Early in my Naval career I was stationed at San Diego, which we affectionately called “Sand Dog”, and there were two things that preoccupied a sailors liberty time…getting drunk and trying to get laid. Of course, the former was quite easy to do (if you were over 21); the latter took some effort, at least for me. Yes, I remember those sojourns to Chula Juana (Chula Vista), Nasty City (National City), the real Nasty City (Tijuana) and downtown Sand Dog playing my part as the gullible swabbie caught in the cross hairs of the scam artists lying in wait to bag their prey on Broadway Ave.
Eventually I grew bored with this routine and wandered northward to La Jolla, which was refreshingly civilized. There I discovered art house cinema. In a previous post, I wrote about the origins of my passion for classic and foreign movies. In La Jolla this began anew. The theatre shared residency with a book store which was managed by an arrogant, smug, longhair who was more interested in reading his inventory than attending to customer inquiries. The theatre was a small affair. They obviously weren’t in the business to make big bucks, but showcase foreign, avant-garde, and classic cinema. This is the place where I became enamored with film noir and other classic gems like “Citizen Kane”, “Night of the Hunter”, “On the Waterfront”, and “The Devil and Daniel Webster”. I must say that whoever had the job of planning the show schedule had good taste. Could it have been that snobbish proto-hippie?
It was at this theater that I first viewed the film “Ballad of a Soldier”. This is a Soviet import that first appeared in the US at the San Francisco Film Festival in 1961. What is interesting about the film is that while it is about a soldier and takes place during the German invasion of the Soviet Union, only the first ten minutes or so show combat. The remainder is primarily about the people behind the lines and how the war has affected their lives.
Ayosha scores a four day pass home for knocking out two German tanks at the front. His sojourn back to his farm is the film. He selflessly helps people in various situations as travels east….a soldier who had displayed courage in the face of the enemy and lost a leg in battle, but cannot face his wife because of his infirmary. A soldier heading for the front asks him to deliver some soap to his wife on his way home, only to find when he locates the woman finds her with another man.
Perhaps the most momentous and poignant event to happen to him is when he stows away aboard a train and discovers a young girl also hiding in the same freight car. At first she suspects the worst from him and his hostile but she soon realizes since they are both stowaways they have to work together to survive the trip. They go through numerous incidents together and their initial wariness turns into infatuation until the time comes when they must go their separate ways and part.
Like the motion of a clock’s pendulum, Ayoshas leave slowly ticks away. By the time he reaches his home to see his mother, he has only a few hours to spend with her before he has to go back to the war. Make no mistake, Ballad of a Soldier is a film about war but not about the meat grinder of the front lines but rather about the human condition of the home front.