The story of Lyudmila Pavlichenko is an incredible one – she was a Ukrainian Soviet sniper who fought in the Crimea during the Second World War and had 309 confirmed kills, making her one of the most deadly snipers in history. This story has been adapted into a solid Russian-Ukrainian war flick.
The movie follows Lyudmila “Lyuda” Pavlichenko (Yulia Peresild) during her time on the frontline, her relationship with three men and her time in America promoting Lend-Lease, as well as her relationship with the American first lady Eleanor Roosevelt (Joan Blackham).
Battle for Sevastopol is at its best when it is showing the events on the frontline even if the title is misleading because the actual battle only played a partial role in the movie. In the Ukraine, the movie was called Indestructible which would have been a more fitting title. Battle for Sevastopol was directed by Sergey Mokritskiy, and he follows the Saving Private Ryan model of shooting war scenes – going for gritty realism. When Lyuda first enters combat during the Battle of Odessa, it is a rude awakening for Lyuda as the troops have to dig trenches and hold their ground against the advancing German forces. The scenes are bloody as limbs are blown off, bullets go through soldiers and dirt flies around when bullets and artillery hit. One of Lyuda’s first kills lets us follow the bullet and will give people reminders of the Sniper Elite games.
The battles are small scale compared to other war movies, both Hollywood, and non-Hollywood films. For the most part, this is fair because Lyuda and her comrades are snipers so have to go out and scout ahead, shooting important officers and soldiers. Even when it is meant to be a bigger battle the movie has a concentrated viewing – focusing on Lyuda and her platoon. The biggest set-piece is when Odessa is evacuated by sea and the Luftwaffe attack the ships. It is an expensive sequence as ships explode and warplanes dogfight in the skies above – it can easily match anything Hollywood productions can offer.
Yulia Peresild is a well-known actress in Russia and gives a fine performance as the war hero. The arc Peresild played was one of a young woman who has a father that is impossible to please and showed a willingness to sign up for the war effort. But the war takes its toll on Lyuda – she becomes more traumatized showing signs of PTSD and becomes physically scarred: Lyuda’s face turns more pale and gaunt and she exhibit’s unusual behavior on the battlefield. This lead to memories of the excellent Soviet movie Come and See.
Battle for Sevastopol uses a duel framing device – the first being in 1957 when Mrs. Roosevelt is explaining who Lyuda is to an American official during a visit to the Soviet Union; this coincides with Lyuda’s tour of the United States to garner war funding. This was just an attempt to make the movie appeal to international i.e. American audiences. But this was unnecessary, as it served no purpose to the plot. The only highlight is when Lyuda hears a loud noise with Eleanor and her reaction shows her psychological scars.
Despite some of the movie being set in America, only one actor was able to speak English, Joan Blackham, who is English. The rest of the cast were actors had to be dubbed over by actors speaking in American accents, and it is hilariously bad – undercutting the serious tone of the movie.
The film also gives Lyuda three love interests when in real life she was married and had a son before the war started. It raises the question – did the filmmakers not have faith in the story of a woman fighting in a war and reaching a high rank in a male dominate world becoming the face of the Russian war effort. Giving Lyuda three love interests made her seem very fickle and Battle for Sevastopol looked like Russian remake of Enemy at the Gates.
At times the movie fast forwards over plot points – just introducing something and resolving it within the next scene. The worst offender was when the Germans sent one of their best snipers to kill Lyuda and Lyuda had to kill him first. But this could have led to a repeat of Enemy at the Gates.
For a Russian movie Battle of Sevastopol was surprising balanced. The Germans were shown to be the enemy but from a compassionate viewpoint – simply soldiers doing their duty, they celebrated Christmas and when Lyuda did sadistically shoot a German soldier she was chastised for it. The movie also did not attempt to whitewash the Stalin Government: showing them favoring party officials and leaving the rest of the population to rot.
The story of Lyudmila Pavlichenko deserved to be told, and her bio-pic had potential. The war scenes were well done and should please fans of war movies, and Yulia Peresild gave a strong performance. But the love story and American subplot distracted from the core of the story.