Synopsis: One boring night on Amazon Prime, I stumbled across the 2015 Russian WWI flick Battalion. featuring woman warriors marching to the front lines, bayonets fixed, ready to charge into no man’s land! As I watched the drama unfold, another movie came to mind; Wonder Woman (2017) charging the German lines. How do the two movies compare? Uhh… different would be putting it mildly. Yet, despite being so different, they go hand in hand. They offer insights on their own, but when put side by side, create a whole picture. Wonder Woman and Battalion are polar opposites and teach opposite lessons. But they both serve the same purpose; to overwrite a dark moment in history, replacing it with a fantasy that’s both inspirational and comforting. Reprinted from the author’s website, Reading Junkie.
For months I slogged away at my Night Witches project, but there continued to be a mental stumbling block that I couldn’t quite get over; the Women’s Death Battalions established by Russia’s provisional government following the February Revolution and the abdication of the tsar in 1917. The women in uniform who fought the Nazis in World War II, or the Great Patriotic War, were intertwined with the previous women who marched to battle in the prior war. I couldn’t understand one without understanding the other, and so far hadn’t made any progress toward such an epiphany. Movies are an art form just like books are. So it should be no surprise that watching Battalion helped me gain greater understanding of the subject matter I’ve been digging into.
I think pretty much everyone reading this is at least vaguely familiar with Wonder Woman and the 2017 movie featuring her adventures in the battlefields of World War I, so I won’t go into that. Battalion is based on real people with a true story who deserve an introduction.
Who were the Women’s Death Battalions?
Rough and tough Maria Bochkareva one of the exceptionally rare women in military service, approached Kerensky with a novel idea. In addition to the traditional male shock troops being mustered for the upcoming campaign, Bochkareva pointed out that everybody was overlooking half the population. Why not also unleash the patriotic girls and young women on the Huns? Growing numbers of women were already clamoring for the right to take up arms, why not give them the chance to do so?
However, the Women’s Death Battalions weren’t intended as a treat for girls daydreaming of martyrdom. The female shock troops were to solve a deadly problem that would doom Kerensky’s entire offensive if left unfixed. Young girls charging into the enemy lines, rifles in hand, bayonets gleaming, their battle cries filling the air, would be enough to stir the demoralized Russian army. All those mutinous drunks would be inspired by the courage of the girls, and ashamed of their own cowardice. They too would take up arms and go back into the fray.
Or at least that was Kerensky’s plan. It was a good plan. It was just one of the many good plans that came to define the governance of Kerensky and his fellow moderate-socialists… all five minutes of it before Lenin arrived and swept them away like dust under a broom.
Bochkareva assumed command of the 1st Russian Women’s Battalion of Death. Inspired by their example, other Women’s Death Battalions mustered around the country. Even that wasn’t enough. Grassroots militias of patriotic young flowers started to spring up everywhere. Whatever those darlings were planning (assuming they knew what planning meant) was anybody’s guess and authorities didn’t care to find out. So they gently herded as many girl armies as possible into sanctioned units before they wandered off and did God knows what. Within weeks, the combined Women’s Battalions’ ranks swelled to more than 5,000 soldiers.
None of those other units mobilized in time for the offensive. Bochkareva, a cadre of male officers, and roughly 300 dreamy recruits embarked by rail to join the Provisional Government’s rejuvenated crusade against German imperialism. Bochkareva’s maiden shock troopers of the 1st Russian Women’s Battalion were brave and excited, but that’s not the same thing as prepared. Their only training was five weeks of basic military drill and marksmanship.
Baptism By Fire On the Silver Screen
No two war movies are exactly the same, but many fall into a similar template. Battalion’s plot arc shares nearly all the same milestones as Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, or Band of Brothers, the HBO adaptation of the true story of a company of 101st Airborne soldiers, on their bellies, inching across France.
Though Wonder Woman is in an entirely different genre, she’s still kicking, punching, and lassoing her way through a war zone. So it’s fair to say she’s in a war movie. And her adventure does hit many of the same notes as a war drama with no superheroes in sight.
An important moment, perhaps the most important moment of all, in a war movie, or even any story about a young adventurer going out into the world for the first time, is the baptism by fire. Every baptism of fire is different. The hero will probably make mistakes and stumble. The hero might even lose. But regardless, it’s a keynote in the story and a huge step in the hero’s character development. Sometimes a movie’s baptism of fire might be so compelling, it’s the most memorable scene in the whole story.
Both movies have a traditional World War I baptism by fire – a nerve-wracking charge into no man’s land. First, Wonder Woman’s. While wading through a chaotic trench on the front lines, Wonder Woman hears heart-breaking news that the
Nazis Germans are keeping people as slaves. Unable to stand by and let that happen, she resolves to “save everyone” and plunges into battle. This one of the most widely discussed scenes in recent superhero films. The internet is flooded with emotional testimonies from moviegoers, especially women and girls, who watched this and were so deeply affected, they cried in the theater.
Now for Battalion. The female recruits have arrived on the front. Like they do with all the Russian units, Germans come bearing gifts of booze. But those sneaky krauts won’t get away with their tricks this time! The female shock troopers are pure teetotalers (Russian woman soldiers are always pure teetotalers) and indignantly reject the offer. The confrontation escalates into a violent scuffle that leaves one German man and a Russian woman dead. Enraged, the Germans decide to give these girls a good spanking.
There aren’t any subtitles, but there’s little dialogue and almost all of it is self-explanatory. The gal in the opening shots comments “It smells like apples.”
