In 1919, the Russian village of Archangel continued to fight a war they didn’t know was over. Grief-stricken Canadian soldier Lt. Boles (Kyle McCulloch) arrives at the village and assists a family with an injured child, only to see a vision of his dead wife. This vision turns out to be field nurse Veronkha (Kathy Marykuca), who happens to look exactly like Boles’ wife. Veronkha has her own problems though, her husband, Lt. Philbin (Ari Cohen) has suffered a brain injury that makes him think he is always experiencing his wedding night, despite the fact that Veronkha is no longer in love with him.
OK people, brace yourself for this one. What we’re dealing with here is a film of un-reviewable proportions. This is one of those occasions where I have so many thoughts that I just don’t know where to begin, so I’ll be recounting the entirety of this film’s plot from start to finish. Spoilers will abound, and y’all are just going to have to be OK with that. If you’re just here for a quick opinion then take this: don’t watch this film, it’s not a good one. What it is though, is bizarre, messed up and at times utterly hilarious for potentially the wrong reasons. Let’s begin.
I watched Archangel because it was amongst the suggested “Bad” movies from Steve and Chip, and that’s a goal I’m a little behind on. I looked at the films available for me to watch in this category and decided Archangel would be my best option for the evening in question due to its length (96 minutes, although the version I saw was just 83) and it was made in 1990, so I thought there’d be halfway decent production values. That’s all I knew going in. So I was more than a little surprised to find it not only set in 1919 Russia (despite being made in Canada and starring a largely Canadian cast) but it had been made mostly in the style of an early film, using a terrible film stock, ramshackle or non-existent sets, some of the worst dubbed-over dialogue you’ll ever experience, and acting to match. Suffice to say, I was not prepared for this.
After a bit of expositionary opening text, we see our hero, Lt. Boles, cradling the urn within which his deceased wife Iris’ ashes now lie. He’s on a ship of some kind – you can tell by how the camera pitches and rolls as if attempting to induce nausea in the audience – and a senior officer is throwing bottles over the side, I presumed he was clearing out the ship’s alcohol supplies for some reason, and this is never fully explained. Upon seeing Boles’ urn, which he was trying to hide, the officer takes that and discards it overboard as well, leaving Boles – who has lost one leg at the knee – to hobble away, dejected.
In an attempt to raise our spirits from this sadness we are treated to a short (though not short enough) informational film about love, which turns into a pretty intense propaganda film in which German soldiers are depicted as cannibals, with one eating the throat of a vanquished foe. We also learn that for the most part love is good, but the greatest love of all is that of a gentle soul in prayer to God. As far as I’m aware, religion doesn’t play too big of a role in the film – there are moments here and there, but that’s it – so this felt very uncomfortable and condescending, like most war-era propaganda. I can compliment the film for that at least, authentically producing media that fits the time of the setting.
Upon arriving in the town of Archangel – to which he has gone for no discernible reason, very little of use is explained in this film – he finds a family in despair as their son (David Falkenburg), who is aged about 12 I think (I’m terrible at guessing the ages of children) has passed out. Fortunately Boles knows exactly what to do, and instructs all the family members – the boy’s mother (Sarah Neville), father (Michael Gottli) and grandmother (Margaret Anne MacLeod) – to get some horse brushes and keep scrubbing at the boy’s limbs and torso until he has awoken, which somehow works. Indebted to Boles, the family gives him a convenient prosthetic leg they had around for just such an occasion, and wouldn’t you know it but Boles has been carrying around the boot for his missing foot all this time too, and it’s a perfect fit on the new leg. McCulloch still maintains a limp throughout the rest of the film, so good for him with regards to continuity I guess. During the scrubbing of the boy, the mother was throwing a lot of passionate glances towards Boles, which would go nowhere, and afterwards Boles suggests they feed the boy horse hair to prevent worms, and to wear a fur of it around the neck, to keep goitre away. Sound advice all round.
