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By Phil Hall | November 15, 2013

BOOTLEG FILES 506: “Moscow Strikes Back” (1942 Academy Award-winning documentary).

LAST SEEN: The production is on YouTube, Internet Archive and other video sites.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: A DVD is available – with an interesting story behind it.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: An elusive and half-forgotten work.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Keep reading and you’ll learn what you can expect.

Here is a bit of trivia for Oscar fans: “Moscow Strikes Back” was one of four films to receive the 1942 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. It was also the first Russian film to win Hollywood’s highest honor.

However, most people today only know about “Moscow Strikes Back” as the answer to an Oscar trivia question. The reason behind the film’s slide into obscurity is one of the sadder examples of the corrosive effects of politics on the film industry.

From October 1941 through January 1942, the German military attempted to penetrate and overrun the Soviet defenses surrounding Moscow. But the Germans severely underestimated the strength of the Red Army, and the notorious Russian winter further decimated the increasingly bedraggled German forces.

The Central Newsreel Studios, the Soviet government’s documentary production agency, sent their camera crews to the front to create a filmed record of the Battle of Moscow. Filmmakers Leonid Varlamov and Ilya Kopalin shared directing credit on a documentary that carried the title “Defeat of the German Armies Near Moscow.” The film was rushed into readiness for a February 1942 premiere in Moscow.

Artkino Pictures, the company that had exclusive U.S. distribution rights to Soviet films, recognized the commercial potential in showing this documentary to American audiences. Two months prior to the film’s opening in Moscow, the Americans and Soviets found themselves as unlikely allies in the fight against the Nazi regime. But in order to ensure the film received as wide of a theatrical release as possible, Artkino decided that the documentary would need to be adapted for American tastes.

For starters, the original title was initially changed to “The Rout of the Nazis Before Moscow.” This proved to be somewhat lengthy for the typical cinema marquee, so the title was changed to the snappier “Moscow Strikes Back.” The original Russian narration was jettisoned in favor of an English-language narration written by Albert Maltz, with uncredited assistance from Jay Leyda and Elliot Paul. Edward G. Robinson, the celebrated movie tough guy, was brought in as the narrator, while Hollywood composer Dmitri Tiomkin created a new music score.

The version of “Moscow Strikes Back” that played in the U.S. is a curious film. The battle footage is stunning and often heartbreaking, yet the film’s Soviet propaganda roots are not hidden. Even worse, the American soundtrack is often too flippant for its own good.

The film opens in the summer of 1939, with footage of a massive state-sponsored youth festival held in Moscow’s Red Square. While Stalin and the Soviet leadership look on in delight, an endless stream of teens and pre-teens engage in various displays of athleticism, dance and high-spirited antics. Robinson’s narration is heavy with flippancy: the viewer is told that dancers from Soviet Asia are performing “jive, Mongolian-style” while a parade of little boys is dubbed “Misha and his gang.” A pretty blonde girl is referred to by Robinson as “the type of northern blonde that Hitler would like to be.”

The festival footage is supposed to give the impression of the pre-war Soviet Union as a carefree environment – of course, there is no mention of the non-aggression pact between Hitler and Stalin from that summer.

The film then jumps in time to November 1940, with the suggestion that the Russian people were getting ready for war with Germany. But while relations between the countries were growing tense at that time, it is revisionist history to suggest that the Soviets were openly preparing an invasion.

The film then skips to October 1941 – four months after the Nazi invasion, the Red Army and Moscow’s civilians are seen preparing the city for an attack by digging trenches and filling sandbags. Men are shown lining up for supplies and weapons that will help them in guerrilla warfare behind enemy lines. Robinson’s narration informs us that the password for these fighters is “liberty,” and a comparison is made between their efforts and the guerrilla-style tactics used in the American War of Independence.

Stalin addresses the Soviet nation, and Robinson notes how his speech is “calm, brave, without oratory.” Soldiers are seen marching off to war, and Robinson reminds the audience that “patriotism alone never stopped the Nazis.”

The initial Nazi air strike is presented in an aggressive cross-cutting with the bomb-assembling work of Russian laborers in a munitions factory. Russian-language singing is heard on the soundtrack, and a downed German airplane is shown in ruins. “The arteries to feed the juggernaut must be severed,” says Robinson.

Next comes an intertitle announcing “December 6, 1941 – Moscow Strikes Back!” The film goes into a riot of military footage showing the Red Army on the move. Tanks race across snowy fields, cannons fire into the air, and cavalry officers mount their horses and charge at the enemy. A more amazing sight finds rifle-toting parachutists in white snow suits jumping from airplanes and landing in the snow – once on the ground, they put on skis and speed across the snow to the enemy.

Soviet victories pile up quickly – an occupied village is recaptured and German soldiers trying to hide under porches and in empty houses are quickly flushed out. Several Germans, clearly ill-clothed for the Russian winter, try in vain to stay warm. Robinson remarks, “Their pure blood circulates badly on Russian soil.” To its credit, the film shows Russian casualties of the battle.

Flummoxed by their opposition, the German attempt to destroy the Soviet food supplies. The film shows Russian civilians fighting through dark smoke to put out the fires and preserve their wheat. The film then locates the wreckage left behind by German forces of Soviet heritage and educational sites, but the real horror comes in footage of slain civilians – including stripped down children and adults left hanging on gallows. Robinson angrily intones, “We will remember, we will remember, we will remember.”