Is Femininity Compatible With War? Maybe.
One of the biggest and most highly praised messages of Wonder Woman is its demonstration of how feminity isn’t incompatible with the gritty “manly” affair of action adventures in a war zone. Our heroine conveys this lesson somewhat literally in the ballroom scene when she trots around and even dances with a huge sword down the back of her stylish gown (men being fooled by a woman with a phallic object tucked under her dress is interesting symbolism, but I might be reading too much into that).
Before doing anything else, Bochkareva deploys unapologetic barbers to shave her recruits’ heads. That’s an upsetting experience for obvious reasons, but what’s one to do with long hair in the field? Interestingly, in the next world war, Marina Raskova carried out the same ritual on her women’s air corps. There were other cases, but most male commanders weren’t willing to ask that of their female subordinates.
The women do keep their eyebrows flawlessly plucked for the duration of the movie. A Russian woman going into combat with unkempt eyebrows is an unthinkable war crime, apparently.
The movie soldiers’ lips and cheeks seem just a little too rosy for a battlefield, but not to the point of absurdity. Real Russian war women did go to fairly extreme lengths to retain the little bits of feminity they had left. In the absence of rollers, they resorted to pinecones to curl their hair. They did wear makeup when it was practical and they could get away with it. One of the Night Witches’ regimental “commandments” (which were tongue in cheek, but based on truth) was to “Do not cut your hair. Preserve femininity!“
In the case of the ugly fight against Hitler’s hordes in the Great Patriotic War, there was an additional and mostly unspoken reason for all this hassle. Fighting women were indeed spending “the best years of our lives” to do this. Her tour of duty was the best opportunity for plain and average Zhenia to find a husband, and she had little to no competition. After returning home she would have to compete with younger and prettier girls untainted by the suspicions of military service. And she would have to do it in a country horrendously depleted of men.
This longing didn’t go unnoticed. Some war graffiti left in East Prussia in the wake of the Soviet Army in 1944-45.
Even at war, love is all you think about! That’s women for you! -Soldier Ivan.
And what would you have done without us, Ivan! -Marya.
Another Night Witch commandment addresses this with another commandment; “Do not drive away your neighbor’s groom!” That one was an almost-certainly deliberate gender-bending of the actual Biblical commandment about coveting your neighbor’s wife. Raskova’s three women’s regiments were sisterhoods, especially the night bombers, the only one which, through considerable effort, managed to stay all-female throughout the war. Pursuing or irritating another girl’s crush just wasn’t an acceptable thing to do.
When it came to female soldiers’ “woman’s thing,” the army was surprisingly well prepared to handle it with an abundance of bandages, though that’s probably not the purpose military men had in mind for their macho war supplies. But no doubt they were more than happy to give the young ladies as many bandages as they wanted in exchange for not being pressed about this matter any further.
So all in all, this wasn’t a black and white issue. Femininity wasn’t completely incompatible with 20th Century wars on the Russian front, but when necessary to choose between the two, femininity had to go.
Heroes are an inspiring identity
The two movies’ ideological clash ascends feminity to include the very concept of individuality. Superheroes are individuals mighty on their own. Sometimes they band together, but it’s usually for plot purposes rather than actual necessity. This is a manifestation of American rugged individuality, which is a desirable and understandable dream for masses of people living boring, monotonous, hard, and to a large extent meaningless lives. To step out and break free from the mass of faceless worker ants is by a huge margin the single greatest perk that comes with the job of being a superhero. This by no means makes a superhero vain or incapable of sacrifice, but individuality cannot ever be one of those sacrifices.
Battalion’s recruits submitting to their heads being shaven isn’t just a willing sacrifice of femininity, it’s a sacrifice of their entire identity as individuals. It’s also a somewhat literal one. The characters are easy to follow as they depart their various walks of life to join up to fight. But after initiation, the massed ranks of baby-faced young gals with shaven heads and identical drab uniforms are difficult to distinguish from one another.
For anyone planning on watching this movie, which I do recommend, save yourself from the pitfall of trying to keep up after this point. After they go to war, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep up with who’s even still alive. It’s also a little pointless. The Women’s Death Battalion is a collective identity, her individual soldiers are interchangeable. Their experiences, suffering, sacrifices, and victories are shared. Which young faces happen to be on screen at the moment almost never matters.
Heroes’ Convictions and Strengths Must Be Tested
The Germans foes are also radically different in the two movies. As a superhero, Wonder Woman is already far more powerful than everyone else. For some reason, that isn’t enough of an advantage so German soldiers are portrayed as slow, oafish, bumbling buffoons. Wonder Woman’s enemies are so pitiful, it’s hard to gauge her strengths and limitations. Is she invulnerable like Superman or just an enhanced soldier like Captain America? We never find out for sure because the German army is hopelessly inadequate. Were real WWI German soldiers this dumb? If so, it’s baffling that they managed to win anything.
Filmmakers have full creative freedom with their stories. Why nerf the German soldiers? They’re barely recognizable as German soldiers at all. They look more like brain-fried junkies pressed into service as a penal battalion. They don’t demonstrate any semblance of teamwork or basic tactics. Wonder Woman is playing the war with her game difficulty set to “recruit” mode.
To be fair, there is one enemy stronger than Wonder Woman; Ares the God of War. But that epic confrontation fizzles out almost before it starts. Rather than immediately incinerate her, Ares hits just about every bad guy trope imaginable; he monologues, blurts out that Wonder Woman is the Godkiller weapon created to destroy him (she had no idea, why would you tell her?), gives dumb reasons for what he’s doing, gives even dumber reasons for why she should join him, and practically defeats himself. Ares is either an idiot or a masochist.
