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Movie Review

Enemy at the Gates

MPAA Rating: R for strong graphic war violence and some sexuality

Reviewed by: Carole McDonnell
CONTRIBUTOR

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Moviemaking Quality:

Primary Audience:
Adults
Genre:
Romance Drama
Length:
2 hr. 26 min.
Year of Release:
2001
USA Release:
_____
Relevant Issues
Joseph Fiennes and Jude Law in Enemy At The Gates
Featuring: Jude Law, Joseph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, Ed Harris, Bob Hoskins
Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud
Producer: John D. Schofield, Jean-Jacques Annaud
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Rachel Weisz in “Enemy at the Gates”

Somewhere in the middle of the film “Enemy at the Gates,” the film-going experience turned sour. I began viewing this film with a jaundiced eye. In short, I did not believe what I was seeing. A bad turn of events for a movie that is based on a true story.

“Enemy at the Gates” is the story of one of Russia’s great war heroes, Vassili Zaitsev, (Jude Law) a sharp-shooting military-sniper whose talent at killing Nazi officers helped revitalize the demoralized Russian Army. His skill was needed just when it seemed that the Germans—the enemies at the gates—would over-run Stalingrad. Vassili is an uneducated shepherd boy from the Urals who was taught to shoot by his grandfather, is drafted into the Russian army, finds love and becomes a national hero and object of worship.

A story of a warrior-farm boy who saves his country is wonderful enough. But Hollywood is Hollywood and tinseltown has never been able to leave a true story as it. A little embellishment is necessary, perhaps. (we’ve seen what they do with the story of David, another warrior farm-boy.) Hollywood pads even the most heroic stories with Hollywoodisms. It is not enough that Vassili is a sharp-shooter; he must be an uneducated sharp-shooter. Nor is it enough that the real Vassili had a girlfriend, Tanya (Rachel Weisz) who was a soldier, he is provided with a Jewish girlfriend who speaks German, who is a shooter in the militia and whose parents have been murdered by the Nazis. (They have a passionate clinch at one very dangerous moment, I could only look on in disbelief.) Such standardized cliched embellishments can only turn a viewer off.

Here are a few more examples: Vassili is given a Jewish intellectual propagandist friend, Daniloff, (Joseph Fiennes) to tout his glory Why? To provide a rival in Vassili’s love for Tanya. Why else? To say something about politics and race and the corruption of the Russian military. Why else? To provide us with the noble sacrificial/wistful death of an intellectual. It is annoying how Hollywood always create non-religious Jews whose intellectualism is their religion. We know this guy will turn out badly because he has those unromantic intellectual glasses that Jewish intellectuals always wear. The character leaves the movie-viewer feeling slightly uneasy. One wonders if the moviemakers were anti-semitic, or didn’t want to create religious characters. Other cliches abound: the Nazis are impeccably well-dressed, dignified and aristocratically cold. If I recall my history, the Nazis hated the aristocrats. And they were not a noble classy bunch, but a set of cruel thugs who happened to make it to power. it’s cliches like this that distances the filmgoer from the film. The strangest relationship—unbelievable, at best—involves the story of a child named Sasha.

This is not to say that the film won’t be liked. It’s a story of heroism and people like stories of soldiers and courage. The courage of warfare is more implied than seen, however. Most of the soldiers are pawns doing what they have to do… or they’ll get killed… by the Nazis and their own officers. There are a lot of battle scenes, mainly of Russian soldiers being gunned down. The war seems to have been won by intellectual propagandist and a noble sharp-shooter but not by the common soldiers.

The character of Vassili is shown as a humble, gentle being whose talent happens to be killing and who came into the kingdom at the right time in order to save his people. His actions encourages his fellow countrymen. But we never see what his fellow countryman does. They “believe” in Russia because of him and sign up to fight the enemy. But we never see them doing anything. Vassili’s prowess also gains him enemies, namely the cold aristocratic Nazi sharp-shooter, Konig (played by Ed Harris.) I am reminded of the insight given to believers in the story of the Seven sons of Sceva in the book of Acts. The “demonic” media is aware of Paul: “Paul, I know and Jesus I know. But who are you?” it’s good to be so powerful a force that even the enemies take notice.

