As a palate cleanser from the low-budget drivial I force myself to consume, I decided to watch The Stronghold, a 2017 film by director Yuri Kovalev. Did it perform its necessary role and remove the sludge from my mouth? Yes, for the most part; aside from the Racism (?), more on that later.
First things first, though, The Stronghold is a Ukrainian film with English subtitles. Because of this, parts of the film become ‘lost in translation.’ Some aspects of the story get mildly obscured while other bits can be hard to hear since certain scenes have a voice-over; there are layers, so to speak, to how the movie communicates itself to an English audience and those layers can be confusing. Essentially, there are moments where you are listening to one non-English language while another non-English language interprets while you are trying to read subtitles over the “build-in” subtitles of the movie. If it sounds like a lot that’s because it is and though it never becomes overwhelming, at least for me, it can become dizzying while you are reading the subtitles and then have to glance at what is happening on screen. Thankfully, though, that is all you have to deal with in understanding the movie. From there, you will be pleased to know that the script has been translated well; sure, I don’t know Ukrainian, but I was able to understand it well enough, so some of the nuances were lost, sure, but I got the majority of the plot.
Once you have gotten past the presentation, you are ready to enjoy the movie. Anyone who enjoys time travel narratives will be pleased to find out that this is one such narrative.
The story begins with Vitya, our protagonist, waking up from a nightmare; when Vitya was little, he and his parent’s car careened over a cliff into the water, killing his father. Obviously, Vitya remains traumatized by the event as indicated by his fear of heights. His mother enters his room and soothes him back to his old self after his draining dream and he is off on a field trip with his school class; from what I could gather, Vitya didn’t want to attend the field trip after his dream because he knew that watching the solar eclipse up in the mountains would involve some heights. But motherly love triumphs fear so Vitya is soon with his best friend– whose name I forgot since he is in only about 15 or so minutes of the film– fooling around.
Things are going well until the class has to cross a rickety old bridge to get to the other side of a gorge. Vitya can’t cross and has to be saved, pulled back, by his best-bro. Unfortunately, Vitya’s water-bottle is crushed and it looks like he wet himself; promptly taunted on the other side of the bridge by the class-bullies, Vitya runs off. He is soon found by his best-friend but not long after mysterious shaking starts to happen; the side of the trail the boys rest on cracks open pulling Vitya into it while pushing off his best-bro nearly off the side. Vitya’s friend desperately holds on for dear life and is screaming for help from Vitya. But, tragedy strikes and Vitya’s fear of heights prevents him from rescuing his friend; or, technically, being sucked into the side of the cliff and transported a thousand years into the past, prevents him from rescuing his friend.
It was right around this time that I knew the beats of the movie– boy gets transported back in time, learns from some mentors, accomplishes some great deeds, and learns to overcome his fears/improve himself, before being thrust back into his own time to save his friend thanks to the experience he learned in the past. Anyone who has ever seen a made-for-TV Disney movie knows how this story goes (love interest included).
Is this a bad thing? I don’t think so; I gladly watched the movie and can honestly say that it is one of the better medieval-inspired films I have watched lately.
All the same, I do not want to get into the details of Vitya’s journey back into the high middle ages. I feel that it is sufficient to say this: after he is transported back in time to 1120 AD, he encounters a small series of villagers protected by a local warlord who holds himself up in Rymive, or, as it is called amongst the villagers, The Stronghold. (Roll credits, as Cinema Sins Jeremey would say.) Once in the stronghold, Vitya is tested by some magical lake monster called Veles who doesn’t kill him, so that marks him as one of the Rus. After Vitya strings together some information gained from the village elders, he is thrust into this journey to find, activate, and keep an artifact called the Perun Stone, something with magical abilities to return him to his own time. But, Vitya is not the only one who is looking for a Perun Stone, for the evil Cumans are searching for the stone as well!
Now, this is where I want to stop, because even though I could go on about some plot details or what-have-you, I feel it is more important to mention the elephant in the room– the racism.
The movie’s antagonists are called Cuman. Historically, the Cuman were Turkish warrior-nomads. After the Mongol invasion, many fled to parts of Eastern Europe who integrated and, as is often the case in the middle ages, invaded and colonized territory. In the film, the Cumans work hand-in-hand with the Great Khan. Now, I am no expert on history and race relations in this area, so I am not going to speculate on how accurate or inaccurate the movie represents Cuman history and culture, but, as numerous other viewers have noted, the movie’s primary antagonist– Cumans, the Khan– are Asiatic people fighting against the noble, proud White people of Russia and Ukraine.