How To Flip a Trope?
Flip the Power Dynamic, But Not In an Obvious Way.
Wonder Woman in some sense does flip the long-established trope of heroic men rescuing damsels in distress but accomplishes this by simply giving Wonder Woman masculine strength. Women in the movie’s cinematic universe are weak and inferior to men, and this is repeatedly driven home by every single mortal woman that the Amazon goddess meets. One woman happens to be stronger than all mortal men, but the power dynamic remains unchallenged. Battalion‘s power dynamic is the polar opposite of Wonder Woman’s. As brave they are, the Russian women have virtually no training, are physically weak, and worst of all, they’re timid.
Bochkareva recognizes that problem early on during boot camp. She hits her recruits and forces them to fight each other. But it’s just not enough. A typical boy has at least been in a schoolyard brawl or faced a bully. The girls don’t even have that. They march off to war painfully unprepared for it.
An ongoing theme of Battalion is how exhausting and scary it is to trudge around a battlefield. A soldier’s worst nemesis isn’t the opposing force or the environment; it’s a horde of internal enemies; fear, a fight or flight response run amock, all the mechanisms in the human body that should be helping do the opposite. Knees buckle and hands shake, making even simple tasks enormously difficult.
Battalion has good production value, but its greatest strength is the large ensemble of skilled actresses. They feebly wobble through the mud in a daze, looking like a good gust of wind would knock them over. Thanks to excellent acting while wearing accurate uniforms and kit provided by the Military Historical Society (established by Putin precisely for jobs like this) the girls convincingly pass as real soldiers exhausted and terrified on a hellish battlefield. They’re so invested in their performance, it’s difficult to distinguish them from their great-grandmothers in 1917. It’s not impossible, but pretty close.
Maintaining suspense in a movie can be challenging. Battalion takes the unorthodox approach of achieving suspense by not even trying to. It’s a gloomy montage of one disaster after another, each one obvious from miles away. The protagonists are so hopelessly overwhelmed and clueless it’s a surprise when they don’t die horribly.
They don’t exactly make a great first impression during their meeting with the German emissaries. Despite having vastly superior numbers, women armed with rifles and bayonets struggle to overpower two men. The Russian girls eventually manage to kill one. Then they cry.
As for the remaining man, a pair of guards go off with him. There’s no doubt whether or not this trip will have a happy ending. It won’t. One of the guards tries to cross a narrow trench but flops straight into it and twists her ankle. The second guard takes her job very seriously but is still doomed. Within a few minutes the German, who’s tied up but easily two or three times her size, gains the guard’s trust, then promptly takes her to the ground and strangles her with his knee. It’s an awful and inglorious death, but so is every other death in Battalion. Blunder after blunder like this doesn’t foster any optimism about their fast-approaching confrontation with the German army.
Lessons Are Strong When Cinematography Is Good,
and Muddied When It’s Bad.
No one with a functioning brain on either side of the fourth wall doubted for one second that Wonder Woman would crush the Germans facing her on the opposite side of no man’s land. Battalion’s enemy troops share Wonder Woman’s confidence, and for the same reasons. German men are bigger, stronger, better trained, and more experienced than the novice woman soldiers. They have no reason to believe their attack has any chance of failing. It shouldn’t even be hard.
Depicting the women’s first battle be a gas attack takes the masses of identical soldiers and dehumanizes them completely with protective masks. It’s literally a battle of the sexes metaphorically represented by animals. Men trample forward like lumbering war pigs and women look like mice. Squeaky overlapping chatter accompanying the girls as they scurry around reinforces their resemblance to mice. Needless to say, this doesn’t help their score on the intimidation scale, which was well below zero to start with.
The gas attack’s excellence drives home the lessons it was intended to teach and highlights the more amateurish aspects of Wonder Woman’s no man’s land scene. When Wonder Woman dashes across the field, there is no sense of scale. Is she fighting ten Germans or a thousand?
When she leaps onward to save the village beyond, the camera reveals a huge earthwork that could comfortably support hundreds of troops with room to spare. Why is it so empty? For that matter, why would the British and French troops (who are all jumbled together for some unexplained reason) care that Wonder Woman and her companions defeated a single German squad? When they all charge out after her, why aren’t those soldiers immediately gunned down by the rest of the trench’s garrison? Germans only exist when they’re on screen, and evaporate when they become inconvenient to the plot.
If Wonder Woman had waited until darkness that would be useful; defeating the squad manning a parapet and surrounding trenches clears the way for a surprise attack by infiltrators, or silently leave huge vulnerabilities that a following general assault at dawn could exploit and cause the whole defensive line to collapse. Real-life German stormtroopers actually became excellent at this, and evolved to become a crucial opening phase of advanced WWI tactics, and Blitzkrieg doctrine developed in the 1930s for use in WWII.
WWI trenches spanned across the continent with almost no gaps. Why didn’t more Germans rush to stop the breach in their lines? WWI armies also practiced defense in depth. Taking the forwardmost trench achieved little, as there were many more trenches behind it, each one filled with more men and weapons. This is the single biggest reason WWI was so bloody and pointless. Attackers could usually defeat the first or even second defensive lines, but would eventually become too exhausted and lacked the operational doctrine and mechanization required to bring up fresh troops and supplies to exploit the initial success. A counterattack would quickly sweep away the tired and depleted attacking force. Why is there no such counterattack after Wonder Woman cuts her way into the village? It doesn’t seem like anyone even notices she wiped out half the
Führer’s Kaiser’s army to get there.
