Gentlemen of Fortune – 1971
The Soviet Union, like many totalitarian states, promoted a very manichaean understanding of good and evil. In mainstream culture, the latter was embodied by two figures — the bourgeois capitalist on the one hand and the Nazi soldier on the other.
However in comedies the villains are petty thieves, corrupted bureaucrats and alcoholics who remain lovable characters despite their flaws. Rather than being a serious threat, these types were an embarrassment to the Soviet ‘model society’ and therefore had to be reformed.
Gentlemen of Fortune by Alexandr Seryj features precisely such antagonists. The film follows a group of escaped convicts as they try to locate the stolen headpiece of Alexander the Great. Evgeny Troshkin, a kindergarten teacher, happens to look exactly like the criminal mastermind Docent and he is helping the police solve the theft. Posing as his evil twin, he pretends to be suffering from amnesia and relies on his ‘accomplices’ to lead him to the vanished artifact.
Like most Soviet comedies, Gentlemen of Fortune has an educational value. Film historian Alexander Pozdniakov calls the storyline “didactic” and it is no coincidence that Troshkin’s character is a teacher. Under his guidance, the three ‘accomplices’ come to rethink their life choices and by the end of the movie, they become fully reformed individuals.
Indeed, the idea of educating the masses was the country’s founding ground. Every Soviet child knew Lenin’s famous quote “learn, learn and once again learn,” as for those who failed to elevate themselves through learning, the state arranged a set of institutions aimed at reeducating the deficient.
Case in point, the infamous ‘Gulags’ were officially known as Corrective Labor Camps and the idea of labor as a disciplinary measure remained after Stalin’s death, albeit in a less extreme setup. Correctional labor, the Soviet name for community service, was an official form of punishment for hooliganism.
Director Leonid Gaidai even made it the subject of his segment ‘Partners’ in the film Operation ‘Y’ & Shurik’s Other Adventures (1965). In the short skit, a hooligan serving an administrative arrest charge and a student trying to make extra money are paired together for a construction job. Shurik tricks his lazy partner into completing all the work and re-educates him in a series of comic sequences.
The Dual Hero
One cannot write about Soviet heroes without mentioning the figure of the soldier. From 1941 onward, the war movie (read movies depicting the Great Patriotic War and the victory over Nazi Germany) became a genre of its own making the Red Army soldier the ultimate Soviet hero.
The latter represented “a pure idea of good versus evil,” argued film critic and editor at Seance magazine, Andrei Kartashov, “but the protagonists tend[ed] to be more complex characters than we find in Hollywood movies.”
In Seriy’s film, the opposition between good and evil is complicated by the fact that both hero and villain are portrayed by Evgeny Leonov. “He is both Dracula and Mister Hide, a recidivist everyone fears like fire, and on the other hand we see him playing with children, a kind person,” comments Pozdniakov.
The film’s casting and narrative choices blur the line between good seed and bad seed because they allow a duality of character. The three accomplices, for instance, are simultaneously the villains and the hero’s auxiliaries. Besides, as the story unfolds, redeeming elements from their past are revealed to the viewers — Kassoy grew up in an orphanage and Khmyr was once a loving husband and father.
Another singularity of Soviet leading men is their commonness. Troshkin is bald, heavy and short which radically departs from, say, the American superhero who is generally “tall, muscular, and white,” as described in this article from the Harvard Political Review. It is also sheer coincidence and not the man’s exceptional qualities that propels him into a leading-role position. The director further emphasizes Troshkin’s everyman quality by opposing him to Soviet sex symbol, Oleg Vidov, whom he casts in a small supporting role while Leonov is central to the action.
Speaking of singular leading men, it is interesting to note that Soviet cinema also had its fair share of heroines. They appeared in a wide range of stories, as super-productive factory workers, breadwinners and even Red Army soldiers. This strongly differs from contemporary female representations as most Russian productions confine women to roles of romantic leads.
However it is the gags and not the film’s unconventional aspects that ranked it “one of the most popular pictures in the history of Soviet film releases” on Kinopoisk, the Russian equivalent of the Internet Movie Database (IMDb). What attracted viewers was the promise of a good laugh and Alexander Pozdniakov compared Seriy’s humor to that of “Chaplin’s movies, or Harold Lloyd,” no less.
- Operation ‘Y’ & Shurik’s Other Adventures (Operatsia “Y” i drugie priklyucheniya Shurika), 1965, Leonid Gaidai
- The Dawns Here are Quiet (A zori zdes tikhie), 1972, Stanislav Rastotskiy
- Only Old Men Are Going to Battle (V boy idut odni stariki), 1973, Leonid Bykov