As I mentioned earlier, Boles sees Veronkha during this segment, and assumes it is his wife, who has been dead for some time, and whose ashes were last seen being thrown overboard into the ocean. Still, Boles is insistent, making Veronkha an integral part of this story, and thus worthy of some background. We’re then provided with her chapter, entitled “Veronkha’s Dirge.” Dirge is a pretty fitting moniker for pretty much any part of this film. Veronkha’s husband, Lt. Philbin, is seen injured, with an unsightly lump on the side of his head. According to his doctor, he has had a history of psychopathy since childhood, when his mother painted a scary face upon her breasts with boot polish, to prevent him from breastfeeding. This has somehow led Philbin to develop a condition where he meets and falls in love with people in a similar fashion to others, but soon after pledging his love he then forgets his romantic partner and denies all knowledge of knowing them. Veronkha, however, is the first woman he can recall after this declaration, and as such the two marry, but some time after the wedding Philbin receives his injury, which induces a form of amnesia that has removed all memories after his wedding ceremony, and as such he is stuck in a permanent state of believing it is his wedding night.
Meanwhile, back at the family barn, the boy, Geza, is caught stealing, so his mother, Danchuk, whips him with straw. Boles expresses his surprise that a woman is doing the man’s job of disciplining the child, but the boy’s father, Jannings, is too cowardly to do so, so Boles steps up. Finally receiving such a stern punishment fills the boy’s face with gratitude, whilst his father looks away in emasculated shame. Later, a ceremony is held for the Archangel Fusiliers, which the inter-titles tell us are “courageous in long moustaches”. Philbin keeps interrupting the show with the same rousing remark that he keeps forgetting he’s already said, and apparently no-one else in the town other than Veronkha and his doctor are aware of his memory situation. It’s like 50 First Dates, but even more of a nightmare for the central character. When Philbin gets a bit too handsy with Veronkha on stage – he thinks it’s his wedding night, remember – Boles steps in to defend her, and punches Philbin in the face. This causes Veronkha to take a shine to Boles, and the two head off to have a conversation wherein he speaks dialogue and she replies telepathically, as her lips never move, and no attempts are made to hide blatant cuts within the scene.
Veronkha and Biles head off to war, which basically means they spend some time in a dark soundstage with no background features, minimal props and what I’m guessing is either piles of icing sugar or cocaine, because it sure as hell ain’t snow. Their unit is comprised of the broadest, most offensive racial stereotypes you can think of, including a large black man literally wearing an animal fur robe and a giant boxy hat. I was surprised he didn’t also have a necklace of small skulls and a bone through his nose. Philbin eavesdrops on Veronkha being hypnotised by his doctor and a man who looked like Rasputin, as they try to brainwash her into loving her husband again, but instead she is drawn back to her honeymoon night, where it is revealed that shortly after arriving at their hotel, Philbin was waylaid by the attractive female clerk, either by once again forgetting his beloved or sheer, immediate adultery, and she thus had the marriage annulled. The ADR became utterly unbearable at this point, not that it had been very tolerable before, but here is where I lost all patience with it.
Next we entered into a dream sequence (Although really about 90% of this film could justifiably be called a dream sequence), entitled “Sleepy Trenches”, where everything takes on a filtered look – blue in the trenches, red back at the farm. The enemy Huns attempt to distract our heroes with adorable rabbits in their trenches, and attack Jannings back home in his sleep. They attempt to suffocate his son Geza and steal the baby, whilst Jannings is too cowardly to fight back. This is pretty much the greatest scene in the entire film, and is the point at which I began to enjoy myself and not loathe this entire experience. It really kicked into gear when Jannings finally plucked up the courage to fight, only to be gutted and have his innards spill in a surprisingly gruesome fashion on the floor. He’s down. He’s out. There’s no coming back from this. Except… Jannings gets up, literally bundles his intestines back up and stuffs them back inside his stomach, and sets about seeing to the attackers. There is a scene in this film where a man uses his own intestines to strangle someone. This is a thing that happened. This is what cinema was made for. Wait, did I say that was a dream sequence? Turns out it wasn’t, it was real, that’s something that actually took place within the narrative, and the colour tinting was just an artistic choice by the director. Mental.
