Monday, 7 February 2011

Arsenal - How come this was never a part of AS level History?

*Article originally written for

Title: Arsenal
Duration: 73 minutes
Certificate: PG
Director: Alexander Dovzhenko
Starring: Semyon Svashenko, Ambrose Buchma
Genre: Silent cinema.
Release Date: Originally released in 1928 new DVD release 14th February, 2011
Format: DVD
Country: Soviet Union.

First released in 1929, Arsenal, one of Alexander Dovzhenko’s great masterpieces of silent soviet cinema is being re-released on DVD. Also known as January Uprising in Kiev in 1929, when it was first released in the UK, it is the second movie of Dovzhenko’s Ukraine trilogy, sitting in between 1928s Zvenigora and 1930s Earth. Though originally criticized in Soviet Russia for being counter revolutionary, Arsenal was received better in the West for obvious reasons.
Beginning in 1917, Russia is suffering during the Great War, as Tsar Nicholas II sits in his office largely oblivious to the woes and circumstances of his fellow countrymen. Returning from the frontline, are a number of defecting soldiers, one of which is the film’s hero Tymish Stoyan (Semyon Svashenko)is heading back to his native Kiev where he intends to work in the Arsenal factory. In the lead up to the Ukrainian Constituent Assembly elections, which are haphazardly arranged in the wake of the Ukraine/Soviet war, it soon transpires that the city’s Bolsheviks are not being very well represented. Allying themselves with the Soviet forces, the Bolsheviks soon become involved in an armed uprising in one of the city’s munition factories, the famous January Uprising, which gave rise to the Russian Revolution. Stoyan is obviously also involved in the armed uprising become a ‘bulletproof’ revolutionary hero in the film’s famous closing scene.

Apart from a single viewing of Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and a rendition of Howard Moon’s play ‘Pies’ from a live Mighty Boosh skit, I must admit that I am not very well versed in Soviet era propaganda cinema. As a result, my first impressions of Dovzhenko’s Arsenal were harrowing and jarring to say the least.

The accompanying music throughout the film’s 70 minute duration is provided by a discordant string section which only adds to the malevolent air of revolutionary menace within this historical epic. There are times in which the melodies become sweeping but generally Igor Belza’s score promotes a genuinely unsettling tone. The imagery of the movie has similarly lost none of its potency, now faithfully remastered for its DVD release. Early sections when a woman beats her children and a man beats his horse whilst the Tsar writes letters in his cushy office do well to define the suffering of the people at the lower end of the social spectrum. Meanwhile, a following sequence set upon the frontlines where a soldier falls prey to German laughing gas is frantically disturbing. Importantly, as a movie that is supposed to glorify the armed uprising of a Bolshevik movement, Arsenal’s representation of war and violence is one of disdain. Accompanied with shots of smiling corpses, Arsenal presents you with an array of images that are guaranteed to stick within your imagination.

The effects of laughing gas.
The film can also be appreciated allegorically, a sequence involving a runaway train implies the unstoppable movement towards revolution, its subsequent crash may perhaps represent the inherent danger of such great social transition. Yet, with Tymish Stoyan emerging undamaged from the wreckage, the film finds its heroic protagonist worthy of the Soviet Union. Stoyan himself is a brooding presence, a distinguished brow accenting his unblinking steely eagle eyed gaze. For all the horrors that happen around him, all the executions for example, he remains an enigmatic hero. In the final scene in which he comes to literally portray the undying Bolshevik spirit, his muted screams for death as he bares his chest to the barrels of several enemy rifles provides much food for thought that will linger long after the credits finish rolling.  

For newcomers, Arsenal is a very difficult watch, an overpowering score, and a series of imposing black and white faces and distorted facial expressions work against the socio-political purposes that the film was originally commissioned for. For fans of this specific genre, however the re-release of Arsenal is worthy of experiencing all over again. For anyone else, history students or those who are just curious in silent cinema, Dovzhenko’s masterfully creates mesmerizing and often disturbing shots that are rife with complexity and are essentially timeless. 

Just realised that the entire movie can be watched on YouTube...


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