As Christians, we are told to look upon whatever is true, honest, lovely and of good report. We are told to imitate that which is good. The Bible itself is full of warriors and we are told to be good soldiers of the Lord. The films shows us what a good soldier does. But we also see how the act of spinning the hero’s tale can turn into manipulation. Wars and Rumors of wars inspire, yes… but in the hand of a spin-meister propagandist, the hero becomes more than human. The hero becomes part of a greater game-plan whether or not he wishes to be. Vassili has to face his own press. It is the lot of the hero to be known. It is the nature of greatness to be praised and publicised. But, as we see in this Hollywood version of a “true story”, even the best and truest story—for good or evil—gets padded for human consumption. And who knows? Maybe Hollywood knows more about its audience than we do. After all, who would go to see a story of a heroic sharp-shooter if the film only told the bare—undressed up story?

The title of the film is taken from the Biblical verse: “Children are a heritage of the Lord and the fruit of the womb is His reward. Happy is the man who has his quivers full of them, for they will speak with the enemies in the gates.” A very ironic phrase, considering how youthfulness and innocence are used in the film.


Viewer Comments
I think that I will differ with most in that the way I viewed this movie—for me it was not from so much of an impersonal war hero’s experience, or as any specific individual’s response to war. But rather what war times will do to individuals. I love the premise of people needing a hero and a reason to keep fighting, this is so much like a Christian’s every day struggle. Knowing that things are not hopeless, but there is a reason to go on. The problem is, or became, that we all desire to do GREAT things, or be someone who can make a difference, and Vassiley had this opportunity, what he did not understand was the cost. He attained “greatness”, and then was faced with his own humanity! …and knew for certain that he was lacking! HELLO? I will admit that as far as historical accuracy, I have no idea if it comes even close, but in my opinion, as far as human beings go, in circumstances such as these, I could feel the struggles. And yes, even though the sex scene may have been unnecessary, I think in times such as those, uncertain as to whether there is such a thing as tomorrow, I believe it may have been one of the more realistic parts of the whole movie.
My Ratings: [Better than Average / 4½]
—C. Millar, age 34
What a wonderful thing it would be if just once, someone would take the initiative to actually try and create a great movie, instead of a sensually aroused audience. The movie itself was wonderful. I’ve seen MANY war movies and I was very impressed at the lack of bad language that is generally associated with these films. The blood and gore is to be expected. After all, it IS a war movie and the makers want it to be historically accurate. The problem that I had was with the very explicit and very graphic sex scene. Not only did the makers decide to put in the irrelevant fact that such an event occurred, they had to show it to us. I was disgusted. I would have been more than eager to take my 13 year old little brother to see it, and to purchase it once it hit the stores, but now, I am ashamed to say I saw it.
My Ratings: [Very Offensive / 4½]
—Stephanie, age 16
I am very sorry to say that I did not enjoy this film nearly as much as I was hoping to. I’d heard that this was a “must see.” Sadly, that isn’t true. it’s okay. that’s all I can give it. The acting was good from the three male leads, especially Ed Harris, however, the plot was too focussed on a one on one game of hide and seek rather then say, I don’t know, THE WAR that they were involved in. The first half was very good. It seemed like it wouldn’t end up like the film I just described. But then, I was let down. I still liked it, but it could’ve been made better. There really wasn’t any bad language in the film. Obviously there was violence[if you can’t handle violence why did you go to this WAR movie?] and there is also a very bizarre sex scene. Anyway, the bottom line is it wasn’t all that it’s been cracked up to be. I’m still waiting for a really good movie to kick start 2001. This wasn’t it.
My Ratings: [Average / 3]
—Jason Eaken, age 17