After this most epic of bloodbaths, when Jannings finally succumbs to the most noble of deaths, his son survived and awakes, still thinking his father died a coward. The forgetful Lt. Philbin arrives, and what follows is one of my favourite exchanges from the 1001 List so far:
Philbin [looking around at dead bodies and guts everywhere]: “What a mess.”
Geza [looking at his father’s corpse]: “He saved my life!”
Philbin [deadpan]: “That’s nice.”
Geza [as devoid of emotion as possible]: “He’s dead.”
Philbin [blank expression]: “Nothing seems to be going right today.”
Geza: “My father died a coward, didn’t he?”
Philbin: “There’s a reason for everything. For example, last night someone shaved off my moustache, what could that mean?”
END OF SCENE
Let’s take a moment to dissect this conversation. Even given Philbin’s amnesia, “What a mess” does not display an appropriate level of concern or shock at a room full of unexpected corpses, even for an experienced soldier. Also, it’s unclear whether Geza is aware that his father saved his life or not, because within the space of three lines he says “He saved my life!” and “My father died a coward.” We’ll come back to this a little later, but the deadpan nature of both actors here made me genuinely laugh out loud.
After his chat with the traumatised Geza, Philbin reunites with Veronkha and the two of them go back to the hotel they visited on their honeymoon. Once again, the comely clerk gives Philbin the eye, and he ends up copping off with her behind the check-in desk. Boles followed them there and sneaks up to see Veronkha alone. In the dark, she assumes he is Philbin, and believes she is talking to her husband when she confesses she no longer loves him, and is instead in love with Boles. When she realises she is actually talking to Boles, Veronkha suffers such a severe state of shock that she induces amnesia in herself. Yes, you read that correctly. No, it doesn’t make sense. Boles then seizes upon a rather despicable opportunity, and tells Veronkha that she is really his wife, Iris – the one whose ashes were cast overboard earlier. Boles tells Veronkha that if she thinks really hard, she’ll remember she is Iris, and for a while this seems to work, I think, although it’s hard to tell as not all the dialogue is re-dubbed, and some of it is lost to gunfire. When she later sees Philbin, Veronkha comes to her senses are realises the deception, and storms off. Boles, in a state of delirium, comes across the farm family’s baby, and believes it to belong to himself and Iris. When Veronkha departs, Boles gives the baby to it’s real mother, Danchuk, and asks her to care for it for him. He then returns to battle, where he is wounded and stumbles around town, bleeding from the mouth, eventually finding the scene of Veronkha and Philbin once again getting married. Oh, and Geza, the boy from the farm, is also killed in battle, and as a ghost he is reunited with the ghost of his father, who shows no signs of concern that his son has been killed, and is more desperate to recount his own gallant actions that led to his death.
This movie. Jeez. There are some films that are so bad they’re fun. Others are just downright terribly made, but this is that rarest of films that is really, really awfully produced with an almost negative production value, yet it came with some moments of unbridled joy and ecstasy. Just thinking back on some of the scenes cannot help but make me smile, yet everything about this film is bad. The acting is horrendous, there are no sets, it’s painful to watch and sit through due to the purposeful poor quality of the picture. Dialogue is lost and badly re-dubbed, and what we can hear is delivered in tones utterly devoid of all humanity. Oh, and the central opening premise, that the town of Archangel is fighting a war they don’t know is over, never comes into play after we find out that information. The exact same film would play out if this were slap bang in the middle of warfare. And yet, I can’t deny I enjoyed myself. I cannot recommend this film, but there is a chance that I might watch it again some day.
Choose Life 4/10