An upper-level course on the writings of Tolstoy at the University of Kansas recently asked students to reflect on how depictions of violence and war in Sevastopol Sketches and Cossacks relate to more contemporary treatments of war in popular culture. Below are a selection of reflections written by students in the course, Steven Duke, Joseph Pearce, A Jakob Johnson, and Cecilia King.
Sevastopol Sketches and Kelly’s Heroes: An Unlikely Comparison
Despite the rubric for this assignment expressly calling for analysis of a contemporary film, the most notable and quite possibly the most recent war film I have seen has to be Kelly’s Heroes, a World War Two action movie released in 1970. There are several links that can be made from Tolstoy’s views on war and the sometimes-comical depictions within Kelly’s Heroes. These links include the division between aristocratic ‘life’ in war and regular ‘life’ in war, the glory (or lack thereof) in war, and finally the absurdity of war. These topics which propelled Tolstoy to become a pacifist are the same topics that the movie utilizes to create comedic situations, in the lack of communication and dialogue between characters in their differing goals.
The beginning of Kelly’s Heroes resembles the beginning of Sevastopol Sketches by laying out the setting through which the characters will travel. The storm in the beginning of the movie serves the same purpose as the smoke in “Sevastopol in December.” By clouding the reality of the situation in the film, this confusion is added upon when friendly artillery mistakenly shells areas close to our main characters, their radios unable to contact the artillery team due to the heavy storm. This added confusion in Tolstoy’s chase is to focus the narrative on his authoritative perspective; his description is the only perspective of order in the novel because everything else is left ambiguous. In the case of Kelly’s Heroes, this confusion provides the circumstances needed in order to generate the start of the plot. Kelly, our main character, captures a Nazi intelligence officer in the chaotic night battle. The officer has several gold bars in his briefcase and explains that the Nazis have gold stored in an abandoned bank deep behind enemy lines, but it will be transferred back to Germany in the next few days. This visual perspective by descending from the chaos of battle to focus on our main character is typical of Tolstoy narratives, however, not in Sevastopol Sketches, in which Tolstoy experiments with the second-person perspective.
The plot of Kelly’s Heroes continues with Kelly being tempted to obtain this vast wealth despite superiors ordering the offensive to stop. Kelly assembles a team of other disenfranchised and unique soldiers in order to conduct a personal mission to obtain this wealth, by going AWOL. While Kelly enacts his plan to spearhead across enemy lines, the narrative shifts to juxtapose Kelly’s situation to the General’s position, far away from the action. General Colt, who has set up his headquarters in a mansion, is not subject to the horrors of war, instead arguing with other commanders about strategy and their stalemate along the front. This juxtaposition parallels Tolstoy’s ‘main characters’ in “Sevastopol in May,” in which Staff-Captain Mikhailoff is considered an aristocrat, and vanity is everywhere. General Colt misinterprets Kelly’s AWOL mission as patrols pushing forward of their own initiative, and immediately expresses his need to get out into the field to congratulate these ‘Heroes’ with medals. For the General, this push into enemy lines is not necessarily a tactical move, but rather a political move; Colt wants to take credit for the breakthrough and therefore wants the glory in awarding these soldiers for following ‘his orders.’ Tolstoy describes a similar phenomenon among the Captains by depicting their personal desires to gain glory and fame for themselves by gaining “lieutenant-colonel [and then] colonel!” However, the main difference between these juxtapositions reveals itself in their motif conclusions, as Tolstoy criticizes characters such as “Kalugin [and his] brilliant bravery and his vanity.” Kelly’s Heroes decides to take a more comical approach, as the General rides across the countryside in chase of Kelly and his friends. Ultimately, General Colt does not get to ever meet Kelly to award him with a medal, but instead receives the glory he had always wanted by being swarmed by French citizens thanking him for freeing their city. Meanwhile, Kelly uses the mob to escape with his riches. To Individuals like Kelly, war is not about glory, nor awards, but rather the physical acquirement of gold. This idea of material value in war is actually the antithesis of Tolstoy’s view of war, that people fight for this idea of brotherhood, in being the defenders of Sevastopol. However, both of these conclusions were derived from the same motif.
Finally, both Tolstoy and Kelly’s Heroes point to the absurdity of war, that war in itself is something undesirable and should be avoided. However, both of these pieces of media come to that conclusion in drastically different ways. While Tolstoy focuses on the physical destruction of the body, in the form of the Assembly House Hospital in “Sevastopol in December” and the dead in “Sevastopol in May.” Kelly’s Heroes, on the other hand, provides the absurdity of war through the characters of Oddball and his tank crew. Oddball, much like his nickname would express, is an eccentric, who focuses on the ‘waves’ of war. In one crucial scene, Oddball orders his tank crew to conduct a surprise attack on Nazi infantry. In order to do so, he plays Hawaiian luau music from his tank’s loudspeaker to provide a drastic difference in tone between killing people and keeping those ‘positive waves.’ Although both Tolstoy and Kelly’s Heroes focus on death as a theme of absurdity, Tolstoy’s theme is much more effective because the death does not occur among the villains, but rather the killing occurs on both sides of the Battle of Sevastopol. When the enemy dies in droves, we do not think of it as the same as when fellow comrades die in droves, especially if those enemies are Nazis. Such is the case in Kelly’s Heroes, where we only know that the enemies are Nazis and nothing more. Additionally, Kelly’s Heroes does not follow up on the result of doing such absurd things; the movie itself ends with a happily ever after mentality of having done all these things for the sake of the gold, but not suffering any of the consequences of those actions in order to get the gold. This would certainly not stand true in a Tolstoy perspective, in which a novel never ends on a positive ‘happily ever after note’. The heroes in Kelly’s Heroes never experience a court marshalling for going AWOL, nor do they stand trial for gunning down soldiers while listening to music. Instead, we assume that they likely got away with it, and their money, to live rich and peaceful lives.
Although the means of communicating such topics are different, one being a movie and other being a series of short stories, Kelly’s Heroes and Sevastopol Sketches both point to similar motifs in the levels of society in war, the lack of glory in war, and the absurdity of war. Each piece of media decides to interpret these motifs in different ways. As Tolstoy uses these motifs to point more towards pacifism, Kelly’s Heroes uses the same motifs to create comedic subplots to their action war movie. Overall, Tolstoy’s perspective is more effective because it is the primary goal of the work, Tolstoy’s authoritative narrative ensures that the reader understands that there are no heroes at the end of “Sevastopol in May,” whilst Kelly’s Heroes’ primary goal is providing an action war film with gun fights and explosions, leaving the critical subplots as secondary comments. But what surprised me the most was just how similar these pieces of media were, when thinking about them critically.