Although the movie is worth seeing, it is not A “Saving Private Ryan” nor a “Braveheart,” nor any other outstanding war movie. The filming is well done, and both Jude Law and Ed Harris play their roles well. The film is also valuable in that it gives Americans a sense of the Russian perspective. The violence is not as brutal as the abovementioned movies; however, the sex is completely unnecessary and detracts from the quality of the movie, in my opinion. Sex should rarely be a component of a war movie, if ever. Overall, the movie was good, but I would not take children or even young teenagers to see it because of the sex.
My Ratings: [Average / 3½]
—Andrea, age 25
I liked this movie for different reasons, but maybe mostly because it did what movies are mostly there for: entertain. We all knew that there would be “blood” scenes so we shouldn’t really be offended or disgusted. About the sex scene, well, I feel it could have been presented in another way, not that “real”. The act (like in the movie) itself is sometimes more revealing I think than a little nudity. In all, pretty good movie, good acting. We can relate a little more with those people and that time. I enjoyed the rivalry between the two snippers (but that’s just me).
My Ratings: [Average / 4]
—Alex, age 22
It was a good movie as war movies go. Refreshing that it wasn’t shown from the American or Allied side. I’d like to comment on something one of the commentators said, namely that the Nazis were materialistic. Yes, they were. They liked their snazzy uniforms. They liked the myth they had of themselves. But materialism isn’t aristocracy. The Nazi leaders rose to power the hard way and they did in fact hate those who were “to the manor born.” History also recalls that the Nazis killed many aristocrats. The commentator doesn’t consider that the film portrays the Russian officers as grasping and low-class and he sees nothing wrong with the movie’s “horrible generalization.” Any Jew who survived the Nazis would agree that the Nazis were thugs. The Nazis did not represent the average German. They were well-trained in ideology and cruelty. As for the main characters, they seemed like stock Hollywood characters. The main characters have stock formula—but cinematically appropriate—relationships and have a stock formula enemy? How can they make a WWII movie that shows NAZIS without showing Nazi racism? An opera-lover sniper? Sounds as if he was churned out by the typical Hollywood sociopath-maker. “Let’s make him an opera lover.” Whether or not this story is true isn’t the question. The question is: Can anyone in his right mind believe any of it?
My Ratings: [Better than Average / 2½]
—Luke McDonnell, age 41
…quite entertaining but the cinematography is about the only redeeming quality of this film. All the violence and unnecessary sex scene aside, I could not believe that I’d paid to see Stalin depicted as an honorable man. He was responsible for the deaths of many millions more than Hitler was yet now we are supposed to be sympathetic toward a soldier in his army? Totalitarian communism, which is no better than Nazi fascism, is supposedly dying in our world today and now American entertainers are honoring a Soviet war hero. In addition to entertainment, Hollywood films ALWAYS communicate some message. Should they be honoring a Soviet war hero? What would be the difference if they had produced a film about a Nazi war hero? I think we need to be very careful and discerning about the message being communicated while we are being “innocently” entertained. Compare this movie, which I, in retrospect, would not take the time to see, to movies like Braveheart or Schindler’s List and I think you’ll see what I mean!
My Ratings: [Extremely Offensive / 2]
—Bob, age 37
Apparently your reviewer had no background in WWII at all. Most Russian soldiers were unable to read or write, and the German army had a long Prussian tradition, they weren’t all Nazis.
My Ratings: [Better than Average / 4½]
—P. Zimmer, age 24
…showed in depth, the moral dilemma faced by someone that was sent out solely, and purposefully to kill another man. That was his sole purpose in life. As far as the sex scene goes, the point is, that traumatic times drive soldiers to do things, that they wouldn’t normally do. Sex was stress relief during the war. Relief from the everyday dying, the everyday being hunted. It might be offensive to some, but, it was probably the truest point in the movie. Vasiliy Zaitsev was a great hero to the Russian people, and a great hero to the Russian Army. Sure, the sex scene could have been left out, but, it would have left out an important insight into the heart of the soldier during war time. I know, I have been in the same place he has.