With Moscow ultimately out of harm’s way, the film shows the Red Army marching past a monument to the Battle of Borodino – a blunt reminder of an earlier dictator that tried and failed to invade Russia.

With a 55-minute running time, it was impossible for the film to cover the entire battle. And while shots of bombed out Moscow buildings can be seen, there is relatively little mention of what took place in the city during the conflict. Nor is there a definitive number of war dead – that number would not be compiled until years later, and historians have placed Soviet casualties in the range between 650,000 and 1.2 million.

But despite the sarcastically hokey narration and Robinson’s unexpectedly hammy delivery (he sounds more like Billy Crystal’s exaggerated impersonation of the great actor rather than his natural speaking voice), “Moscow Strikes Back” can still strike a chord with its stark depiction of the indefatigable Russian spirit and the determined defense against the Nazi aggressors. And the sight of Red Army soldiers skiing into action is more thrilling than any synthetic action/adventure flick now in multiplexes.

The film had its American premiere in August 1942 at New York’s Globe Theatre, The New York Times wildly sang its praises, claiming that “here is a film to knot the fist and seize the heart with anger, a film that stings like a slap in the face of complacence, a scourge and lash against the delusion that there may still be an easy way out. Here is a film to lift the spirit with the courage of a people who have gone all-out. Among the documents of great battles … we have not seen a film to equal it.”

Artkino arranged for Republic Pictures, a small studio specializing in B-grade Westerns and serials, to distribute “Moscow Strikes Back” across the U.S. Reaction to the film was overwhelming, and it received awards from the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics Circle before earning its groundbreaking Academy Award.

But within four years of its release, “Moscow Strikes Back” became an embarrassment. As World War II concluded, the Americans and Russians devolved into the Cold War, and any film or creative artist that was seen as being supportive of the Soviet Union was viewed with deep suspicion. Screenwriter Albert Maltz found himself blacklisted, while Robinson barely escaped Red Scare-inspired career derailing. Republic Pictures jettisoned “Moscow Strikes Back” from its offerings and the film had no re-issue value.

So where is “Moscow Strikes Back” today? Well, you can find the full film on YouTube, Internet Archive, and other online video sites. But the prints on all of these sites have the word “Traditions” printed in their lower right corners. This originates from Traditions Military Video, a small company specializing in military-related films. “Moscow Strikes Back” is available on DVD via the Traditions Military Video site, and the company also sells the film on Amazon.

But I wondered if Traditions Military Videos had the exclusive rights to “Moscow Strikes Back” – after all, no other company appears to be offering it. I contacted the company and received this reply: “We have the exclusive right to sell the film footage we bought from government archives. If you buy our DVD you would need our permission to use it except for home viewing only. Our footage has our logo embedded in it to protect our financial interest. You can buy your own copy from government archives and control that copy.”

I also checked with Elias Savada, a fellow Film Threat writer and founder of the Motion Picture Information Service, on the film’s copyright status. According to my pal Eli, there was no copyright registration or renewal on this film, nor has there been any GATT/URAA restoration, or a Notice of Intent to Enforce a Copyright Restored Under the Uruguay Round Agreements Act. Thus, it is a public domain work – but since the Traditions Military Videos release is the only copy that is commercially available, bootleggers are making unauthorized copies of that release for online viewing.

Of course, this raises another question: whatever happened to the Academy Award given to “Moscow Strikes Back”? If anyone reading this knows the answer, please share your information in the comments section below!

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!

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  1. Fred Fisher says:

    I can’t hope but notice that at least half of the script mirrors Frank Cappa’s Battle of Russia, including a lot of the footage as well. I don’t know who came first. In any event if someone wants a good copy contact the National Archives. The “Tradition” copy is of very poor quality. I was hoping for over thirty bucks that they would have cleaned the DVD up. They didn’t. And yes it would be child’s play to clean up the sound track. And yes again, I have been buying about a hundred films from the US Archive. For the most part most are squeaky clean, Especially the Seven Combat Information Films made by Cappa.

    I also purchased a copy of the Battle of the Somme from the British Imperial War Museum. The footage looked like it was shot yesterday, and that was what a hundred years ago.

    Anyway the National Archives are the way to go. They don’t rip you off like some of these Video Company who spend more time making empty threats instead of restoring the film. Dampening Technology, really, what a stretch.

  2. Denis says:

    > Thus, it is a public domain work – but since the Traditions Military Videos release is the only copy that is commercially available, bootleggers are making unauthorized copies of that release for online viewing.

    Yes, your guess is right. I know that for sure, cause I was the guy who bought that DVD from Transtions and put it on YouTube 2,5 years ago –

    I’m Russian, this movie is our legacy and I wanted it to be publicly available but yeah, the only American version I could find was Transions’ one.

    Nice research 🙂

  3. Chris Sobieniak says:

    “Thus, it is a public domain work – but since the Traditions Military Videos release is the only copy that is commercially available, bootleggers are making unauthorized copies of that release for online viewing.”

    Just seems typical of those companies that would rather see monetary value out of such PD material.

  4. Phil Hall says:

    When these Oscars were handed out, the awards went to the producer (or, in this case, the producer’s rep – or at least I assume that, because I don’t know who accepted the film’s award). And, yes, Central Newsreel Studios had a name change. Thanks!

  5. BCE says:

    If the Best Documentary Oscar is typically given to the director, wouldn’t it have gone to Leonid Varlamov or/and Ilya Kopalin? (Both are deceased, according to IMDB.) Also, Wikipedia says that Central Newsreel Studios is now known as the Central Studio for Documentary Film.

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