Alright, everyone ready for a little (well, like 2 1/2 hours’ worth) Russian government-sponsored propaganda disguised as a medieval war epic? Of course you are! Loosely based on actual historical fact, 1612 brings us into Russia’s “Time of Troubles”, a chaotic period in the early 1600’s during which no tsar ruled and several opposing forces attempted to lay claim to the throne. Beside feuding Russian leaders, Polish troops entered the country with their own future tsar. The film leads up to a pivotal moment in (you guessed it!) 1612 when, according to accepted lore, the Russian people united to oust the Poles from Moscow and reclaim their country.
There are a few bastardized historical figures, but most of the story is from the point of view of fictional characters Andrei (Pyotr Kislov) and Kostka (Artur Smolyaninov), mercenaries who join up with troops protecting the tsarina, Kseniya (Violetta Davydovskaya). She is being forced to marry the Polish Hetman (Michal Zebrowski), who hopes that marriage to a legitimate Russian noblewoman will legitimize his claim to the throne. Andrei and Kostka work to save her and eventually join forces with Russian civilian fighters who wish to curtail the Polish invasion. There’s a lot of battling and rallying and nationalism. Also: unicorns.
I knew going in that 1612 would be an overblown, propagandistic tale with exaggerated or fictionalized historical events. I guess that’s why I was a little bit impressed with the final product. While the story is thin as a photoshopped W cover model, it’s filled with archetypal characters that I couldn’t help but appreciate. Andrei is the naive, prettyboy hero, while Kostka provides the humor as his adorable sidekick. They’re very noble and heroic and resourceful, and I wanted to root for them. Kseniya is a standard, attractive woman with little ability to help herself, and the Hetman (who isn’t given a name I don’t think- more on that later) is a fiendishly greasy bad guy who’s easy to hate.
It’s very much like a typical Western fairy tale, in which personality is forsaken in favor of adventure and moralistic messages (the frequent appearances of a unicorn serving as a very heavy-handed metaphor certainly aids the comparison). As a long-time lover of fairy tales, I kind of appreciated the simplicity, and once I accepted that I didn’t need to think very hard about most of the story, I could lean back and get into the very violent and well-filmed action. Everything looks really good, from the lavish costumes and vast landscapes to the exciting battle scenes and ultra-bright, slow-motion flashbacks.
Well, continuing the theme I guess, this movie has some problems with racial prejudice. Apparently the whole “Poles invading their country 400 years ago” thing still irks some Russians, and the Polish characters here are depicted as despicable, immoral thugs whose main interests are murder and rape. While one Polish guy is pretty central to the story, he’s never even given a name, further emphasizing his perceived inhumanity. Certain historical events are changed to make the Poles seem more dastardly (for example, a young tsar is brutally murdered by Polish soldiers, when in reality he was assassinated by Russians). It’s not exceptionally blatant (they aren’t animalistic Mongols or anything), but it’s clear enough, and I was especially aware of it since my professor warned us about it prior to giving us the film.
Basically 1612 isn’t really that great, but its gorgeous visuals and likable archetypal characters kept me interested, and the story is dramatic and varied enough for some mindless entertainment. It’s wildly inaccurate, I know, but I have little background in Russian medieval history so I didn’t particularly care. And obviously, the anti-Polish prejudice isn’t ok, but it’s not a focal point of the film and it really is just reminiscent of a one-dimensional Disney villain, I guess I wasn’t incredibly shocked.