Movies about World War II are easy to make, at least conceptually, since there is universal agreement among the film makers and the audience that America was unquestionably in the right, and Americans remain proud of their great victory. Vietnam movies are often more controversial, because the war ended in humiliating failure, and the morality of the war and of the opposition to it,, as well as the soundness of the strategy, have been endlessly argued ever since. This debate has carried over into the movies, with Hollywood offering takes on the war as different as Platoon and Rambo.
9th Company, directed by Fyodor Bondarchuk, is a Russian movie released in 2005 and now available on DVD in America. It tells the story of a company of Soviet paratroopers in Afghanistan in the closing days of Russia’s war with the Mujaheddin. It claims to be based on real events, specifically a battle fought in January of 1988 between the 9th Company of the 345th Guards Airborne Regiment, and a force of Mujaheddin that may have numbered 400 men over control of hill 3234. 9th Company, which numbered only 39 men, suffered 6 dead and 28 wounded holding the hill. For any veteran of Hollywood’s War About Vietnam, this movie is often familiar cinematic terrain. 9th Company feels at times like a cross between Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, with a bit of Rambo thrown in for good measure. Judging from the results, Americans aren’t the only ones who have issues making movies about failed wars.
Bondarchuk opens with a seemingly endless basic training sequence that takes up nearly half the movie and goes on way too long. His diverse group of raw recruits is introduced to army life by Drill Sergeant Dygalo (Mikhail Porechenkov), himself a veteran of Afghanistan, where he was the only survivor of his company. Dygalo is the movie’s most interesting character, and Porechenkov delivers it’s best performance.. Dygalo is a long way from Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, the iconic drill instructor unforgettably played by R Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket. Hartman, for all of his calculated displays of anger and screamingly funny insults, was always fully in control of himself. Dygalo, scarred physically and mentally from Afghanistan, has clearly lost it. Mikhail Perechenkov has an interesting face. Sometimes, when you look in his eyes you can see the demons that haunt Dygalo, and you understand why the army, despite his repeated requests, won’t send him back to Afghanistan for another tour.
9th Company does accurately depict the general sadism, hazing, and brutality of Red Army life. When a recruit who has screwed up is told to report to Dygalo, it means report for a beating. The most interesting part of the basic training scenes is looking for evidence (And there is quite a bit of it), that these people are trapped in a broken system. Everything has a run down, seedy look to it. Dygalo clearly means well, and wants to prepare his recruits for combat, but this is no way to train soldiers. This is the Evil Empire on the skids.
When the movie finally gets to Afghanistan, things pick up a bit. The newly trained soldiers are greeted at the airfield by the sight of a transport plane loaded with troops headed home being brought down by a Stinger missile. The Russian government gave Bondarchuk quite a bit of support, including the use of tanks, BTR and BMP personnel carriers, helicopter gunships, Dishka machine guns, and other military hardware. (Interestingly, Bondarchuk is the son of Sergey Bondarchuk, who directed Waterloo, arguably the most spectacular war movie of all time.) Bondarchuk uses this ordnance to good effect, staging some impressive battles (A Russian convoy getting ambushed on a mountain road is the best of these), but his spectacle is often marred by obvious glaring errors in weapon handling and combat tradecraft. Granted that Russian soldiers weren’t all that well trained, but one would think that airborne troops at least wouldn’t bunch up shoulder to shoulder on patrol with no point man in evidence, and that they wouldn’t spray their AKs like this while standing fully exposed with no cover. Technical errors aside, this movie is really good looking, and the scenery (Bondarchuk filmed in Uzbekistan) is spectacular, forbidding, and at times almost alien.
When the fight for hill 3234 gets underway, Bondarchuk takes quite a few liberties with the facts. The movie has only one survivor walking off the hill, and claims that the company was simply forgotten about by higher command., which is flatly not true. Bondarchuk’s combat choreography is at its weakest here, with the Russians doing a lot of Rambo type yelling and screaming while spraying full auto from the hip. Clearly, Bondarchuk wanted to pay tribute to 9th Company’s valor, but some of his theatrics undermine and work against this.
This DVD can be played in Russian, with English subtitles, or in English dubbing with those very same English subtitles. The dubbing isn’t very good, and detracts from the movie. Watch it in Russian, since you’re going to get the subtitles anyway. One wonders at times how accurate some of the translation is. At one point, several characters speak of having called in “air strike”, though the strike in question turns out to be a barrage from multiple rocket launchers.
Like the Soviet war effort in Afghanistan, 9th Company is misguided, heavy handed, and in the end, unsuccessful. But it has a certain power nonetheless. In the movie’s closing scene, the last survivor of 9th Company says “We didn’t know everything back then. That in two years, the country in whose name we fought would vanish.” Without question, America in 2010 is in much better shape than the Soviet Union in 1988, and yet... The image of brave men dying in a mismanaged war, fighting for a broken system wretchedly misgoverned by a clueless, incompetent ruling class, may leave you wondering if it really will work out any better for us.