As for Battalion’s gas attack, it’s hard not to wince as the Women’s Battalion blunders the last few steps into the German ranks. A gory trainwreck is inevitable and that’s exactly what happens. The action demonstrates a firm understanding of the psychology of violence. Women wander up to their opponents but are unwilling to kill and unable to defend themselves, so they just die. Another noticeable problem is that most of the female soldiers aren’t putting any weight forward and weakly gripping their weapons. It’s easy to knock the rifle out of one of the women’s hands and throw her to the ground.
The battle as a whole shows the same understanding of psychology. The Women’s Battalion abandoning cover to meet the German men in hand-to-hand combat on open terrain might seem a little silly, but it’s not. Poison gas isn’t just a weapon, it’s also a defense. It makes the enemy miserable in their trenches and gives advancing friendly soldiers a nice screen of concealment. Imagine the outcome if those women had stayed in their trench blindly shooting at nothing until the men swooped down on top of them.
World War I was an exercise in madness, but the tactics get an unfair rep in popular media. Massed infantry charges weren’t futile acts of suicide like they’re usually portrayed in movies. They almost always worked. An attack, even a costly one, gives soldiers momentum and is a morale booster. Most of the time they succeed in driving away enemies in static defenses. But when both forces attack, it’s a completely different game. When two groups of men (or in this case, people) crash into each other with bayonets fixed, one side will break, and usually fast.
Most of Bochkareva’s green troops don’t know how to do much of anything except endlessly dogpile on the enemy. So that’s what they do, and it’s enough.
The Germans are suffering losses too, and they can’t be happy about it. They must also be unhappy it’s taking an outlandishly long time to hack their way through this mass of suicidally brave women refusing to take a step back.
Smokescreens are nice, but also very temporary. The gas blows away with the breeze, leaving the Germans exposed to raking machinegun fire on top of everything else going wrong with their attack. It’s all too much and they don’t want to play anymore.
However well the Germans might have been doing in the battle doesn’t matter because they run away first. With laughably poor training and no combat experience, the women are weak and incompetent. But they’re willing to die and the German men aren’t. That special quality is why the Women’s Battalion wins, and why they’re heroes.
Going back to the collectivism theme, the battalion’s soldiers are individually weak, but collectively they’re almost unstoppable. As they gain more experience and self-confidence, they become even more ferocious opponents to tangle with. Whether or not a movie has any basis in reality, it has to establish internal logic and be consistent with it. Even starting at rock bottom as incompetent green recruits, they win a battle through raw tenacity and self-sacrifice. A proper protagonist must earn accomplishments. It’s natural that the women win larger victories as they grow. They deserve it and pay a terrible price for their success every step of the way.
An interesting bit of trivia: during Wonder Woman’s production, studio executives felt it was too long and an idea was floated to cut out the no man’s land scene entirely. In hindsight, everyone can agree that would have been a mistake considering how popular it is.
But no senior executive at a major studio is ignorant about visual storytelling. They were right, and it’s little surprise they wanted to cut this scene. The entire sequence adds absolutely nothing to Wonder Woman. Its absence wouldn’t even leave a gap. The scenes before and after it would carry on as normal. Yes, this was her first foray into battle alone without the help of her family and tribe of super(ish) woman warriors. It should have been a defining moment like Battalion’s gas attack scene. But it just wasn’t. Wonder Woman doesn’t learn anything about herself or the world around her. Wonder Woman’s friends and the audience don’t learn anything about her either.
The setup for Wonder Woman’s attack is just fine. There’s plenty of opportunities for all these things to happen. She doesn’t know anything about the outside world. She didn’t even know what ice cream was. Yet she perfectly understands all the weapons being thrown at her. Wonder Woman grew up on an island fighting with swords and arrows, yet is absolutely confident her shield and armor will stop high-caliber machine guns and even mortar fire (why that shell bounced off her shield instead of exploding on impact is anybody’s guess. Oh right, because it’s cool). Things would have been awkward if she didn’t know mortar rounds blow up and tried to block it with her arm.
All that is nitpicking. Maybe Steve Trevor gave Wonder Woman a 12-hour class on every weapon system she might encounter on a WWI battlefield. That’s as good an explanation as any. Wait, did anyone think to give her a mask? Wonder Woman getting taken out by mustard gas would be really awkward. Also ironic, since the entire plot revolves around stopping a new gas weapon. Sorry, nitpicking again.
Nitpicking aside, the Russian soldiers already knew about weapons as Wonder Woman did. What they didn’t know was themselves. They’d never stood up to anyone and had never inflicted violence before. Now they knew they could, making the gas attack the most important scene in their collective character arc. Other peoples’ perceptions of the Women’s Battalion changed. Up until that point, everyone on both sides thought they were a joke. To at least some extent the uninitiated recruits had to ponder that possibility themselves.
Wonder Woman grew up fighting, and had already beaten up and killed baddies before. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to learn in no man’s land. Her attitudes and naivety from growing up away from the real world are believable. Of course, trying to “save everyone” is silly and Steve knows that, but Wonder Woman doesn’t. Any massed attack across no man’s land would cost casualties. Even if everyone in Steve’s team survived, at least some of the soldiers behind them would die. The whole cinematic universe manages to dodge around all of this to prevent a single friendly trooper from so much as spraining his ankle. Against all odds, Wonder Woman dethroned Veggie Tales as the record holder for the most nonviolent battle scene in history.
