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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Lousy history, entertaining epic, 14 Sep 2010
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This review is from: The Admiral [DVD] [2008] (DVD)
History has always been a somewhat fluid commodity in Russia, with one decade's hero of the Revolution another's traitor as the propaganda needs of the day dictated, and judging from Andrey Kravchuk's 2008 epic Admiral the reverse trajectory is just as likely in the New Russia, with one of Tsarist Russia's most notorious and dictatorial mass murderers, Admiral Aleksandr Vasileyevich Kolchak, whitewashed into a noble romantic hero. It's a bit like a film celebrating the humanitarian achievements of one of Pol Pot's executioners or showing the loveable side of Heinrich Himmler.

Former Polar explorer Kolchak may have fought on the `right' side as the leader of the disastrous White Russian resistance to the Revolution, but he was so utterly ruthless in his suppression of the people, thinking nothing of killing and torturing 25,000 civilians in one city alone and exhorting his generals to exterminate entire local populations, that no foreign government in the world would recognise his government. And while a certain amount of communist propaganda might be expected to exaggerate his very real failings and cruelty (which in many ways guaranteed the victory of the Bolsheviks he despised), he wasn't overly popular with his own allies either, many of whom regarded him as a pro-British puppet before even the British turned against him and his Czechoslovak allies handed him over to the Reds. So, all-in-all, not one of the likelier candidates for an admiring biopic with a cast of thousands, but in Putin's Russia such is the stuff of heroes. Like Braveheart, you have to forget any thoughts of historical fidelity and just take it as a kind of wishful thinking period fantasy.

Of course, Kolchak was far from the only war hero to spectacularly blot his copybook when he got into politics to save his country from itself, as hundreds of examples from Pompey to Petain have shown, and there could have been a fascinating story in how the very qualities that made him an ideal warrior were disastrous in politics. But that's not the kind of film this is: Admiral is pure print the legend stuff. Kicking off with a spectacular and genuinely exciting naval battle that sees Kolchak (Night Watch's Konstantin Khabenskiy) crippling a German battleship single-handed before despatching it in a tense chase through a minefield, it's clear we're in mythmaking rather than debunking territory here. It's the kind of love story where the sun is always shining beautifully, even when it's raining, where bloody battles are accompanied by love letters being read in adoring voice over, where even in the midst of evacuating a city the hero can find time for a railway station reunion with his lover, where pledges to protect God and country are accompanied by thousands of kneeling extras and soaring devotional music and where even his wife understands why he'd have an affair with the most beautiful woman in all the Russias (Elizaveta Boyarskaya) without kicking up too much of a fuss. His allies may betray him and the odd regiment desert, but the people love him more than life itself - not too surprising since we never see him mistreat a single peasant, let alone destroy a city. All that's missing is John Wayne saying "Aw, truly this man was the Son of God." Watching the film you have to wonder how he could ever have lost so disastrously.

Opening and closing on the set of what's clearly meant to be Bondarchuk's War and Peace, it sets its political stall out early: even 44 years later, Party officials want to fire an extra who was the lover of an enemy of the Revolution despite the director's insistence on keeping her because he needs faces like hers (if the casting of a svelte actor as the portly Bondarchuk seems odd, it's perhaps excusable since it's actually his son, Fyodor Bondarchuk). And that's probably the nicest the Communists get in this film. We get plenty of examples of the Bolsheviks' random acts of cruelty and mass murder, but never any of the outrages on the Tsarist side that led to them: indeed, it's not until the Revolution that we even see some workers, the film being strictly an officer class affair until then. Considering the role of the Russian navy in the revolution, it's more than just a massive oversight in a film about an admiral... But then the film's sins of omission are many and massive. It even drops broad hints that Kolchak's government was recognised by the allies while his atrocities are washed completely from the record.

So far, so reprehensible. But while it may be crudely simplistic in its unquestioning hero-worship, it's often superbly executed as a piece of epic cinema. Like the best propaganda movies, for all the heavy-handed unjudgemental mythmaking it carries you along with a skilful appeal both to unashamed populist sentiment - it's not how history was but how it should have been - and by not forgetting to be entertaining along the way. It's well acted, beautifully photographed with some spectacularly vivid imagery and the kind of superlative production design that hasn't been seen since the roadshow epics of the 60s. As history it may be a worrying travesty, but as a grand old-fashioned CinemaScope Glorious Technicolor romantic epic with a cast of thousands and some pretty impressive special effects, it's undeniably effective. Still, one can only wonder what the producers are planning to follow it up with - Eichmann: The Garden Party Years, perhaps?

Metrodome's PAL DVD boasts a fine 2.35:1 widescreen transfer with English subtitles, but the only extra is a trailer.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 11 Apr 2011 09:32:09 BDT
One of the best reviews here.

That it is a take on neglected Russian history, doesn't mean it is good.

Posted on 27 Jul 2011 22:55:35 BDT
Thanks for a very informative and entertaining review which both gave me a good idea whether I might like to watch this, and also had me laughing out loud.
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Trevor Willsmer
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