Torpedo Bombers Review

Compared with Ballad of a Soldier, Come and See and The Cranes Are Flying, all of which were previously acclaimed in the West decades before their DVD release, Semyon Aronovich's Torpedo Bombers is to all intents and purposes unknown in English-speaking countries, though apparently it has a pretty solid reputation in Russia for its realistic and unsentimental portrayal of how the war affected both combatants and civilians.

Set largely on a snowbound marine Soviet air force base during World War II, Torpedo Bombers portrays men trying to live normal lives with their wives, girlfriends, would-be girlfriends and children, despite being constantly overshadowed by the threat that they might be called up for a bombing raid at any moment, and that they or their friends might not come back.

Tellingly, the first scene features an airman and his wife discussing how to make love without their baby noticing - and before any combat situation flares up the film takes care to show the individual contribution made by everyone on the base, from the pilots to the ground crew to the auxiliary nurses as they prepare the torpedos, check the planes, exercise with improvised barbells, read letters from home, or just engage in idle chit-chat to keep spirits up. Camaraderie is everything, which is why Major Plotnikov doesn't take any action when one of his underlings says something facetious during an inspection - he knows the laughter is a vital safety valve for men who might be dead by nightfall.

The major combat set-pieces are staged via a mixture of dramatised reconstruction and authentic World War II footage of genuine bombing raids. I don't know whether this was a budget-saving device, but it works thrillingly well in context, adding a sense of scale and realism that a mere reconstructed dramatisation probably couldn't convey. This is further enhanced by considerable attention to detail in terms of the pilots' individual experience.

There are two large-scale battles, the first of which is near the beginning, and is shockingly immediate (especially at the climax, which has a particularly powerful resonance post-September 11), the second of which is at the very end, and is far more emotionally intense, as we've come to know and care about the pilots and their crew (I won't give away spoilers, though, as the chances are hardly anyone reading this will have seen the film).

These two major action set-pieces bookend the film's emotional core, as the survivors of the first battle clean up after it and come to terms with their loss and both they and their loved ones attempt to live halfway normal lives while preparing logistically, mentally and emotionally for the next showdown.

There's no central storyline as such - we get brief glimpses into the lives of Belobrov, Gavrilov, Cherepets, the unnervingly young Semouzhkin and their comrades as they cope in their own particular ways: drinking, partying, attempted seduction, embezzling food rations, adopting pet rabbits, trying to break the record for hanging by one's teeth from a leather belt, and so on. Meanwhile, should Nastya get romantically involved with Belobrov so soon after her sister Shoura has learned the hardest possible way what romance with a pilot might bring in its wake?

Director Semyon Aranovich eschews pyrotechnics for low-key realism and acute observation of the kind of low-key, seemingly banal but often revealing details that more sweeping war films generally omit - the still-steaming thermos found next to the frozen corpse of the pilot of a shot-down Messerschmitt arguably conveys a stronger impression of sudden, violent death than a recreation of the crash itself would have done; a toast at a party "to heroism" amid much drinking and singing is overshadowed by posters of the men who gave their lives for precisely that reason.

Aranovich's film reminded me very much of the war films that Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat were making in Britain in the 1940s - especially Millions Like Us (1943), which had a similarly understated, diffuse approach to conveying the effect of war on an entire nation: not just those doing the actual fighting. That film was a revelation to me when I researched British war films recently, and in its own quiet way Torpedo Bombers has as much if not more to offer than quite a few higher-profile, more eye-catching efforts.

Watching this DVD, I had the strong impression that most picture quality issues stemmed from the original material. The print is in adequate rather than optimum condition - there are quite a few spots and scratches (and not just on the archive footage), not to mention some noticeable colour shifts. It's certainly not bad, but compared with the far older The Cranes Are Flying it hasn't been preserved anything like as well - but to a large extent this works in the film's favour, accentuating the almost documentary feel, poles apart from the stylised Expressionism of the earlier film.

The transfer, though, is generally very good indeed - very sharp and clear, with plenty of fine detail even in some very dingy settings. Russian films carried on using 4:3 for years if not decades after the West abandoned it as a big-screen format - I can't see any evidence that this wasn't the original aspect ratio of Torpedo Bombers (there's no sign of cropping, for instance), and so there was never any need for anamorphic enhancement.

As ever with this label, the sound is presented in three versions: Russian, English and French, all 5.1 remixes from a mono source. Often, this works well (especially in the large-scale combat and partying set-pieces when we're drawn right into the action, with the subwoofer pumping up explosions), but as with the picture the original materials seem less than brilliantly preserved: I detected quite a few dropouts and intermittent hiss, and the recording quality is occasionally somewhat tinny. It does its job, but not much more - and, again, older films on this label have had rather better treatment.

The English subtitles, though, are mostly fine - I can forgive some of the more tortured rhymes in the song lyrics, as these things are always impossible to translate without sacrificing accuracy for effect (or vice versa). There are twenty chapter stops - ample for a relatively brief film.

The extras kick off with the usual Ruscico package: the generic Ruscico trailer, a well-designed gallery (ten film stills plus the poster) and a set of filmographies for director Semyon Aranovich, cameraman Vladimir Ilyin and actors Andrey Boltnev, Vera Glagoleva, Rodion Nakhapetov, Alexei Zharkov and a chance to wonder about what on earth films with titles like Herdsboy with a Cucumber (1972), A Slap in the Face That Wasn't (1987) or Oysters From Lausanne (1992) could possibly be about (none of these is included in the Ruscico catalogue, so I suspect we'll never find out!).

Sadly, none of the filmographies contains the buried trailers that sometimes crop up here - but there are five elsewhere: Torpedo Bombers itself plus four other Russian war films - At Dawn It's Quiet Here, Ballad of a Soldier, The Cranes are Flying and Father of the Soldier.

So far so standard, but things get rather more intriguing with a section cryptically entitled 'Run-Way' [sic], which turns out to contain three archive newsreels-cum-propaganda films, Winged Marine Guards (2:48) , Guards' Air Squadron (1:45) and Marine Scouts (3:05). None of them is specifically dated, but it's pretty clear they originate from World War II, and the function of each is broadly similar: to present Russian fighter pilots in the most flattering light possible (all four pilots in Winged Marine Guards are individually introduced as "Hero of the Soviet Union"). All are presented in the original Russian with optional English, French or Russian subtitles, and the picture and sound quality is decidedly ropey - but this doesn't really come as much of a surprise. Marine Scouts is comfortably the most exciting, largely because it contains aerial footage of bombardments, whereas the other two films focus more on the preparation on the ground.

The strangest extra presents two World War II songs, 'Sacred War' (3:24) and 'Goodbye Rocky Mountains' (2:31). The first of these is accompanied by reproduction of what I presume is the sheet music cover, and which is the stirring, martial choral song, while the second is backed by a changing montage of wartime poster images and is rather more folk-influenced, with several solo passages. Sadly, no printed lyrics, translations, subtitles or notes are provided, which is something of a missed opportunity, especially as the songs are somewhat repetitive musically. They're clearly sourced from original 78 recordings - there's plenty of telltale crackle and hiss.

This isn't one of the more outstanding Ruscico discs - it really stands or falls on the quality of the main feature, which I suspect is rather more evocative to Russian audiences: it certainly doesn't have the emotional punch of The Cranes Are Flying or Ballad of a Soldier or the gut-wrenching intensity of its near-contemporary Come and See. That said, it's a moving and often poignant film that goes a fair way towards humanising a particularly bitter conflict from the point of view of the side that sacrificed the most - and in many ways it's the film's unpretentiousness that is its greatest strength.

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