So why go through all of that effort to prevent on-screen deaths in a war movie? Because someone dying would, by definition, cause Wonder Woman to not be able to save everyone. Worse still, as the person who initiated the battle, Wonder Woman would be directly to blame for anyone killed in it. The spilled blood of soldiers and possibly even some of the civilians she was trying to rescue would be a horrifying and humbling experience for her that would cause tremendous and meaningful character growth.
Her decision to attack isn’t necessarily wrong, it just comes at a price like everything else in war. Even correct battlefield decisions have terrible consequences. People die no matter what you do. Previously oblivious to that reality, she would have to struggle with it for the rest of the film.
After that sickening experience, Wonder Woman might be hesitant to make decisions under pressure and have to receive encouragement from her friends and force herself to accept the risks and costs of what she does. But the filmmakers were so terrified of making Wonder Woman anything less than flawless, they sacrificed all chances to forge her into an interesting and meaningful hero. They did succeed on a superficial level of presenting her as flawless, but that trait is utterly meaningless because she never faces any real adversity, setbacks, or sacrifices.
The attack against the German trenches is by far not the only chance missed for interesting character development. Even in dialogue, Wonder Woman has tone-deaf moments, like when she berates a secretary for being a “slave.” That’s a mean but realistic thing for a princess to say. She doesn’t understand the plights of an average 1917 woman, or how hard she would have to work for a comfortable and high-paying white-collar job. Wonder Woman isn’t being malicious, just ignorant. However, it’s still an awful thing to say and nobody corrects her for it.
What if the secretary stood up herself? As a good person, Wonder Woman would have to admit she was wrong for making a nasty comment and apologize. That would be meaningful character development only needing a few seconds of screen time. Wonder Woman is trying to figure out how the outside world works and is humble enough to admit she’s wrong. Or here’s an even more interesting approach; Wonder Woman hates being wrong and admits it only begrudgingly. It’s a character flaw she has to work on.
The movie’s most adamant supporters praise it for flipping tropes, but this would be flipping one of the biggest tropes of them all. A frumpy, overweight secretary puts the greatest and most beautiful woman on Earth in her place. But the secretary doesn’t stand up for herself, and nobody else in the room stands up for her. And that’s exactly the problem. Wonder Woman can’t be wrong about anything ever.
Ironically, the toughest choices in the movie were all made by her sidekick. In the trench scene, Steve Trevor is absolutely correct. It’s senseless to waste time and possibly get injured or die trying to save a few dozen villagers during a mission to save millions of people.
The movie can’t let him be right on that, but he is right. What if she gets blown up ten feet into no man’s land? That would be a little silly and pointless. But Wonder Woman charges out anyway and Steve, who consistently acts like a quick-thinking fighter pilot, admits that things don’t always go the way he wanted them too and adapts. He goes out after her.
Later, he has to make the awful decision to let that same village get gassed to death because he’s worried that intervening will spoil the mission. All those deaths weigh on his shoulders and he has to live with it. Worse still, he has to live with the fact that he might have been wrong and they could have been saved. But he won’t ever know because he didn’t try. At the movie’s climax, Steve flies the bomber filled with poison gas to a safe altitude and blows it up. A good soldier is willing to sacrifice other people to win and is also willing to sacrifice himself. Steve demonstrates both qualities.
In his role as Steve Trevor, actor Chris Pine proved he can portray a convincing and likable hero. He’s clearly more than capable of being a good Captain Kirk for the rebooted Star Trek universe, which makes it all the more a crime that
Jar Jar J. J. Abrams had him play a childish, hot-headed bully instead.
Wonder Woman is vastly more powerful than Steve the mere mortal, but he’s not intimidated by her. He gets clowned a lot, but it never bothers him. It’s completely believable that she would find that trait endearing. She would have benefited from getting clowned a few times herself. But again, the writers can’t let her face any kind of trouble, whether it’s in battle or a social setting.
Men can and often do write excellent female characters, but they sometimes write terrible ones, and here’s why. They might become too infatuated with their voluptuous fantasy woman and turn her into a Mary Sue. Sometimes they’re just too dim-witted to imagine quirks and deficiencies that make a fictional woman interesting without becoming unlikeable. In this case, they might have been scared a purple-haired social justice warrior nibbling on orphan bones under her bridge would give the movie a bad review. Wonder Woman made close to $1 billion. 99.9% of the human population would have liked the movie anyway. With a more relatable protagonist, it’s possible that people would have enjoyed the movie even more. Some angry professional victims on Twitter deciding to “cancel” Wonder Woman wouldn’t have made the slightest bit of difference.
When Historical Fiction Becomes Fantasy
In the end, Battalion is a fantasy not so different than Wonder Woman. It’s not a comic book film like Wonder Woman, but is so divorced from reality it might as well be. The reasons as to why are worth discussion, and extremely relevant to understanding their daughters in the next generation’s war, and maybe woman warriors as a whole.
As a figurehead for the Provisional Government torn down by the Bolsheviks, the truth about Bochkareva’s unit and the Women’s Battalions as a whole is tricky to pick out from the propaganda spewed by Whites, Reds, and Western journalists. Battalion makes no attempt to follow the real historical timeline of events, which is fine. Historical fiction stories are parables, therefore tend to be better when presented as coherent narrative arcs rather than play-by-play accounts. That’s what documentaries are for.
However, there is enough evidence to show that the movie’s depiction of the 1st Russian Women’s Death isn’t an exaggeration. They did go toe-to-toe with German soldiers and beat them, despite having little training and no experience.
