As the recent HBO series The Pacific seeks to remind us, World War II took place in many more places than the forests of Bastogne or on the beaches of Normandy. The battle between Japan and the United States was a huge part of the overall conflict, one that claimed massive casualties and had a long-lasting effect on ensuing world history.
However, even the carnage in the Pacific pales in comparison to the war’s bloodiest campaign. The Eastern Front – where Germany fought it out with the Soviet Union – was the site of more casualties than either the Western Front or the Pacific, as well as the most decisive contest in terms of leading to Hitler’s eventual defeat, and led directly to the spheres of political influence that came to dominate the Cold War. It also involved millions of citizens from countries that found themselves caught between the Soviets and the Third Reich.
All of which makes Red Rowan, a 1969 Polish movie just released for the English-language market by Polart, a fascinating cultural artifact. The film concerns a platoon (designated “Rowan”) of Polish soldiers – newly liberated from German rule – that takes part in the brutal assault on Nazi positions in the city of Kolobrzeg during the long push towards Berlin. Directed by Ewa and Czeslaw Petelskich, the husband and wife team behind a large catalogue of patriotism-tinged historical and genre movies in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, Red Rowan mixes extremely detailed combat scenes with the battlefield reflections of its protagonists to reveal a side of the war often forgotten outside of the areas where it occurred.
As this black-and-white film begins, most of the Polish soldiers are fairly relaxed about the battle ahead. The field-commissioned leader of the Rowan squad, Lt. Victor Kotarski (Andrew Kopiczinski), is busy thinking about the new possibilities that will be available in an independent Poland. His friend Ensign Krecki (Wladyslaw Kowalski) is pondering the future rather than the present, and is more concerned with having to face his pregnant lover back home than the possibility of getting blown-to-bits by German artillery. Kotarski has a love interest also, a striking nurse named Wanda (Wieslaw Niemyska), who fears the Germans so little that she crosses enemy lines to treat their wounded.
Once the assault begins, however, their attitudes begin to change. The battle itself – filmed with an impressive amount of military machinery, legions of extras (most of whom have an unfortunate tendency to adopt overdramatic crucifixion poses for their death scenes), and a ruined-city set rigged with what must have been half the explosives in Soviet Europe – is hard fought and takes a heavy toll on Victor’s unit. They begin to hate the Germans, a mixture of battered regulars, who just want to go home, and sadistic S.S. officers determined to fight to the death. Wanda’s compassionate assistance to injured soldiers is repaid by a merciless attack on her defenseless aid station, while poor Krecki is given cause to think seeing his girlfriend again, no matter the state of her womb, would actually be quite preferable to his current situation.
The battle drags on for days, and ultimately the film finishes on a note that is both patriotic and tragic. The Petelskich’s are eager to contrast the dastardly Germans with the selfless Poles, as one can see when the commander of the Polish army joins his men on the front lines, while the S.S. commander drives his men to desert with his tyrannical leadership style and lack of care for their lives. So while the Poles pay a heavy price for their victory, it is presented as the noblest of sacrifices.
In less capable hands, this could have come off as cheesy or hyperbolic, but the well-planned nature of the battle scenes lends a sense of realism to the film that helps it dispel the odor of contrived propaganda. Despite its deeply saddening subject matter, this movie is a pleasure to watch thanks to careful handling by its directors.
The DVD package has no extras, so many viewers may find themselves running to Wikipedia to get a little more context for the film’s events. The subtitles have a few errors, (and at one point disappear completely during what seems like an important conversation) but it’s not enough to ruin what is otherwise a worthy entry into the canon of realistic war movies that successfully evoke battle’s endless horrors.