I’ve been to Serbia once before on my journey through the world of Great War Films having reviewed ‘March on the Drina’ (1964). I liked that film, its’ foreign-ness from the usual British, French and American fayre I’ve become accustomed to. ‘March on the Drina’ had a fair bit to offer. It gave me some insight into the fighting on the Eastern Front, it had a high level of historical accuracy (for what it’s worth) and was visually interesting.
My film today is my second trip to Serbian cinema ‘St George Shoots the Dragon’. And the big question is, was it any good? The answer is kind of….it’s hard to say. It’s a bit odd. Normally here I’d give you a brief overview of the film, what it’s about, any stand out stars, directors, etc. But for this one I really don’t quite know how to describe it and make it sound in anyway coherent. It has a few of the usual Great War Film tropes I’ve come to expect: There’s a love triangle, there’s the sad goodbyes to loved ones as troops are mobilised and there’s the fickle fate lottery of life and death in the trenches. But…..and it’s a big old BUT….with this one there’s also a press-ganged invalid army walking slowly across no mans’ land, there’s a brief cameo by powder-keg igniting (Serbian hero) Gavrilo Princip and a woman in a smart looking dress going for a wander around no mans’ land looking for her fallen lovers.
So, it’s a bit all over the place. I’ll start with the love triangle. We have a ginger lady who’s in love with a guy called Gavrilo. He’s not THAT Gavrilo just another one with the same name. He gets his arm blown off in the First Balkan War of 1912. He goes home and tells his girlfriend she can’t love him anymore because he’s lost his arm. Now I’m guessing there’s a bit more to this, something along the lines of his youth being taken from him by the war and that he feels less of a man because there’s a bit of him missing. His colleague George (not the St George of the title, just another dude called George) leaves the train directly after Gavrilo and Gavrilo’s now ex-girlfriend clocks him straight away and they become a thing. In later years Georgy boy gets a bit jealous of Gavrilo making woopy with his bird. We’ll come back to this later.
Now poor one armed Gavrilo is not alone when it comes to having bits of himself missing. There’s a whole slightly wonky phalanx of disabled veterans who have banded together to become smugglers. They care for one another, squabble amongst themselves and from a script perspective act as the comic relief. The problem for these guys is that the fit healthy, drunk and grumpy young men of the village have taken a leaf from Georges’ book and taken a severe (invalidist?) dislike to them.
All this means by about fifty minutes in I had no idea what this film was going to be about. The love story was starting to fizzle out and if I’m honest I’d not sensed very much love going on (even though there was a fair bit of on-screen canoodling happening between Gavrilo and Mrs George). I also didn’t know where the discord between able bodied soldiers and the disabled guys would go. Had I missed something? Would it all make sense? No and No.
Reading this back to myself I realise I’m sounding a bit negative but I’m actually quite enjoying the film even though I’ve not got much of an idea where it’s going. The cinematography is creative and lively, the actors seem to be putting in good performances (I am relying on subtitles so I may be wrong) and the story’s moving along at a fair lick. As I’ve pointed out it has plenty of on-going problems but at this stage I’m guessing it’ll all sort itself out by the end.
There’s a few good quality, although brief, battle scenes with all the stuff I’ve come to expect. Explosions, death, the sound of zinging bullets etc. We see dead and dying soldiers pinned to barbed wire, little moments of agony and gore. The last breaths of poor downtrodden cannon fodder. All the usual stuff. Nothing more.
There are also some bits which stick right out like throbbing dogs balls. Young Gavrilo has a sickly pregnant wife who smokes, drinks and eventually loses the baby. We see the burial, get a couple of close ups on sad looking faces and that’s it. Move on. Baby dead, now let’s get on with the story. There’s an old man who ‘decides’ to die. He asks to be laid down on the ground and hey presto, next scene everyone’s drinking at his wake.
St George himself makes a few appearances throughout the film to point out something important that’s going on. His outline is visible in the clouds as thunder claps following the delivery of Gavrilo Princip to the Austrian side of the river. It happens again during the main battle scene (is it the Battle of Cer?). The soldiers thank him when their over-zealous Commanding Officer suffers a direct hit and disappears in a beige mist. Maybe they’ll survive after all!
Overall it’s just a bit too disjointed to be called good. The love triangle trope is fast becoming one of my bugbears in these Great War Films. Got a big hole in your story and need to pad out the length? Add a love triangle. The antagonism between the serving soldiers and the disabled veterans also seems a bit odd to me, and following a bit of googling doesn’t seem to have any basis in fact. The invalid veterans walking through the trenches and out into no man’s land is probably the point where I switched off. There’s a blind guy for Dumbledore’s’ sake! In no man’s land, walking through shell-holes without any helping hands, into withering enemy fire. Ridiculous.
But, do you know what? For some unfathomable reason I liked it. It looked good, the cinematographicator person did a good job. The disabled vets acted as comic relief to the overly egged love triangle and it kept moving, not lingering on any one thing for too long (with the exception of that bloody love triangle). I’m recommending it purely because it’s from Serbia. It’s not British, not American, French or Australian. It’s Serbian and I think for the small budget they’ve done something interesting and entertaining.
I’ve had a bit of a hunt around and it doesn’t seem like the easiest film to get a copy of. I’ve had my eye out for some time with no luck. And then I lucked out when a new guy started at work who happened to be Serbian and interested in the Great War. So thank you Mirko. The rest of you (if you’re interested) I’ll let you know when I manage to find a way of getting a copy.