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Enemy at the Gates

Opinionated Editor's note: I actually wanted to see this movie, and not because it had Joseph Fiennes and Jude Law in it (they were so grimy and unshaven most of the time that if that had been my reason I would have been pretty disappointed). I enjoyed this movie very much. But Owen knows a lot more about war than me, so he gets to write the review.

Enemy at the gates begins with a very young russian boy lying in wait with a rifle for a troublesome wolf. In this scene, a horse is staked out as bait for the ravening beast, for whom the trap has been laid.

You would, as a student of the Second World War, have to be pretty thick not to realize that the Wolf is Nazi Germany, the Horse is Stalingrad, and that the young boy from the Urals lying in wait is the nasty trick that the Russians played in the Spring of 1943.

But enough of literary allusions to the great events of history. The real question has to be, "So, like, is it a good movie?" The answer, in short, is yeah. Think of it as Saving Private Ryan, only you don't have to sit through all that annoying stuff about how great America is and how _they_ were the ones who saved the world from the Nazis. Remember that by the time the Yanks had seen their first combat with the Nazis in North Aftica, the events of this film had already taken place, and the Russians were forcing the Germans to retreat back towards the Fatherland.

Jude Law plays a young peasant boy fromt he Urals, who just happens to be a crack shot with a rifle, a handy skill for a sniper, dontchaknow. Joseph Fiennes is great as the idealistic political commisar (a wonderful contrast to the pistol and megaphone toting caricatures throughout the rest of the film who seem to delight in shooting their own men) who makes Jude Law into a Hero of the People. Unfortunately there's this girl who gets in the way, falling in love with Jude Law, while simultaneously Joseph Fiennes falls in love with her. I rather think that this was a plot device thrown out to the audiences who can't seem to sit through a two hour movie without any sex in it. I rather think that this movie would have been just as good if it had been about the struggle of the putative New Soviet Man against the Evil Facist Invader, and how the human spirit cannot be overcome with political rhetoric. Another rather unnecessary character was the metal-toothed russian master sniper who had trained under Ed Harris's German Major. His only role in the film seemed to have been to make a speech about how the Soviet Union wasn't all the propaganda cracked it up to be. Even if you went into this film without any idea of what life was like in the Stalinist era in Russia, there are plenty of examples to ensure you have the idea without having to have a toothless old sniper actually have to explain his metal teeth with the following line, "There was no sickle, but there was a hammer." I mean, how heavy handed is that? Like, political officers machinegunning retreating soldiers and the wounded wasn't clear enough? It was a tough time all around eh?

Ed Harris may have seemed too sympathetic a character for some, considering he was portraying a high ranking German officer. I think that he was simply an attempt at a depiction of the tremendously conflicted psyche of the older professionals of the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front. Surrounded by Nazi political superiors and former Hitler-youth subourdinates, the old professionals of Harris's vintage who had not grown up with Nazi propaganda, but rather with the unquestioning professionalism of the old Prussian Army, would have had some trouble managing to fit into the situation. Furthermore, the rather atrocious war crime he commits towards the end of the movie could be seen in a couple of ways. First, it could be a way for the director to try desperately to convince us that Ed Harris really, really is an evil Nazi, or it could be an expression of the dehumanization that was experienced by all soldiers on the Eastern Front. I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

The scope of the visuals in this movie is incredible. The scene in which Jude Law's infantry unit is first being ferried across the Volga into battle was just as gripping if not more so than the landing scene in Saving Private Ryan, if for no other reason than the sense of sheer desperation of the Russians. In Saving Private Ryan, the Americans had total air superiority, artillery support, and by the end of the day pretty much outnumbered and outgunned the local forces. In this film, the fact of German air superiority is spelled out frequently throughout the film, as Stuka Dive bombers make mincemeat of the ragtag convoy of river barges carrying troops, and throughout the movie as seemingly random bombing raids move the rubble around in what was once Stalingrad.

The story, insofar as there was one, was fairly engaging. Telling the story of Stalingrad through the eyes of a foot soldier is a bit like telling the story of an abbatoir through the eyes of a cow, but it works nicely up to a point. You receive some sense of the desperation of close street fighting and the confusion that surrounded the battle, but it seems to have been glossed over in favour of telling a comprehensible story, which I suppose is alright. The one problem that I had was that at the end of the movie they cut rather short and simply put a newsreel style voice over pictures of long lines of Germans with hands in the air, "We have defeated the armies of the Facist invader" or some such. Had the reality of how the battle was won at Stalingrad, the entire audience could have enjoyed the irony that Jude Law was really the Horse, and not the hunter or the wolf, not just students of history. I really believe that the best way to make this a better _war_ movie would have been to have cut out the romance and added in a few shots of Marshal Zukhov planning the great counter-attack that broke the long German left flank and the envelopment that followed.

Anyway, this movie was very good, I'd watch it again on DVD, maybe even buy it if it had some good special features. It gets four and a half pints, but they are pints of wartime ersatz beer, and they are in those big German Mugs.

Score: Four and a half Pints

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