That begets the question: why aren’t their achievements celebrated more? Depictions of the Night Witches and female characters obviously based on them feature prominently in many Soviet and Russian movies up to the present day. Other brave woman soldiers who stood up to the Nazis, like the snipers and medics, are celebrated with equal enthusiasm.
But as far as I can tell, the Women’s Death Battalions are mentioned only in passing by Russian books, and not at all by movies until now. The release of Battalion probably gave these woman soldiers more attention than they received in the entire 20th Century, and certainly more praise. In the decades after WWI, the Women’s Battalions weren’t celebrated. Quite the opposite, they were hated.
Look To the Children To Understand the Parents
The Night Witches’ accounts of their own story also shed light on the public attitude toward the Women’s Battalions. In 2005, Irina Rakobolskaya, chief of staff of the 588th Night Bombers Regiment (who went on to become an accomplished nuclear physicist and the chairwoman of the Moscow State University’s Physics department for decades) published We Were Called Night Witches, which she co-wrote with another veteran of the unit, Hero of the Soviet Union and award-winning author Natalya Meklin. Meklin sadly passed on before her last and arguably best book hit the printing presses.
We Were Called Night Witches differs from most other accounts about unit histories as it is actually two accounts. It’s the same story told twice. The first half of the volume is Rakobolskaya’s version, followed by Meklin’s. That’s a creatively simple approach that improves the book. Its authors’ radically different personalities and experiences don’t step all over each other.
As a brilliant woman with a scientific and in many ways a stereotypically masculine mind (but still enjoyed being a mother and grandmother who baked cookies), Rakobolskaya described technical details of battles and events that most of the other girls found boring and either forgot or didn’t learn to begin with. She also showed admirable honesty about her difficulties in a leadership position she was forced into, didn’t want, and had no skill for.
Rakobolskaya’s candid account of her blunders and incompetence should be meaningful, and reassuring, to anyone who’s been in a combat leadership role like she was. If she found it hard, then us cavemen shouldn’t feel bad (her thesis was on the characteristics and behavior of muons… I don’t even know what that means).
Meklin wrote her part with the same delightful descriptiveness as her other books and shared brilliant insights on the deep relationships and quirks of the girls. Her writing style was playful, yet hit every note on the emotional spectrum, from elated to funny to tragic. Meklin shared the human and emotional side of her sisterhood of “fighting friends,” and the trauma they endured during the war years.
It’s a brilliant book about warfare that unfortunately receives virtually no attention at all. Like most uncontrollable things in life, one best not to dwell on this, because that makes the lack of attention even more maddening. It’s a right of passage for every major and above to return from his tour of duty and write some pseudo-intellectual drivel about it. Because that’s exactly what the world needs, yet another insipid moron writing a book about himself.
Rant over. Rakobolskaya shared an incident that paints a perfect picture of the scars the Women’s Battalion left, and still hurt a generation later. Near the start of their flight training, young recruits of the newly formed women’s air corps were marching through Engels Air Base. A passing group of men called the girls a new death battalion. It was a cruel comment meant to hurt them and it worked. The women were crushed. Vera Lomako, a seasoned aviator who broke multiple world records, simply told her young charges to “look down on those men.” After that, everyone felt better.
Why was there so much hatred toward the Women’s Death Battalions that the patriotic airwomen training at Engels were mortified to be compared to them? Is it simply because the communists won and controlled the former Russian Empire for almost 80 years after? Partly, but there’s a much bigger reason, and ultimately the motivation Putin’s propaganda machine pushed Battalion in the first place.
What Became of the Real Women’s Death Battalions?
Battalion meets all the criteria to be classified as a government propaganda film. It received massive government assistance, funding, and neatly fits into Putin’s cultural agenda. That’s not intended as a disparaging statement. Some of the greatest films of the 20th Century were Soviet propaganda. This article has brought up Soviet Legend previously, and that needs to be explained before going any further. Soviet Legend was more than anything else Stalin’s brainchild, which he implemented through a remarkably well-thought-out campaign to adopt folk heroes and their stories and fit them into the mold of socialist realism. With this accomplishment, new heroes could be neatly dropped into already familiar archetypes, making them recognizable and admired by people on every place on the social strata.
A baptism of fire is a crucial part of a war story, but the ending is equally important. How does Battalion end? Like in real life, the women storm the German trenches, killing or scaring off every enemy man in sight. But despite all the women’s successes, no one else is interested in helping. An inevitable massive German counterattack comes, kicked off by slaughtering an inattentive young sentry (The women are doing much better, but from perfect. No one is). Bochkareva’s soldiers fight valiantly but are hopelessly outgunned and outnumbered. Many of them are killed and the survivors cornered in a dead-end of the maze of trenches.
Meanwhile, a group of officers from headquarters arrive at the front. The disgruntled enlisted men greet the officers the customary way: by threatening to mow them down with a machinegun. But after rousing speeches, chest-thumping, and other things men do to be dramatic, officers and enlisted come to terms. The officers even rip off their rank as a symbolic gesture. Everyone agrees it’s wrong to let their sisters die alone in battle. They have to go rescue the Women’s Battalion.
As hundreds of German troops close in from all sides, the women recite their prayers and come to terms with the bitter end that’s coming. But then a miracle happens! The rejuvenated Russian men charge into the fray. As horrible and costly as it was, the Women’s Battalion has won the day. Not only have they proven themselves as brave soldiers and heroes, they’ve accomplished their bigger mission to stir up their brothers to fight in defense of the Motherland once again.
