhere outside the fortress.

In the bathhouse Sashka encounters an old man whom he takes for something like a bathhouse spirit, a supposition that will prove to be prescient. The old man shows Sashka underground passages and the boy returns inside the fortress where he finds Fedor and shows him the cross and tells him about the spy in their midst. Fedor takes the cross to return it and soon we see his lifeless body being dragged away. In the meantime, the battle resumes and the Poles try further sabotage. This time the saboteur floods the clay deposit and deprives the Russians of the means of casting cannonballs. Strangely enough, back in the bathhouse, the old man has Sashka fetch clay to repair his stove, which turns out to be just the sort of clay needed by the defenders of Smolensk. This clay is discovered by the Voevoda and his men when they realize that no boy could have hauled the heavy sacks of sand used to ruin the gunpowder. With the uncanny intervention of the old man, Sashka has saved the Russians. As he is running back and forth through the tunnels that connect the bathhouse to the fortress, Sashka discovers another surreptitious attack planned by the Poles, namely barrels full of gunpowder about be detonated. He manages to disable the majority of the cache and sends the last barrel rolling toward the enemy where it explodes next to the Sigismund and his advisor-Cardinal. On one of his forays into town Sashka also discovers that it is the deacon who is the owner of the Catholic cross and understands that it is he who is the saboteur.

krepostThe Poles now plan to bring in a huge monster cannon and Voevoda Shein sends Nikolai, his right-hand man, to mark the location of the cannon with a torch so that it can be blown up before it can damage Smolensk. Sashka wants to help but is sent by the Voevoda with a message to Moscow. As Sashka sets out, the old man of the bathhouse gives him a mysterious package. Traveling through the pouring rain, Sashka realizes that the message is blank and meant to get him out of harm’s way. He also discovers that the scout sent to locate the cannon has been mortally wounded. Sashka valiantly tries to light the man’s torch, but it is useless because of the rain. Sashka pulls out the old man’s package and it turns out to be a lantern which serves the purpose that the torch could not. The defenders of Smolensk blow up the cannon, but the deacon, now armed and on horseback, gives chase to the fleeing boy.

All through the film Sashka had talked about a magic defender of the Russians, a Tsar of the Fiery Shield, who always shows up in times of need. Everyone keeps telling the boy that this Tsar is just a fairy tale. When Sashka is in mortal danger, however, this magic being does appear. He defeats the evil black deacon and saves our hero. When the magic Tsar of the Fiery Shield removes his helmet, he reveals himself to be the old man of the bathhouse. He takes Sashka to a glowing bathhouse in the sky where Fedor now lives. 

krepostThe film ends with an epilogue. We learn that the fortress of Smolensk withstood the Polish attack for two more years before it fell. Voevoda Shein was taken captive and allowed to return only eight years later. The final scene shows a now greying Voevoda who, upon return, sees the now almost adult Sashka and is comforted by the realization that the ability of Smolensk to deter the Polish advance helped save Moscow.

The Fortress: With Shield and Sword is a significant departure for Mel’nitsa. Instead of the mix of classic Russian heroes and slapstick comedy, a combination that characterized films such as the Three Knights (Tri Bogatyria) series, this is a tale with no comedy. Sashka’s misunderstanding of the ways of adults is more sweet than funny. There is no love story like in the Three Knights films and also in the films of the Ivan Tsarevich and the Grey Wolf series. This is a film about men struggling in battle and that alone.

The animation style, like the plotline, is straightforward. Human bodies, with the exception of those of the Polish king and his advisor-Cardinal, are not exaggerated and made to appear funny. Visually, the film is quite intricate and lovely. Its style is somewhere between that used by Hayao Miyazaki in Princess Mononoke (1997) and the rotoscoping technique of the Soviet films of the 1950s and 60s. Rotoscoping involves filming live actors and then drawing over their images, producing very life-like animated figures. It is enormously time-consuming and expensive. This is not the technique used here because of its expense. Yet, between straight animation and computer enhancement, Mel’nitsa manages to produce a visually gorgeous film.