I will admit that in my viewing, I didn’t notice the obvious Yellow Peril that the film connotes, but looking at it now, I can see other reviewers point. In typical fashion, the Asiatic-coded Cumans are violent, sneaky, dishonest warmongers while the noble folk of Rymive embodies the opposite– peaceful, honest, and courageous farmers who have only reluctantly taken up the sword. Intentional or not, it displays a kind of ethnic chauvinism on the part of Kovalev, something that American audiences are all too well familiar with if we look back to the controversies surrounding the ethnicities of actors from films such as Gods of Egypt to Ghost in the Shell.
Now, I am not going to say that the film is unwatchable because of this kind of insensitivity. As I said, I am not sure whether it is intentional or if Kovalev was looking for a generic bad-guy for his movie and wound up picking the wrong group. Who knows. I certainly do not; I will say and argue that the ethnic sentiment is there but it is not there in heavily concentrated form– the movie, in other words, does not revolve around ethnic mythology, though it cultivates a sort of reactionary sentimentality about how the pieces fit together.
Such is an unfortunate reality of the movie and one not to be forgotten. All the same, The Stronghold is hardly unique in this regard and will find itself in the company of many, many other movies who do the same thing, and usually much more violently. Until I know more information on how the Cuman and Eastern European populations interacted with, all I can say is that the inclusion of such Yellow Peril caricature is an unfortunate blemish for the film.
Moving on from the movie’s ethnic overtones, however, and the film itself is a great production.
With an estimated budget of somewhere around 1.5–2 million dollars, The Stronghold stands on its own against the Hollywood Big Boys. Special effects and CGI look a lot better than they ought to look for such a cheaply produced movie while the actors hit their lines and emotions well (though, again, how well I can’t say since a lot of my energy was spent reading subtitles). Yeah, the score is nothing to write home about, but the script is well written and feels competently put together, even if editing seems both choppy and odd at times.
My favorite thing about this film, however, isn’t the script or the decent acting, it is how innocent yet mature the narrative feels.
There is tragedy, yes, in the protagonist’s backstory; there are Evil interlopers, sure; a rush against time to save a friend, yup; and even a bittersweet romantic ending. And yet, evenly balanced: it is not overly violent– it is a family film!– or eye-rollingly censored; battle scenes are well-choreographed and exciting which makes the audience feel the tension even though they know the outcome. It is almost like a sport’s game.
Why I feel that the film strikes this mature chord is on account of it lacking a certain something present in most American-made films– cynicism and jadedness.
If this was an American film, the protagonist would have been mopping the entire time about his dead father, he would have been angry about being embarrassed in front of his class, and he would have been so awkward and self-centered that it is amazing he would learn how to do anything in his new time. Since this is a Ukrainian made film, though, this is not the case; the protagonist is anxious about his fears and upset that he was unable to help his friend, but he remains able to conceptualize the organization of the village and understand that he needs help in order to get back home.
I find it difficult to describe other than in these terms. The movie feels part Fairy-Tale and part Epic Fantasy. The characters feel less like cardboard cut-outs and more like archetypes with amusing twists and turns that makes you appreciate the archetype because you know it has a mild endearing twist. Such is most evident with Oleshko, whom Vitya befriends early in the film and who teaches Vitya to use a bow and arrow, sword, and horse. Oleshko is Vitya’s medieval “dude-bro.” He is fascinated by things like selfies and megaphones and has a charm about him thanks to his awkwardness; even though he is the quintessential brave knight, he seems partly like a jester. This is why he appears so engaging to the audience despite mostly being a well-known cutout.
The whole movie is strewn with these charming fusions and they bring out Vitya’s hobbies in the best way possible; whether it is Vitya using his love of model planes to build a war machine for the Stronghold or him reciting various lyrics or factoids, in English, to a crowd of stunned Cuman (who think that the lyrics are actually words to a spell), the moments where the medieval and modern collide are great fun in a film otherwise mixed with conventional historical fiction and traditional fantasy.
To wrap up this overly long review, I greatly enjoyed The Stronghold. It was a refreshing taste after so many… ‘less than enjoyable’ low-budget neo-medieval films. It remains a shame that it has some unsavory ethnic representations, but I am, for now, able to look past that and glimpse the greater whole: in the end, what we have here is an honest take on a classic coming-of-age tale. Whether it reminds you of your youth or gives you your first taste, I will be able to mark this film off as a good use of my time.