The Bomber

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

1 July

SOS adopted, 1908

On this day in 1908, the second International Radiotelegraphic Convention became effective. It made standard the Morse code distress signal of three dits, three dahs, three dits, which had first been adopted by the German government three years earlier.

Three dits is the Morse code for S, three dahs for O, hence SOS. It is not an acronym for anything – not Save Our Souls, nor Save Our Ship, or Send Out Succour – and the first ship to use it was the Cunard liner Slavonia (10 June 1909) or the steamer SS Arapahoe (11 August 1909), it’s not clear which.

Though still widely recognised, Morse was abandoned as a radio distress signal in 1999, when it was replaced by automatic radio beacons and satellite positioning technology.

The Bomber (2011, dir: Vitaliy Vorobyov)

The Bomber started life as a Russian TV mini-series, then its eight long episodes were cut down and squeezed into a three-hour movie slot. The result is not perfect – there are clear “go to ad break” moments still visible – but the film is certainly better than a lot of Second World War movies. In fact that is damning with faint praise. Because the result of all that cut and shutting is in fact a film of great pace and sweep, a really well cast adventure that focuses on a trio of characters – a brave him, a heroic her and a dastardly quisling who keeps changing sides in the war the Soviets are waging against the Nazis.

Nikita Efremov plays the honest son-of-Russia pilot Grivtsov, Aleksandr Davydov is Linko, the cowardly turncoat navigator, and Ekaterina Astakhova is the radio operator Katya, a trio shot down somewhere over the Ukraine, whose subsequent journeys back to base will see them bumping into each other, bumping into Nazis, fighting, escaping and, for two of them at least, doing a fair bit of big-eyed amorous staring.

This inclusion of a woman in a war film adds a frisson of sex to the usual mix of guns, Nazis, explosions and Messerschmitts at 3 o’clock. And the fact that Astakhova is in a more than decorative role is one of the things that mark out The Bomber. Another is the way the film both expresses the centrality of the Second World War in the Russian psyche – no wonder when you consider that the UK and US lost about 450,000 people apiece; the Soviet Union more like 25 million – and the current attempt by the Russia to pull on the uniform of the old Soviet Union.

It’s a film strong on despicable Nazis, adept at staging an action sequence, whether it’s a running gun battle, the torching of a peasant village or the blowing of a train off the rails. But it doesn’t rely exclusively on big bangs and running around (it’s not The Expendables, I mean) to rack up the tension. That comes through old-fashioned dramatic craft – the will they/won’t theys.

Some people won’t enjoy the obvious propagandistic elements. But though it’s clearly banging the drum for the Soviet Union, The Bomber doesn’t paint it as whiter than white, and in its message of cleaving close to the homeland, the power of collective action, the simple love of the soil, it’s not so far from any John Wayne war movie.

The subtitling, if your Russian isn’t up to it, is a bit of problem too, though the forward thrust, the strong characters and the boldness of the story does help paper over a few of the translation’s more leaden moments. Don’t let these put you off, or the other reviews I’ve seen, which seem to focus unnecessarily on this film’s deficiencies rather than its strengths – astonishingly good casting, a great story, fine writing and well staged action. All in all a fascinating war movie, impressive, engaging and, most of all, great entertainment.

Why Watch?

  • Vitaliy Vorobyov’s vivid direction
  • Its solid cast
  • The light it shines on the Soviet Union’s war experience
  • A reminder of the role women played in the war

The Bomber (aka Ballada O Bombere) – Watch it now at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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