It’s a wonderful ending, and also total nonsense.
Battalion portrays the men fairly. They’re not cowardly or treasonous, just tired of endlessly dying for no good reason. The movie also fairly depicts the Germans as alright guys (which is more than can be said for Wonder Woman). They’re cold-blooded killers, but that doesn’t make them evil. The women start out with a timid innocence but quickly turn into cold-blooded killers too. The Germans aren’t so different from the Russian men, they just happen to be on the opposing side. Like the Russians, the Germans don’t want to fight either. That group of deserters the women run into had completely abandoned their positions, and even their weapons. The Germans must know perfectly well there are gaping holes all over the Russian lines, but don’t care because they aren’t taking their jobs very seriously either. They only get aggressive after the Women’s Battalion shows up and picks a fight with them.
To give real-life history more context here, by 1917 everybody was so sick of fighting that governments on both sides lost virtually all control of their soldiers. A mutual truce was inevitable. Then-President Wilson decided to play World Police and deploy troops, forcing the Germans to fight again and caused appalling numbers of completely unnecessary deaths.
How Battalion blatantly departs from reality is that the actual Russian men in WWI weren’t so gentle. They were extremely not happy about a bunch of women showing up and provoking the Germans over and over again. The real Women’s Battalion was counterattacked like in the movie’s finale, but there was no rescue. They got thrown back in total disarray like everyone else before them had. Things only went downhill from there.
The Bolsheviks toppled the widely hated Provisional Government for good. A group of drunk male soldiers decided to celebrate, but not by drinking. They were doing that anyway. Instead, this large crowd of men found another way to celebrate; drop by the Women’s Battalion for a friendly little chat about the wisdom of restarting a firefight with German soldiers. The majority of Bochkareva’s troops were out on another offensive, so the men contented themselves with lynching 20 women left behind to stand watch. Yes, that wasn’t a nice thing to do, but nobody was feeling very nice at this point.
A strongly worded message has the virtue of not needing to be repeated. Bochkareva took the hint and hastily disbanded the battalion for their own safety, then departed to find a safe location for herself as Bolshevik forces solidified their power across the country. That was the abrupt and inglorious end of the first Women’s Battalion.
Even before the October Revolution and celebratory lynchings, most of the other Women’s Battalions started to disintegrate. The Provisional Government finally realized that the odds of women successfully shaming men into dying were less than zero, and it was pretty dumb to think that was a good idea to begin with. Their main purpose gone, it was difficult to justify expending considerable amounts of food, supplies, and other resources needed to support large units of women, so authorities cut off most of it.
Many of the women were also beginning to wonder if they might have been suckered into pledging themselves to a cause that wasn’t as wonderful as they initially believed.
On October 25, Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace. Not famous for being fast learners, the Provisional Government ordered the 1st Petrograd Women’s Battalion to join the vastly outnumbered defense force. The women’s commander declined. One company still got dragged into the chaos; they too refused to fight and surrendered at the first opportunity.
While being held prisoner, the female soldiers were verbally abused, threatened with rape, and three actually were raped. The next day, everyone apparently agreed that the girls had learned their lesson, so released and rearmed them. Returning their weapons was a completely safe thing to do, and only one of them used it. A soldier was so ashamed of the cause she’d sworn allegiance to she turned the gun on herself.
The battalions evaporated, but individual and contingents of women went to the front, and many participated in combat on both sides of the Civil War, the vast majority joining the Reds obviously.
It’s a strange and sad story, but there are some likely conclusions one can infer from it. Men are highly sensitive to women’s perception of them and the reverse is also true. So rather than resent men’s angry and often vicious abuse, the female soldiers felt ashamed. Women in the following generation were equally ashamed to be compared to those soldiers. That feeling doesn’t appear to have any connection to a perception of woman soldiers being cowardly or useless. The problem was that they were on the wrong side of history. WWI was such a disastrous and traumatic event, that reason alone was enough to hate the Women’s Death Battalions.
Much of the hatred was directed at Bochkareva herself, who not only joined the Whites in the Civil War, but was one of the voices encouraging Western intervention – which they did. Virtually every other developed nation on Earth joined together in a huge coalition to try and depose Russia’s new government and reestablish a dictatorship. None of these things were particularly appreciated and ultimately ended with Bochkareva’s capture and execution.
Movie Are To Some Extent Wish Fulfillment
Movies are fantasies, and fantasies almost always fulfill some psychological need. In Wonder Woman’s case,
her creator was satisfying his BDSM fantasies she’s the flawless female hero that the American public craves right now. I don’t claim to know the cause of this culture-wide need, or why real-life women and realistic fictional women aren’t enough to satiate it. I think the anger at Wonder Woman, which came mostly from conservative and right-wing men, is mostly groundless. It’s not in any danger of being the next Citizen Kane, but Wonder Woman is nonetheless a fun and campy adventure. It does even have some inspiring moments, including the no man’s land scene if you don’t think too hard (which is the best policy when watching the whole film, to be honest).
I enjoy watching Steve Trevor in action and consider him a worthy hero in his own right. However, Wonder Woman’s naysayers were correct in the sense that her titular movie is part of a cinematic and cultural trend spiraling downward like a doomed ship in a whirlpool. While Steve isn’t a drooling moron, Ares and the German soldiers are. That lazy and destructive storytelling crutch only got worse in later movies, and soon infected the good guys, making them all pitiful and weak like the villains.
It’s easy to list off movies gradually driving this trend of portraying women as flawless to the point of nauseating boredom and men as pathetically useless. I won’t bother to go on a tangent to discuss them here because everyone reading this, whether or not they agree with me, knows exactly which movies I’m referring to.
