We've seen these faces before -- gathering in a rain swept railway station, holding their sweethearts for what could be the last time. We've seen each character in The 9th Company (9 Rota) in previous war movies -- the badass who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, the naÃ¯ve artist, the jokester, the scrounger, the brutal drill sergeant, and the burned out company commander.
Once the 9th Company starts however, each character seems uniquely Russian. This is probably because the director, Fyodor Bondarchuk, is the son of the world-famous Sergey Bondarchuk, who directed War and Peace (Voyna i mir) in 1968 -- a Soviet spectacle that dwarfed anything Hollywood has ever attempted. War and Peace required 50,000 extras to depict the destruction of Napoleon's Grand Army.
To depict the fighting in Afghanistan in 1988-89, the then 37-year-old Bondarchuk's first feature film used thousands of Ukrainian Army extras, and millions of dollars worth of Soviet-built military hardware, including rocket launchers, attack helicopters, jets, tanks, and armored personnel carriers. The film was shot mostly in the mountainous regions of the Crimea in Ukraine and in Uzbekistan.
Bondarchuk not only directed and co-produced the 9th Company, he also stars as Hohol, the platoon commander from Ukraine who wants to drink himself into a stupor when he returns from this campaign to forget the horrors of Afghanistan. When they arrive for training in Uzbekistan, the soldiers endure constant beatings from their disturbed training commander Dygalo, and they also fight with each other. The ethnic tensions between the soldiers from the Caucuses republics and the Ukrainians who call them "churka" or "chorny" (n-ggers) will also be an eye opener to Americans not familiar with how multinational the Soviet Union was before its collapse.
American audiences will find this film more disturbing than anything they've seen in We Were Soldiers, or Black Hawk Down. This is not due to the gore so much as the film's gritty realism -- the actors, all children of the Soviet Union who grew up in the 1980s, look more like real soldiers with crooked and stained teeth. Audiences who have seen Night Watch will recognize Alexei Chadov, who plays Vorobley (Sparrow), a soldier loyal to his girlfriend back home who refuses to join his comrades in debauchery.
The 9th Company's production values are first rate, and brighter than the gloomy shades of Night Watch. Bondarchuk blew up hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of real Soviet-issued Ukrainian army equipment rather than using extensive CGI effects. The producers also constructed an actual village that took four months to build, then destroyed it using nine tons of explosives.
An intelligence officer briefing the platoon before they depart for Afghanistan warns that "Islam is not just another religion, it is a different world."
A U.S.-made Stinger missile brings down a Soviet transport plane, killing all the passengers and crew
When the soldiers debark at their air base in Afghanistan, the transport plane that just dropped them off gets hit on takeoff by a U.S.-built Stinger missile and crashes in a huge fireball. The final battle for an isolated mountain outpost features Afghan and Arab fighters screaming "Allahu Akbar!" while plunging knives into Russian soldiers - all foreshadowing what was to come for Americans in Afghanistan and Russians in Chechnya. One of the Soviet troopers fighting the Afghans is from Grozny, a city no one in the platoon has ever heard of, and another soldier with Mongolian features is from Turkmenistan.
Fortunately, the 9th Company is mostly apolitical -- any preachiness would have ruined the film's authenticity. The soldiers listen to Gorbachev deliver a radio address to the Soviet Union on New Year's Eve 1989 while getting drunk, with only the Ukrainian really interested in what he is saying. One soldier returning home at the end reflects on all the things they didn't know would happen in 1989 -- how Soviet soldiers would be discarded like trash, and how the country they bled and died for would soon cease to exist.
While Tom Hanks is producing Charlie Wilson's War, a movie based on the book about the Texas Congressman who armed Afghan guerillas in the 1980s, thus far there has been no studio distribution for the 9th Company in the English-speaking world. The version I watched only works on Russian DVD players and had no subtitles, so I relied on my colleague Yuri Mamchur to translate the dialogue. The picture cost more than twice as much to make as Night Watch ($9 million dollars). The digital editing and audio mastering was completed in London. The film grossed $20 million dollars in the first three weeks after its September 2005 theatrical debut, and has earned $2.5 million dollars in DVD sales since its November 2005 video release.
In addition to financial success, the 9th Company has won critical acclaim in Russia. One reviewer remarked that when the audience left the theaters, they left in silence, lighting cigarettes and remembering all the familiar faces they'd seen on the screen. The storyline is based on true events, and this is the first time Russians or anyone else has seen the 1980s Afghan war portrayed on the screen from the Soviet point of view, bringing together the human and geopolitical tragedy of that doomed campaign. Bondarchuk has succeeded in making a drama that speaks to the pain of a forgotten generation of soldiers and their families.