Film Review from the September 1958 issue of the Socialist Standard
Recently many film critics and many picturegoers have clapped their hands at the end of films that deal with war; the war with all the dead and wounded, the war with all the bullets and shells. Somewhere in these films we find the hero mumbles something that clearly shows how “confused” or “unnecessary'’ wars really are. “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” “Paths of Glory,” and “The Young Lions” are a few examples. “The Unknown Soldier” (shown at the Academy) has more bullets fired, and more blood spilled than any of them. It also provides a record of war that is seemingly harsh but really quite accurate in its two-hour-plus description of the Finnish army's advance and subsequent retreat in Russia during 1941.
The director, Edvin Laine, employed a largely unprofessional cast in the making of this first war film from Finland. There are no real heroes, certainly not in the Hollywood U.S. Marine tradition, for it is obvious from just ten minutes of this film that however unflinching heroes may be they rarely live to see the medals handed out.
A handful of agricultural workers forming a National Service machine gun detachment are the centre of the film’s interest. They are shown from their first time in uniform as awkward recruits, to their final savage battles in retreat from the overwhelming Russian army.
Presenting a faithful picture of war it does not employ any of the patriotic devices usual to most war films. Most noticeable is the absence of the enemy—the Russians. They are seen here and there marching or advancing as a body, but never are they identified as the aggressors by means of propagandist tricks showing the enemy as the rapers, monsters, and barbarians which is also common to war films. A typical example of the portrayal of the Russians is a marching column in the snow, vague figures in heavy uniforms. Two Finns sit behind a machine gun ready to fire upon the unsuspecting soldiers; one speaks, “If that bastard has a maker, start forgiving his sins now, and quickly!" This sums up the attitude of the film to the enemy.
Finns are not shown as brave and relentless fighters, everyone of them living proof of the term “plucky little Finland.” Many of them are shown as fools and cowards, two of them are shot for indiscipline.
A bitter humour pervades the film. As the detachment force their way into Karelia then suffer severe losses during the retreat the soldiers become unmoved by violent death; it has no real significance..
In a review in the Observer (Sunday, June 13) C. A. Lejeune says: “‘The Unknown Soldier’ is a rough work with certain qualities of greatness, but to watch it is a great ordeal.”
No punches are pulled, and scenes are brutal and horrifying in an arms-and-legs-all-over-the-screen fashion.
The final conclusion is that all the killing, all the dying, all the shooting and all the fear has been something of a waste of time. Forlorn and pathetic the soldiers stand in the trees of a vast forest, last shots have been fired, the sun shines through the tree tops. Voices swell in a last triumphant anthem and everybody is glad because of peace. Peace that is silence and the sun shining—the only trite device used by the director.
“The Unknown Soldier” is a war film that shows men, who have worked all of their lives, suddenly fighting. They fight because they have to. But no reason is given for war, nobody knows why, because if they did they would not be fighting.
“For religion and home" the soldiers cry together, a scared group of men who yell because it gives them courage. They fight so they can go home to their families and work hard and forget about it. The violence and fear are to be forgotten, put aside, just as any attempt to think why the soldiers fought was to be put aside. They would have no other choice but to go home and work after the war, but they would not think of that either.