With Wonder Woman out of the way, what about Battalion? Despite being the product of an alien culture I know very little about, that might be an easier movie to explain, at least in broad terms. Putin is working on his pet project, the Eurasian Economic Union, with the ambitious goal of bringing together all the original Soviet Socialist Republics (With the exception of the Baltic States, which already joined the EU). Blowing the dust off Soviet messaging is a fairly obvious step in bringing back a partial successor to the Soviet Union itself.
Despite frequent American-led
shows of force training exercises in Ukraine and a cascade of CIA-sponsored fascist coups peaceful grassroots democratic movements, Putin is making gradual progress toward this goal. But it also looks like he’s attempting to reestablish the heroic narrative that served as the glue of the world’s geographically largest superpower and hundreds of ethnic groups living on it.
After Putin has revived public nostalgia for the Soviet heroes and their legends in the Great Patriotic War, his political machine tackled a much harder goal; mend the schism between love of the Motherland and the dark, bloody history of WWI and the imperial era leading up to it.
He’s had, at best, mixed success so far. Battalion and its cinematic predecessor The Admiral held their own in the box office, but not quite enough to justify their hefty budgets (failing to break even makes little difference when the government was footing a lot of the bill to begin with).
In 2018 T-34 incinerated Russian box office records with the same efficiency it incinerated German panzers. Because “Army guys in a cool tank pick up hot babe and blow up Nazis, yay!” is a movie concept that can’t possibly fail, and doesn’t even require trying very hard.
Movies like T-34 also always beats edgy, sad stories about WWI. Putin gave the kids candy, now they won’t eat dinner.
Rekindling nostalgia for the defense of the Motherland in WWI would be great. The 1964 Red Army crossing the Rhine and sweeping across Europe probably would have been great too. For that matter, finding one semi-competent leader during the post-Stalin years before the whole train rolled off a cliff would no doubt have been great.
Enjoy Your Heroes. Live, Love, Laugh. Or Something.
Sasha Raspopina, a writer for the Calvert Journal was less than impressed with Battalion, declaring “The women soldiers, however brave, are constantly proven to be incompetent and useless, unless helped out by men.” I was initially baffled by her sentiment and wondered if we’d watched the same movie. Then I realized she was referring to the end when Russia’s male troops swoop in to help just in the knick of time. Apparently, Raspopina was unhappy that 300 soldiers don’t defeat the entire German Empire by themselves. Her statement implies that she could do better, and I encourage her to show us mortals how it’s done.
She wasn’t alone in feeling this way. While some reviewers liked the movie and some didn’t, self-described feminists tended to be the ones who expressed contempt for Battalion’s plucky protagonists. For the most part, men didn’t express that reflexive hatred, or feel that imperfect woman soldiers are “useless.” Men generally admired the on-screen fighters trudging through a WWI battlefield and all the horrors on it, and the answer why is fairly obvious. Men in war face the same problems and feel the same things that women do. The 21st Century is a unique and perhaps unprecedented era. Men can empathize and identify with the struggles of fictional women, while growing numbers of actual women cannot.
But ultimately, stories whether they’re based on historical events or not, exist to provide an escape from the drudgery of day to day life. Many women enjoy watching an infallible goddess annihilate armies of hapless humans who can’t hurt her in any way, and good for them. If that provides joy and an escape from the world for a couple of hours, I don’t want to take that away.
As for me, I think it’s nice that a hundred years later, the first women’s battalion to ever exist get to be heroes in their very own movie.
Wonder Woman is of course available for rent on Amazon Prime. Stream it! Buy the DVD! Get it on Blueray! VHS? What is that?
As I said, it’s not a terrible movie. It’s also not difficult to keep up with the plot. Wonder Woman is an entertaining superhero flick. It didn’t quite destroy the patriarchy as many hoped it would, nor was it a pinprick through the heart of the (sexist) giant.
Nevertheless, it’s as good a way to kill a weekday night as any other.
I’m trying to think of more things to say, but that’s all I can come up with. Wait, here’s one. The sequel is coming this Christmas, and it’s important to watch the previous installment so you don’t miss crucial elements of the plot.
BattIion was written and edited for both theatrical release and to be aired as a mini-series, and this only sort of worked. The opening half is a little padded, but not insufferably so.
The subtitles, as usual, are borderline. The Russian word for brother, brat (I know), ended up as “dude.” Everybody says dude a lot. I don’t know how much else of the dialogue was lost on the ears of whoever was making $10/hr to translate this.
Russia’s Military Historical Society has assured everyone there is no bad patriotism in this movie, and it isn’t filled with silly things that couldn’t happen like Saving Private Ryan.
During a press conference for Battalion with Fyodor Bondarchuk, director of Stalingrad (2013), a Russian film critic suggested the first women’s battalion was senseless folly like the Charge of the Light Brigade. Bondarchuk asked back “Why do you have children if they’re all going to die anyway?”
About the Author
I worked in the Army’s public affairs program as a multi-media “correspondent,” if you will, for eight years, producing news articles, video, and photography in around the United States as well as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kuwait.
My current creative endeavors include Tales From Venus, the Night Witches Project, and The Man With No Heart. A full list of my published work on Fabius Maximus can be found here. My portfolio of military work and publications is located here. I have the attention span of a squirrel, so none of these are quite finished yet. I’m excited to have launched Reading Junkie, and hope it is a platform that other creators enjoy and find useful. See my full bio here.
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