Blog 02/27/2022 - MHT Movie Review - The North Star

MHT reviews “The North Star” since its story is about the Ukraine being invaded. In 1942, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt dispatched Lowell Mellett, the chief of the Bureau of Motion Pictures of the Office of War Information to enlist studio head Sam Goldwyn into making a film celebrating America's wartime alliance with Russia. Experienced Director Lewis Milestone born in Odessa; Ukraine takes on the task of showing the village of North Star’s resistance to the Nazi invasion.

It opens on the last day of school in 1941 in North Star, a smalltown farming collective a veritable communist paradise. The opening cinematic composition establishes the bucolic settings & social unity that characterizes the collective's inhabitants. Milestone’s long tracking shot follows the aged comic figure Karp (Walter Brennan playing older than his 49 years) as he rides his cart through the village introducing the film's key characters.

Another extended sequence portrays the villagers celebrating the harvest with food, song and dance, resembling more a Ukrainian cultural operetta. Everyone pitches into load the train & have a happy communal dinner with song & dance that highlights the music written by Aaron Copland & lyricist Ira Gershwin.

The film also stars Anne Baxter, Dana Andrews, Walter Huston, Erich von Stroheim & also marked the debut of Farley Granger. Made in 1943 with the USSR bearing the brunt of the fighting it was an unabashedly pro-Soviet propaganda film. Four young people begin a walking trip to Kiev supervised by Granger’s brother, a Soviet Air Force Lieutenant. They are picked up by Walter Brennan’s wagon. They hear the distant sound of aircraft & then distant bombing. German bombers are not seen & the targeting of four horse drawn carts & a herd of sheep seems to not be of huge military value.

Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa ends the walking trip to Kiev. The war comes to this border village quickly when seven Stuka dive bombers strafe the village. Milestone displays his "technical mastery" both through image & sound as villagers face the German bombers announcing the shattering of their peaceful existence. The decent special effects sequence resembles real documentary war footage, recalling Milestone's work in 1930’s “All Quiet on the Western Front.”

The young healthy men of North Star take to their horses to form a mounted partisan militia & ride to the hills to fight as Guerillas. When the Germans arrive to establish a major mobile field hospital in North Star. 

The remaining villagers begin to burn the village down once they are warned that the Germans are about to arrive. The Germans thwart the effort with guns & fire fighting gear to save the major buildings. The movie shifts to the four young people & Brennan trying to get a shipmate of guns & ammunition to the guerrillas.

In North Star, the necessities of Hollywood war propaganda assert itself, shifting the focus to German atrocities. The full brutality of the Nazis is revealed when the Germans use the village children as a source of blood for transfusions for wounded German soldiers. Some children are forced to provide so much blood that they die. This doesn’t seem to make a huge amount of sense as there are plenty of young adult women available. When the village doctor, Dr. Kurin (Walter Huston) discovers this he informs the partisans in the hills. They prepare to strike back against what looks like a company of veteran German infantry with machineguns in defensive positions.

The partisans launch a full-blown cavalry assault on the village straight out of a John Ford western including rebel yells to rescue the women & children. The film's melodramatic climax resembles a commercial action-movie, where the untrained, under armed Ukrainian guerrilla fighters overrun & obliterate the Nazi defensive positions & its defenders.

The screenplay provides for a complex treatment of the doctors. Most interesting is the German aristocrat & excellent surgeon Dr. von Harden (Erich von Stroheim.)

Stroheim made famous his roles as a sadistic, monocled Prussian officer in silent films & was an excellent General Erwin Rommel of the Afrika Korps in “Five Graves to Cairo.”

Milestone presents him in the Gothic style of German expressionism who looks down on the Nazis but faces the new reality that atrocities are regrettable but an end to a mean. Russian doctor Dr. Kurin (Walter Huston), Stroheim's moral opposite & nemesis is also a noted medical professional who Stroheim has studied & admires. The Russian doctor accuses the German doctor of being worse than the Nazis true believers, because he has used his considerable skills to support them.

Right before this movie Stroheim & Baxter starred in “Five Graves to Cairo.”

Huston ultimately dispatches his Nazi doctor prisoners in the obvious moral contradiction of shooting prisoners in his single-minded hatred of fascist evil allows him to overcome his "first do no harm" underlying ethical rule of modern medicine.

The peasants begin to move out of town & star Anna Baxter envisions a future in which they will "make a free world for all men."

The film ends & the entire town now well behind the German blitzkrieg advancing lines you can only imagine that their reaction would be severe & exacting retribution a priority much like when the whole towns of Lidice & Ležáky were exterminated for the assassination of the “Final Solution” architect SS-Obergruppenführer (LtGen) Reinhard Heydrich.)

The picture received fulsome approval from the mainstream press, with only the 28 newspapers of the Hearst Syndicate interpreting the film's pro-Russian themes as pro-Communist propaganda. In the 1950s, it was further criticized for this reason by the House Committee on Un-American Activities that cited “The North Star” as one of the pro-Soviet films made by Hollywood. It was re-cut to remove the idealized portrayal of Soviet collective farms in the opening 26 minutes.

The film was released to American television in 1957 where it was retitled “Armored Attack” with the film starting with the arrival of the Germans in the town & ended with scenes of the peasants uprising editing out all the “comrade” banter. It also added a narration praising the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 against their Soviet Masters. T

he title “Armored Attack” was a strange choice as the one scene in the film with German Panzers was a short one where the Soviet aviator brother becomes a “Russian Kamikaze” & flies his bomber into a German armor column.

The extent to which the film incorporated official Soviet propaganda about collective farms prompted British anti-communist writer Robert Conquest to later write "a travesty greater than could have been shown on Soviet screens to audiences used to lies, but experienced in [how dismal] collective-farm conditions were.”

The map shows the worst hit areas (darkened portions) of the 1932-33 famine from Joseph Stalin’s forced collectivization.

On the soundstage the Germans enter North Star

As Brennan says, “The face of war is ugly. It's not for the young.” As we have seen Putin has made it ugly for every Ukrainian.