To begin, one of the common themes that both films center around is that of good vs. evil, yet by reimagining this theme, which is often an integral part of conventional war films, the foreign films are able to set themselves apart. In The Cranes are Flying, Kalatozov breaks from the traditional representation of this theme by presenting it in a way that there is no clear distinction between who is good and who is evil. Although the German army invades the USSR, Kalatozov does not confine either army to the restricted title of good or evil but rather paints war itself as malicious.
This unconventional portrayal of the theme is shown through Veronica’s reaction to her boyfriend Boris being drafted into the Soviet army. She sees war as something wicked because it provokes a societal pressure to volunteer for the army to protect your country and is responsible for taking Boris from her to fight on the front line. War interrupted her life and postponed the couple’s plan of getting married, ultimately putting a halt to Veronica’s happiness. The only time that this theme is tackled in the traditional sense of having a distinction is when it is represented through the characters of Boris and Mark.
In the film, Boris symbolizes all that is good, he volunteers for his country and risks his life on the battlefield to save another whereas his cousin Mark embodies the evil. Mark is both manipulative and a coward and takes advantage of Veronica when she is at her most vulnerable, he is the antithesis of Boris. Therefore, Cranes has become a distinguished war film as it has taken an unlikely approach to an all too common war film theme. Similarly, The Battle of Algiers depicts the theme of good vs. evil in the same way by blurring the line between the two.
The film displays the Algerian revolution from both sides and thus creates a victimization of both the FLN (National Liberation Front) and the French. Battle rejects the black and white portrayal of good and evil that is often atypical of Hollywood films by contrasting the atrocities committed by both sides. For instance, Pontecorvo reveals the barbarity of the FLN’s guerrilla insurgency as the film shows them planting bombs in public areas, notably the coffee house and the assassinations they carried out on French police officers.
This is contrasted by the French military counter-insurgency and their use of torture and manipulation. By showing the ruthlessness and immortality of both sides, The Battle of Algiers creates a breakdown of traditional portrayals of good and evils and has the audience both cheering and appalled by the violent actions of either side. Hence, characterizing the Algerian war film as a progressive one in the genre. Furthermore, another theme that ties the films together is that they successfully showcase the psychological effects of war.
Kalatozov illustrates that war has underlying effects on the individual in The Cranes are Flying and its belligerence resonates through the protagonist Veronica. It is clear throughout the film, that the war has a profound impact on Veronica, she has experienced a great deal of suffering as the war has taken everything from her; it reduced her childhood home to rubble and killed both her parents and loving boyfriend, Boris. Veronica tries to remain strong and carry on with her life but the trauma is too great and the audience begins to see her spirit breaking.
The cheerful and spirited young woman observed in the beginning of the film has been forsaken; “She wanders around like a ghost. All nerves”. After learning of Boris’ death, Veronica has an emotional and mental breakdown as she is overwhelmed by everything and she is driven to the brink of suicide. This effectively highlights the absolute deterioration of Veronica’s psyche and illustrates the situation many Soviet women were in during and after the war, anxiously waiting for their men to return home safe and sound. Cranes presentation of this theme differs from conventional war movies as it shows hat war has a great impact on the psyche of civilians and not only those who fought in the war itself.
War does not discriminate and has psychological effects on everyone it touches. Consequently, Kalatozov’s film has become such an exceptionally iconic war film on the account that it demonstrates just how war can render individuals incapable of normal function as a result of the extensive trauma undergone. Contrarily to Kalatozov’s The Cranes are Flying which concentrates on the atrocity of war and destruction it has on the psyche, The Battle for Algiers looks at how warfare transforms the individual at their core.
Pontecorvo presents the theme of the psychological effects of war by shining light on how war can dictate one’s actions. As the film centers on the insurgency, it is clear that the prolonged period of unrest is pushing individuals to do the extreme out of desperation. The FLN resorts to drastic and violent measures in order to get the upper hand and assure independence. The radical group embraces revolutionary violence as a form of political change and thus this illustrates just how war affects the psyche. Further, in the opening scene of the film, the French are subjecting and older man to torture to elicit information.
This unconventional and illicit military tactic backs up the fact that Battle does not demonstrate the deterioration of the psyche like in Cranes but rather the weakening of moral conscious as a result of warfare. By showcasing that war can leave individuals impulsive and thus convincing them to resort to drastic measures, The Battle of Algiers takes a different approach to this ordinary theme and creates a unique film that generates a reaction from its audience. Moreover, although both films are not connected to an anti-war movement they are riddled with explicit anti-war messages.
This theme of saying no to war is expertly expressed throughout both works and as a result, unlike conventional war films, Cranes and Battle have become iconic anti-war symbols. The Cranes are Flying effectively dismisses the idea of war as a welcomed affair or prosperous pursuit. It does not romanticize war in the slightest but rather shows it for how it truly is, in all its wickedness and destructiveness. Kalatozov uses images in the place of dialogue to convey this important message and this leaves an even greater impact on the audience.
Scenes of people in panic, children screaming and crying and bombed buildings are propelled in front of our eyes, demonstrating just how destructive war was in the targeted cities. The most compelling scene is when the drill sirens go off and Veronica refuses to seek shelter in the subway, Mark frantically plays the piano in hopes of drowning out the sound of the sirens as a bomb blows in one of the windows, sending shattered glass across the room. Kalatozov uses this scene to exemplify the people trapped in war’s destructive force and as a clear indication that “acts of violence don’t win wars”.
Cranes also does not glorify war as it illustrates the horrendous conditions that soldiers must experience in the combat zone when the film focuses on Boris and the front lines, notably as the soldiers are inching through the mud. Additionally, the anti-war theme is apparent in the fact that the film is shot through Veronica’s perspective. By displaying warfare through her eyes, Kalatozov is presenting who the real victims are, everyday civilians caught in the destructiveness and bloodshed of war.
The Cranes are Flying is cinematic perfection as it captured the destructiveness of war and was able to effectively convey its anti-war theme rough its images and so, this film is worthy of the title of an unconventional war classic. On the other hand, Pontecorvo’s The Battle for Algiers also has a strong anti-war theme yet it conveyed differently throughout the film. A common portrayal of the theme is that both works have shot the film from their protagonist’s perspective in order to showcase who the real victims.
In this case, the events are seen through the eyes of Ali la Pointe, the freedom fighter who was recruited by the FLN and would eventually become its leader. The film depicts the anti-war theme with the aid of its protagonist and his actions as well as by utilizing images of warfare. By showing Ali’s struggles as leader of the insurgency and the acts of terrorism conducted by the FLN, Pontecorvo is able to emphasize the destructiveness of war all the while stressing that the true victims are the innocent civilians.
He demonstrates just how senseless war truly is, when one side escalates its guerilla tactics, the adversary will prove to be even more destructive in order to retaliate, ultimately ending in massacre. Battle displays the ferocity of war through images of bombings by the National Liberation Front, where innocent lives are put at risk or killed. The people carrying the bodies of the dead children only supports the anti-war theme further by emphasizing once again the viciousness and turpitude of warfare.
Likewise, the film is shot in black and white, an intentional stylistic choice that depicts the grim reality of war all the while giving it a documentary style feel. This newsreel-like filming creates a disturbing reality for the audience and reinforces the anti-war theme that has characterized Pontecorvo’s breakthrough film. The Battle of Algiers unconventional approach to the anti-war theme illustrates the true brutality of war and has made this film unlike any other, thus allowing it to stand out in a genre that far too often romanticizes and glorifies war.