krepostBecause of its straight-forward plot and its visual beauty, Fortress: With Shield and Sword is a much more successful narrative than the Mel’nitsa films where the filmmakers tried to take classic byliny (epic songs) or skazki (folktales) and make them modern by mixing in contemporary references. While there are no contemporary references in this film, it is tempting to consider what its intended messages might be. The title of the film is an obvious reference to Henryk Sienkiewicz’s With Fire and Sword (1884), a novel and, later, a 1999 live-action film about the conflict between the Poles and the East Slavs, in this case the Ukrainians. Of course while Sienkiewicz presents the Poles as admirable and heroic, this film does just the opposite. The Poles are the enemy. They are pictured in a most unattractive way. King Sigismund III is effete. His clothes and his body shape contrast strikingly to the massive gym-body of the Russian Voevoda. All of the men of Smolensk, though not as tall as the Voevoda, are solid and broad-shouldered. The Polish commander is served by a hetman. His ethnicity is not made clear but this could be an allusion to the Ukrainian Cossack forces which were then in the service of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The hetman is ineffectual. The real mastermind behind the Polish attack is a fat and hairless Cardinal, one obviously given to food, if not other pleasures of the flesh. He controls the deacon/saboteur inside Smolensk. He comes up with the various plans of attack and the plots to ruin the gunpowder, destroy the clay needed for casting cannon balls, and to blow up the city by planting an explosion in an underground tunnel. He is shown to have an economic interest in the capture of the city, albeit on behalf of a relative.

krepostWhat does this all mean? Are these references to the contemporary political situation? Is Mel’nitsa making statements on behalf of the government? Are we—or rather the Russian audience—supposed to understand the misguided, if not outright evil, nature of Western ideas, such as the Catholicism of the Poles? The anti-Catholic messages of this film are quite striking and disturbing. In previous Mel’nitsa films the enemy had always been Asiatic. Now the enemies are fellow Slavs.

While the Catholic Poles are shown to be greedy and conniving, the simple folk, the townspeople of Smolensk, are repeatedly portrayed as naive and superstitious. When the baker catches Sashka stealing dough in the middle of the night, he takes him for a demon (nechistyi). Later the deacon takes advantage of public gullibility to scare the residents of Smolensk with a mask provided by the Cardinal. Fedor’s willingness to believe in the goodness of the men he serves, both the baker and the deacon, leads to his death. Is this meant to imply that the Russian people cannot survive without guidance from a powerful leader?

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this film is the portrayal of our young hero, Sashka. He is tremendously endearing. His eagerness to help and to serve others, his willingness to sacrifice himself, his belief in a greater power are all very attractive. At the same time, the child is a war-monger. He longs for war. Fighting is all he looks forward to. When Voevoda Shein urges him to go and play, he will have none of it. He wants to make bombs, or undertake a surveillance mission—anything that is related to military conflict. It is he who constantly speaks of the Tsar with the Fiery Shield and the omens that portend war. Is this an indication of future Russian plans? 

Natalie Kononenko
University of Alberta

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Fortress: With Shield and Sword, Russia 2015
Color, 76 minutes
Director: Fedor Dmitriev
Script: Aleksandr Boiarskii
Composer: Mikhail Chertishchev
Voices: Elena Sul’man (Sashka); Petr Fedorov (Mikhail Borisovich Shein, the Voevoda); Ekaterina Gorokhovskaia (Fedor); Vadim Nikitin (old man in the bathhouse); Evgenii Stychkin (Sigismund III, the Polish king); Sergei Russkin (Polish Cardinal); Oleg Kulikovich (Aleksei Ivanovich); Aleksandr Boiarskii (Filimon, the baker); Mikhail Khrustalev (Nikolai, the Voevoda’s right hand man)
Producers: Sergei Sel’ianov and Aleksandr Boiarskii
Production Studio: Mel’nitsa

Fedor Dmitriev: The Fortress: With Shield and Sword (Krepost’ shchitom i mechom, 2015)

reviewed by Natalie Kononenko© 2016

Updated: 04 Jul 16