My Ratings: [Better than Average / 4]
—Dallas, age 27
…very good, and very powerful. The only thing I had a problem with was the sex scene. It really had no place in the film at all. Other than that, it was wonderful…
My Ratings: [Better than Average / 5]
—Adam, age 18
An amazing movie. I knew of the real story and the movie reproduced it very well. However, I disagree with the two of the reviewer’s comments. 1st of all, your comment about the Nazis hating the aristocrats. That is not true. The Nazis were very materialistic. Second, your comments on how the movie made it seem that Vasselli won the war by himself. By the time the Nazis invaded Stalingrad in 1942, the Russians had lost 14 million soldiers and civilians. The Nazis meanwhile had rolled into Russia with much less casualties. The Russian army’s morale was very bad and that’s why Russian officers shot their troops, so they wouldn’t run away. Some people agree, that the Stalingrad Russian sniper did win the war and encouraged the Russians to counterattack the German army at Stalingrad. Even so at the end of the war, 20 million Russians were dead.
My Ratings: [Average / 5]
—Peter, age 24
Spoiler’s included… While I agree that Hollywood has a tendency to abuse artistic licence in adding fictional events to true stories, I think Enemy at the Gates is an excellent film that is far more accurate than other recent historical films such as Gladiator and Braveheart. I disagree with the reviewer that Danilov’s character was simply used as a plot device. He was a real man, a political officer who often accompanied Zaitsev in order to cover the duel for propaganda and was shot by the german sniper when he foolishly made himself visible. Tanya’s character was also reasonably accurate as a fellow sharpshooter who fell in love with Zaitsev during the war. The love triangle between these three is not based on fact but is actually only a very small, albeit unnecessary, subplot in the movie. I sensed no anti-semitism of any kind in this film. I also take exception to the reviewer’s comments about Konig. The suggestion that all Nazi soldiers were “cruel thugs” is a horrible generalization. Konig was the headmaster of a sniper school and an opera-lover. It seems to me that the movies dignified characterization of him is much more probable than that of the reviewer. Of course, since the story of the duel between these two men is relatively obscure (many historians even suggest that it was actually a myth invented for Soviet propaganda since there is no “official” record of it) the filmmakers had to use their artistic freedom to a certain degree. In my humble opinion, however, Joe’s “gnawing feeling” (below) is for the most part unwarranted (although I will agree with him that the obligatory sex scene was completely unnecessary).
My Ratings: [Average / 4½]
—Jon, age 26
Enemy at the Gates could have been an excellent movie, but Hollywood decided to appy much of the its typical cinematic formula: boy meets girl. Boy has sex with girl. Are we to believe that it is necessary to display a sex scene for us to believe that the protagonists were truly “in love”. I think a good script and good acting could accomplish that more convincingly. I’ll say this much for the movie: it made me want to research the battle for Stalingrad and see what REALLY happened. I have a gnawing feeling that it was not particularly accurate.
My Ratings: [Average / 3]
—Joe, age 36
Great movie, it shows you how hellish war is. Nothing much offensive about except for the extended sex scene. Really when you think about it they didn’t have to put that scene in it. Anyway, not enough swearing to make it offensive, but the wars are very graphic. All in all a great movie.
My Ratings: [Average / 4½]
—Joseph Berry, age 14
This movie had a sex scene with no nudity but still very graphic. It was also rather violent. There was also some swearing and a little bit of smoking and drinking as well. Bummer because it was a good movie.
My Ratings: [Very Offensive / 2]
—K.E., teen
Movie Critics
…Like the film SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, the war footage shows graphic and gory battle carnage as explosions and shootings are bloodily recreated…
—Preview Family Movie and TV Review
…a serviceable war picture, with enough action and drama to keep you interested…
—Bill Muller, Arizona Republic
…An extended sex scene takes place in barracks while people are sleeping around the couple…
—Kids-in-Mind