In 1943, Hitler orders the final destruction of the Yugoslav Partisans. The Partisans begin a trek northward to the relative safety of the Bosnian Mountains – their goal is to cross the treacherous Neretva gorge over one remaining bridge. Along the way, they battle German tanks, Italian infantry, Chetnik Cavalry, strafing airplanes, disease and natural elements.
Yugoslav director Bulajic is telling his story from all points of view, but his sympathies lie with the Partisans. The film has pro-Communist leanings, and tells several interwoven stories stressing the importance of comradeship in wartime. There are many important characters: Yul Brynner (“Morituri”) as crack demolition expert Vlado; Sergei Bondarchuk (director of “Waterloo”) as short-tempered artillery officer Martin; Franco Nero (“The Mercenary”) as an Italian Captain with no faith in Fascism; Hardy Kruger (“A Bridge too Far”) as Colonel Kranzer, who fights with dedication which begins to dwindle as he realizes the bitter reality that the partisans are a formidable enemy; Ljubisa Samardzic (“Battle of the Eagles”) and Sylva Koscina (“Hornets’ Nest”) are brother-and-sister, and Koscina is to marry Ivan (Lojze Rozman) after the war; the list goes on and on, and although every character is significant, it’s impossible to list them all. There’s an interesting twist, too: the legendary Orson Welles plays a Chetnik Senator who battles for concessions with General Lohring (the great Curd Jurgens), a commited Nazi officer who is determined the wipe out the Partisans once and for all.Surprisingly, Welles plays his role with boundless passion and gusto, and Jurgens departs from his usual role as an anti-Nazi realist German officer; here he is a cold-blooded Nazi officer – he may be his usually cool and restrained, yet occasionally explosive self – but he’s still a cold-blooded Nazi.
What’s important is that, unlike many epics such as “The Longest Day” and “Is Paris Burning?” every subplot is clear and crucial at all times, and Bulajic manages to keep every character engaging and recognizable at all times. Despite the scope of the battle scenes, the audience has a personal involvement with them because they feature characters we’ve come to care about.
These battle scenes are the real stars of the show. They involve thousands of extras, dozens of T-34, Tiger and Sherman tanks, German fighter planes, huge explosions and stunt horses which get blown in every direction. Bulajic uses wide shots quite often to show just how massive the combat zone is. Battles take place in green valleys, narrow streets and in the snow-covered mountains, and we can see just hazardous and realistic this scenery is. The Yugoslav landscape has never been so beautifully photographed, and the destruction amidst this beauty is quite sad and often depressing. The final scene, in which several of the main characters are killed (ironically enough, the battle takes place amidst an old cemetery) is epic in scope, with thousands of Chetnik horsemen being gunned down and shelled in a valley, but the personal sacrifice of the partisans is felt at the same time. Bernard Hermann’s score is appropriately thunderous at times and also has meaningful, mournful cues. (This music was written exclusively for the edited international versions; the original, equally fantastic Klaus Vladimir Ratjeric score retained on longer prints and used only to aid the dramatic scenes).
This is truly a great epic story, with strong character development interwoven with necessary spectacle. Even on home video in the United States, it’s a good movie, and simply improves with each longer cut. “The Battle of Neretva” is simply one of the great lost films of the 20th Century.