In ENEMY AT THE GATES, by director Jean-Jacques Annaud (SEVEN YEARS IN
TIBET), the battle for Stalingrad in the Autumn of 1942 is hell on earth
for the Russian soldiers fighting the onslaught of the Nazi hordes. The
Russian officers carefully provide a rearguard for their troops -- not
to support them but to shoot them when they retreat.
In a time of rifle shortages, the Russian officers have a perfect
solution -- skip giving a rifle to every other man. Vassily Zaitsev
(Jude Law, Oscar nominee for THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY), a young,
sharpshooting shepherd boy from the Urals, is one such weaponless other
man. It is his job to pick up the rifle when the rifleman he is
shadowing is killed. Trained since he was a young lad by his
grandfather in the ways of stealth shooting -- "I am a stone. I do not
move." -- Vassily becomes so famous that he single-handedly inspires the
whole Russian army to turn from cynicism to optimism. His actions
become the turning point for the entire world war, or so the movie would
have us believe. Joseph Fiennes plays political officer Danilov,
Vassily's friend, mentor, and personal PR machine, who convinces the
troops of Vassily's near immortal powers.
Like the famous flying aces of World War I, Vassily is challenged by
Germany's best marksman, an aristocrat named Major Koenig, played by Ed
Harris in a pensive, reserved performance. Major Koenig, who lives and
breathes strategy, is sent by Berlin solely to take out the Russian
people's hero. An almost salivating Danilov sees it "as the essence of
What's the missing ingredient in most war movies? Why sex, of course.
Rachel Weisz shows up to play Vassily's love interest, Tania. Will they
or won't they? What do you think?
The actor having the most fun is pudgy-faced Bob Hoskins, who gets to
chew up the scenery as Khrushchev. Sent there by Stalin to save his
town, Khrushchev turns out to be a bloodthirsty but effective leader.
Khrushchev helps the Russian commander in Stalingrad "cut through the
red tape" by supplying him with a gun to kill himself rather than having
the report of his failure transmitted to Moscow.
In contrast to the battle sequences, which approach the intensity of
SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, the action behind the lines is a mixture of realism
and hokum. The worst of these is the claim that the Russian fighters,
rather than being exhausted at the end of a hard day of battle, came
back to their bombed-out camps to sing, dance and party the night away,
since they were thankful to have survived another day.
After a brilliant beginning, the movie begins to bog down like the
battle itself. The director falls too much in love with his picture and
includes many superfluous scenes that would have better been left on the
cutting room floor. A trimmed up script would start with the entire
elimination of Tania, an unneeded diversion. But, regardless of the
film's flaws, it's still a fascinating piece of history and an
ENEMY AT THE GATES runs too long at 2:08. It is rated R for strong
graphic war violence and some sexuality and would be acceptable for
Copyright © 2001 Steve Rhodes