THE NORTH STAR, as in the U.S.S.R. (Communist Russia, for the history impaired) during World War Two, as fancifully imagined by producer Samuel Goldwyn’s handsome 1943 propaganda piece. Directed by Lewis Milestone, it was written by a Soviet-swooning Lillian Hellman as one of the boost-your-ally pictures that festooned the global fight to the finish. Showing sympathy for Luftwaffe-battered England, Nippon-ravaged China or the Philippines, and Nazi-subjugated European countries like France, Norway or Poland was an easier sell than trying to make Stalin’s dictatorship look not just heroic (its citizens were, beyond any question) but by fibbing that if wasn’t for the Germans, “the Worker’s Paradise” was also a really swell place for the average Ivan or Natasha. In this lively resistance rallier and in the same year’s diplomacy farrago Mission To Moscow, rosy Redness went a shipload of vodka too far, belly laugh concepts of the so-naive-it’s-cruel variety. *
June, 1941, peace in a Ukrainian village is shattered when Germany suddenly invades. Among the comrades who resist are student ‘Marina Pavlova’ (Anne Baxter), her boyfriend ‘Damian Simonov’ (Farley Granger, 17 in his debut, remarkably assured), his older brother ‘Kolya’ (Dana Andrews) who is a bombardier in the Soviet Air Force, ‘Clavdia Kurin’ (Jane Withers, very good) who pines for Kolya, and her father ‘Dr. Pavel Kurin’ (Walter Huston), the village physician. The Nazis are vicious: this will be a battle for survival.
“We’ll make this the last war. We’ll make a free world for all men.”
With an imprimatur from the White House and the Office of War Information, Hellman originally conceived the project as a documentary, which eventually morphed into a fictional feature with prestige trappings. Goldwyn brought on Milestone (Russian-born, famed for his 1930 All Quiet On The Western Front, a classic ironically sympathetic to WW1’s German soldiers and banned by the Nazis), painstaking James Wong Howe as cameraman, vaunted William Cameron Menzies as executive producer, much-honored Aaron Copland to compose the score, and a gallery of good actors. Mirroring international squabbles, collaboration on the top tiers was rocky. Hellman’s “knowledge” of Russia and the USSR came from novels and reading Pravda (like learning news from Fox); Milestone submitted 57 pages of revisions to the script; Hellman angrily fell out with Goldwyn; the end result was a good-looking, well acted shamble of distortion and falsehood.
Heart—saluting an ally holding Hitler at bay, sympathy for its people sacrificing on a titanic scale—was in the right place, but a wishful head was so far up the Volga that it nearly met St. Louis, minus only Judy Garland to complete making a “typical” Ukrainian village seem, aw, heck, just like a small town in the Midwest. The first half is practically a musical-comedy, with enough ersatz folksy portrayals of “peaceful, happy” villagers to make an orc barf. Per the fancies of Hellman-Goldwyn & Co. this must have been the one place in the region that escaped smilin’ Uncle Joe’s forced famine of the 30s that killed a mere ten million people. The immediate and simplistically orchestrated resistance to the German onslaught is another load of ahistorical horse puckey. Then, not content to show the Nazis as relentless and brutal, they’re actually made to seem essentially vampiric, with the invader medical officers (led by Erich von Stroheim) casually draining blood from village children to use for transfusions on their wounded.
On the plus side, the actors are fine (top kudos to Granger and Withers), director Milestone stages exciting action scenes, and Copland’s score is emotionally robust. As a curio of the time, it’s an eye-opener. As a physical production it’s accomplished. As for accurately tracing what was happening in 1943’s war-ravaged Russia it’s daft enough to require an extra bottle of vodka.
Various sources assert that the mounting cost either $1,500,000 or $3,000,000. Goldwyn had issued one of his classic pronouncements: “I don’t care of this picture doesn’t make a dime, just so long as every man, woman and child in America sees it.” Cogerson puts the gross at $5,300,000, 52nd for the year, fervor-stoked with more than four dozen war-related films. The Academy Awards saw enough artistic merit to nominate it in six categories: Screenplay (gag reflex), Cinematography, Music Score, Art Direction, Sound and Special Effects. The nom to Copland’s fine score was certainly warranted.
With Walter Brennan (how American can a Russian get? yet Walt pulls it off), Dean Jagger, Ann Harding, Carl Benton Reid, Ann Carter, Martin Kosleck, Robert Lowery, Ray Teal. 105 minutes.
* With the road to Redville paved by The North Star and Mission to Moscow, joining the fray the following year were Song Of Russia and Days Of Glory. ‘Song‘ did better box office (probably because it starred Robert Taylor) while ‘Days‘ (introducing newcomer Gregory Peck) came & went. Soon after the war ended, the sunshine patriots of the House Un-American Activities Committee blitzed Hollywood, movies like this and those who made them. The Taylor picture (which he said he was forced into) was castigated by no less than right-wing high priestess/witch Ayn Rand, while somehow ‘Days‘ and Peck escaped the caviar haters wrath. Just trivia blips today, there were a few smaller-scale pictures which acknowledged our Soviet ally, including Three Russian Girls, Boy From Stalingrad and Counter-Attack (with Paul Muni). The blacklist fury came down hard on the ridiculous Mission To Moscow and fanciful The North Star. After the subversive-seekers tortured the film, feasting on the corpse was considered “just business”, so for a 1957 re-release it was whittled down to 82 minutes, the editing-by-sickle job hammering out anything that might make blue-blooded Americanski consider moving kids & Chryslers from Kansas to Kharkov. Retitled Armored Attack, it only fooled the foolish.