The Fabulous Forties #41: The North Star (dir by Lewis Milestone)


The North Star

The 40th film — wait a minute, I’m finally up to number 40!?  That means that there’s only ten more movies left to review!  And then I’ll be able to move on!  It’s always exiting for me whenever I’m doing a review series and I realize that I’m nearly done.

Anyway, where was I?

Oh yeah — the 40th film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set was the 1943 war epic, The North Star.  This is one of the many war films to be included in the Fabulous Forties box set and I have to admit that they all kind of blend together for me.  Since these films were actually made at a time when America was at war, there really wasn’t much room for nuance.  Instead, every film follows pretty much the same formula: the Nazis invade, a combination of soldiers and villagers set aside their individual concerns and/or differences and team up to defeat the Nazis, there’s a big battle, a few good people sacrifice their lives, the Nazis are defeated, and the allies promise to keep fighting.

It’s a pretty predictable formula but that’s okay because it was all in the service of fighting the Nazis.  Could I legitimately point out that the villains in these movies are always kind of two-dimensional?  Sure, I could.  But you know what?  IT DOESN’T MATTER BECAUSE THEY’RE NAZIS!  Could I point out that the heroes are often idealized?  Sure, but again it doesn’t matter.  Why doesn’t it matter?  BECAUSE THEY’RE FIGHTING NAZIS!

That’s one reason why, even as our attitude towards war changes, World War II films will always be popular.  World War II was literally good vs evil.

Anyway, The North Star was a big studio tribute to America’s then ally, the Soviet Union.  When a farm in the Ukraine is occupied by the Nazis, the peasants and the farmers refuse to surrender.  They disappear into the surrounding hills and conduct guerilla warfare against the invading army.  It’s all pretty predictable but it’s also executed fairly well.  It doesn’t shy away from showing the brutality of war.  There’s a haunting scene in which we see the bodies of all of the villagers — including several children — who have been killed in a battle.

The Nazis are represented by Erich Von Stroheim.  Von Stroheim plays a German doctor who continually claims that he personally does not believe in the Nazi ideology and that he’s just following orders.  When wounded Nazi soldiers need blood transfusions, he takes the blood from the children of the village.  His rival, a Russian doctor, is played by all-American Walter Huston and indeed, all the Russians are played by American stars, the better to create a “we’re all in this together” type of spirit.  When Huston tells Von Stroheim that he is even worse than the committed Nazis because he recognized evil and chose to do nothing, he’s speaking for all of us.

Unfortunately, before the Nazis invade, The North Star devotes a lot of time to showing how idyllic life is in the communist collective and these scenes are so idealized that they totally ring false.  Everyone is so busy singing folk songs and talking about how happy they are being a part of a collective (as opposed to being an individual with concerns that are not shared by the other members of the collective) that it’s kind of unbearable.  Not surprisingly, The North Star was written by Lillian Hellman, who wrote some great melodramas (like The Little Foxes) but who was always at her most tedious when she was at her most overly political.

(Watching the opening of The North Star, I was reminded that I would be totally useless in a collectivist society.)

So, I have to admit, that I was rather annoyed with the villagers at first.  But then the Nazis invaded and I realized that we’re all in it together!  As I said earlier, you can forgive your heroes almost anything when they’re fighting Nazis.

The North Star is an above average war film and a below average piece of political propaganda.  See it as a double feature with The Last Chance.

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