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Enemy at the Gates

The best war movies in my humble opinion are those that endeavour to show it exactly as it is, i.e. that however much Gung Ho or patriotism or brainwashing or propaganda is involved and no matter how it is glorified and even how it does indeed sometimes make heroes of otherwise average and relatively insignificant men, war is hell, plain and simple!

For anyone even vaguely familiar with the history of the Second World War the name Stalingrad towers head and shoulders above even Normandy, Iwo Jima and The Battle of The Bulge in sheer carnage. The movie "Enemy at the Gates", directed by Frenchman Jean Jacques Annaud (Seven Years in Tibet, The Bear), sets out to tell the personal tales of some individuals, both Russian and German in a much more focused account than the last movie of note to address the subject, the sweeping German production "Stalingrad" from 1993.

In "Enemy at the Gates", Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law) is a young peasant from The Urals who is befriended shortly after his arrival into the horror of frontline 1943 Stalingrad, by a Soviet propaganda officer, Commander Danilov, played by Joseph Fiennes, who, after witnessing first hand his prowess as a sniper in assassinating five German officers, sets out to elevate him to the status of hero in a bid to raise the spirits of a demoralised Red Army, who are battling to hold the last tenth of their ruined city against the German onslaught. To witness the graphic horror of how these two are thrown together at all, it is easy to see why 20 million Russians died in The Second World War. Arriving by train at the rail head across the Volga from the city proper, Zaitsev is fed into the mincing machine that was the Second World War's Verdun, along with his "comrades", where the instructions from the commanding officers, since there aren't enough rifles to go around is, "follow the man in front of you until he is killed and then take his rifle". This, along with those retreating being machine gunned down by their own officers as cowards and traitors to The Motherland is, it seems, what goes for motivation in beseiged Stalingrad.

It is upon this opportunity, therefore, that Commander Danilov seizes, to sell his motivational hero idea to the field commander, one Nikita Krushchev, played quite excellently by Bob Hoskins. The plan is wholly embraced by Khrushchev and before long Zaitev has become a legend, receiving fan mail from Factory Workers and Coal Miners all over the Motherland as his ever increasing German officer kill tally is daily reported. Indeed so successful does the legend of Zaitev become, and so counter demoralising for the Germans, that they dispatch an ace sniper of their own, one Major Koenig (played by Ed Harris), to Stalingrad to hunt down and kill Zaitsev.

This is the main preoccupation of the rest of the movie, apart from a parallel subplot, the female love interest, of a female sniper Tania Chernova, played by a strikingly pretty Rachel Weizs, whom both friends fall in love with, which understandably leads to major jealousy, particularly on the part of Danilov and puts a major strain in their friendship, as they fight their own little battle for her affection within the claustrophobic ruins of the city.

The battle of wills and wits of the opposing snipers is gripping, particularly in the way they track each other and try to anticipate each others thoughts, and other methods (In Koenig's Case, the enlisting of a young Russian boy, Vasha (Gabriel Thompson), by chocolate and food bribes, who though he worships and idolizes Danilov, yet feeds Koenig information about him, perhaps in a bid to entrap the German, as he also relays information back to Danilov and Zaitsev about the German and his whereabouts)

In any case, whilst the hunt it is filled with suspense, in the end it does become a bit drawn out and makes the movie perhaps a half an hour longer than it should be.

Apart from some of the dramatic failings of this movie, it does manage to portray a horrific and realistic picture of the tragedy of war, and like all great anti war movies, if it achieves nothing else but this, then it can be justifiably deemed a good movie. It is however not a "great" war movie up there with "All Quiet on The Western Front", "The Great Dictator", "The Red Badge of Courage", "The Longest Day", "Platoon" and "Saving Private Ryan". However I'll give it 3 stars out of five.

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