Chapaev: revolutionary leader turned cinema icon
When it comes to Soviet cinema, few films eclipse Chapaev in both popularity and quality for its time. Upon release in 1934, Chapaev became an instant classic. Such widespread appeal across Russian society was due to the sheer patriotism and pride in the revolution elicited from the characters and scenes.
To give a brief synopsis without spoiling much, the film basically follows the main character Vasily Chapaev, a red army commander, during the Russian Civil War. The action-scenes may be outdated by todays standards but were quite awe-inspiring at the time. The film isn’t just limited to action scenes either as drawn-out dialogue develops Chapaev’s character throughout the film.
The iconic status developed by Chapaev really had more to do with the personality of his character than his on-screen action exploits. Coming from humble peasant origins, Vasily Chapaev originally fought for the Russian Tsar in World War One as a non commissioned officer. When the civil war broke out, Chapaev joined the Bolsheviks and was elected commander of an infantry regiment; eventually he would be promoted and lead even more men as a divisional commander, which is when the film takes place.
Chapaev makes for an ideal symbol of the revolution because he is untainted by his power of command and acts more like a peasant than any bourgeoise officer-type personality. In fact, the movie culminates with Chapaev and company duking it out with an entire unit of white-aligned troops. Hundreds of wealthy bourgeoise getting owned by a bunch of peasants being led by a peasant, what could possibly scream Russian revolution any louder? The masses simply couldn’t get enough of this movie.
As one source put it, “the whole country is watching Chapaev. It is being reproduced in hundreds of copies for the sound screen. Silent versions will also be made so that Chapaev will be shown in every corner of our immense country: in the towns and villages, the collective farms and settlements, in barracks, clubs and squares.”
Personally, this movie is actually pretty cool. Although it may not be as awe-inspiring for those of us who didn’t get to participate in the revolution back in the day, but it’s worth checking out to get a sense of how the revolution was portrayed by contemporaries.