ENEMY AT THE GATES, a gripping, visually stunning WW2 epic directed, produced and co-written by Jean-Jacques Annaud, was based on the real-life Soviet soldier Vasily Zaitsev and his role in the giant and crucial 1942 battle of Stalingrad. Annaud and co-writer Alain Godard (The Name Of The Rose) fashioned their mostly fictionalized script based on three pages out of William Craig’s 1973 book “Enemy At The Gates: The Battle for Stalingrad”. *
“My name… is Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev. I’ve come to take things in hand here. This city… is not Kursk, nor is it Kiev, nor Minsk. This city… is Stalingrad. Stalingrad! This city bears the name of the Boss.”
Upon his traumatic arrival in the war-torn city of Stalingrad, young Soviet marksman Vasily Zeitsev (Jude Law) finds it’s not only battle-hardened Nazi troops he has to deal with. With Wehrmacht firepower in front, and Red-manned machine guns ready to mow down anyone who retreats, survival is a matter of preternatural luck. His skill as a sniper has him elevated to a national hero by ambitious political officer ‘Danilov’ (Joseph Fiennes), working under the gun (literally) of Soviet dictator Stalin’s blunt-instrument point man Nikita Khrushchev (Bob Hoskins). Vasily finds furtive solace with comely comrade Tania Chernova (Rachel Weisz), but his future and theirs may rest in the steady hands and cold telescopic site of ace German sniper ‘Maj. Erwin König’ (Ed Harris), tasked with killing the killer of so many of his equally desperate comrades.
Shot in Germany, Annaud’s proven mastery at delivering striking visual experiences (Quest For Fire, The Bear, The Name Of The Rose, Seven Years In Tibet) ensures a richly detailed look to his $68,000,000 battlefield, with superb cinematography from Robert Fraisse, remarkable production design by Wolf Kroeger (The Last Of The Mohicans) and a suitably emotional score from James Horner. The vivid action scenes are terrific, especially the panoramic spectacle at the beginning. The actors are all good, particularly Harris (calm and deadly as an iceberg), Hoskins (pressure-cooking pure will and venom) and Ron Perlman, as one of Vasily’s comrades, philosophically resigned to misery and injustice.
The film came in for some heated criticism from Red Army veterans, who cited numerous inaccuracies. Hard to imagine anyone who lived through that inferno would be satisfied with a movie version. Though its downbeat subject and treatment only summoned 50th place in the States (“Is Stalingrad a new Volvo?”), its worldwide gross came to $96,970,000. Academy Award nominations were AWOL. With Gabriel Marshall-Thomson (as the real-life boy spy Sasha Filippov), Eva Mattes, Matthias Habich and Sophie Rois. 131 minutes.
* Vasily Zaitsev (1915-1991) killed 265 enemy soldiers. Lyudmila Pavlichenko (1916-1974), aka “Lady Death”, the real-life counterpart of the character ‘Ludmilla’, played by Sophie Rois, took out 309. One of history’s bloodiest and most decisive battles has been fought in movies six times. The others: from the Soviet Union in 1949, a two-parter The Battle Of Stalingrad; from West Germany in 1959 came Hunde, wollt ihr ewig leben (Stalingrad: Dogs, Do You Want to Live Forever?); from the Soviet Union & Warner Brothers—now that’s a match made in Minsk—in 1990 another two-parter Stalingrad, featuring Powers Booth, produced by Quincy Jones (!); from reunited Germany in 1993 the superb Stalingrad; and another spectacle from non-Com Russia in 2013, Stalingrad.
You can’t keep a good wipeout down—in the line of fire Pearl Harbor has been sneak attacked in at least nine movies, the Alamo taken seven times (eight if you count Viva Max), Custer wiped out at the Little Big Horn at least ten. Iwo Jima has been stormed four times, Normandy nine and counting.
Enemy At The Gates fought for boxoffice glory with a dirty dozen war pictures in 2001 that attacked man’s undying hobby with varying degrees of realism or ridiculousness: Pearl Harbor, Black Hawk Down, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, No Man’s Land (from Bosnia), To End All Wars, Charlotte Gray, The Grey Zone, Dark Blue World (from the Czech Republic), The Officer’s Ward (from France), Edges Of The Lord (from Poland, yet with Willem Dafoe and Haley Joel Osment, not arriving in the States until 2005), Enigma and Behind Enemy Lines.