1918: The Battle Of Kruty (Крути 1918)

Ukraine (2019) Dir. Aleksey Shaparev

Many individual battles are fought during a global conflict that isn’t always well known outside of that country’s history, with the rarest of exceptions. This is where cinema steps up to allow the rest of us to learn about the struggles we weren’t taught in history class.

In January 1918, the Ukraine was ready to declare independence following the fall of the Russian Empire, but Lenin intervened by sending his troops to occupy the country town by town. An army of 4000 Bolsheviks advanced towards Kyiv (Kiev) forcing a military response to protect the capital. With the number of soldiers severely lacking, the only way to rebuild the army was to recruit local students and quickly train them as soldiers.

Roughly 300 students boosted the squad to make 400 defenders ready to see off the Russian invaders, led by the maniacal Mikhail Muravyov, (Vitaliy Saliy). Via a double agent, Ukraine spy Oleska Savytskyi (Andrey Fedinchik) learns the Russians will arrive via the train station in Kruty, which is where the defenders would thwart the enemy. Among the young conscripts is Oleska’s younger brother Andrii (Evgeniy Lamakh).

For director Aleksey Shaparev, The Battle of Kruty (aka Winter Of The Braves) is a huge step forward in terms of production scale and prestige compared to his previous works, which include a low budget comedy and a boxing drama. It shows quite often in places, notably the speed at which the early exposition is delivered and many supporting characters are not given a chance to establish themselves.

A lot about the fictional dramatisation of this true story also implies a longer run time is needed with the 105-minutes we do get feeling insufficient. Shaparev seems to rise up to the challenge of making the battle scenes come across as realistic yet lets the human drama lag behind. Considering two brothers and their commander father are at the heart of the saga, this is rather remiss of the busy script to overlook.

Shaparev bookends his film with a young soldier in modern times taking a seat before the Kruty Heroes Memorial and reading a dog-eared journal of some vintage. Jumping back 100 years, we see Andrii and his friends Pipskyi (Oleksandr Oleksenko) and Valeryk (Oleksandr Piskunov) among the many at a public recruitment meeting. Whilst the older men refuse to fight and prefer negotiation, the youngsters are keen to do their duty and queue up to enlist.

Law student Valeryk and singer Pipskyi (one of the few real people portrayed here) are surprised that map maker Andrii also signed up as he is a confirmed pacifist; however, he feels duty bound to join following brother Oleska and their father, counter-intelligence General Savytskyi (Volodymyr Filatov) into military service, though he intends to avoid killing anyone if he can.

Unfortunately, this dilemma doesn’t arise as much as it should as the film has quite a cast of other characters to focus on, such as Oleska’s role as the go-between in passing the important information obtained by double agent Berg (Tomasz Sobczak) to the right people, if only he could trust Berg. Elsewhere, there is the drug-addled Bolshevik general Muravyov, barking orders from his cosy quarters and indulging in luxury when he is not tripping out on narcotics and his own power, and little else.

Elsewhere, is a similarly undercooked love triangle involving the Savytskyi brothers and well-to-do Sophia (Nadiia Koverska), briefly brought up through the visual of Oleska clutching an engagement ring only to see her cooing at Andrii. Nothing is explained as to whether the brothers know of the other’s feelings or if Sophia reciprocates Oleska’s affection, making it a rather redundant subplot.

Because this is set in a region where visual identity has a lot of overlap, it is often hard to know whose army we are watching, not helped by Berg resembling the people he is in cohorts with/betraying, leaving the validity of the information passed open to question. Only Andrii, Oleska, and the deranged Muravyov stand out, as it should be for the three main characters, otherwise confusion abounds a lot of the time.

Despite this particular battle being important in Ukraine history, the action depicted is at a premium, limited to two battle scenes, though very well done they are. One thing they do pull off is exposing the lack of training of the student soldiers and the unfortunate results when it comes to actually fighting. They are nervous, unsure, and in most cases barely successful but the squad as whole, does enough damage to repel the Russians, for the time being at least.

This grittiness and attention to detail in capturing the realism of the moment in these scenes balance out the silliness of Muravyov’s drug trips and cartoon villain performance from Vitaliy Saliy – comparable to Adrian Edmondson’s caricature turn as the Red Baron in Blackadder Goes Fourth – and the sterile drama of the aimless subplots. The editing is often a bit to choppy, doing further damage to the narrative, but the camerawork and overall presentation provide the texture of the period’s grimness.

Generally, the acting is convincing enough and in tune with the historical reflection, led by a strong outing from Evgeniy Lamakh as Andrii, who is astute enough to work in the foibles of his character even when the script has forgotten about them. Female roles are incidental at the most, perpetuating a testosterone heavy mood courtesy of the army generals, punctuated only by the uncertainty from the out of depth youths on the front line.

Via 1918: The Battle of Kruty we are given a fair idea of the sacrifices made by these young men for their country, yet the scope of the story being told demands more time devoted to it. Perhaps a four-part mini-series would suffice to cover all aspects of the drama this film only hints at. A solid effort but lacking in depth to reach the level of poignancy and gravitas it aspires to.