The Forty-First, Boris Lavrenyev’s novella, written in only two days, has proven enduringly popular. It tells the story of a young woman snarpshooter fighting with the Reds in Turkestan. She misses her forty-first victim, a handsome White lieutenant, and ends up escorting him, by boat, into captivity across the Aral Sea. A storm, however, strands the two on an island. Sick with pneumonia, the lieutenant is nursed back to health by his Red escort, and the two fall in love. At the last, however, Mariutka shoots him dead when he tries to escape, thus making him “the forty-first.”
Sorok pervyy had been filmed as a silent, from the author’s own script, by Yakov Protazanov in 1927.
Thirty years later Grigorii Chukhrai will adapt (see here) the same story for the screen as a romantic melodrama pure and simple. The beauty, Mariutka, flouncing her blond curls, heroically kills forty White Guard officers and falls in love with the forty-first, who is just as attractive and noble. The affair takes place against the background of artistically flowing sands. And when Mariutka, faithful to her revolutionary duties, shoots the lieutenant, tears pour down her beautiful face as a children’s choir sings off-screen. That’s in Chukhrai’s film.
Instead of sand, in Protazanov’s film there are white stones and dust. And amidst the stones there is a being equally stony and dusty: Mariutka, who resembles a guy more than a woman. Having shot another White officer, she spits and after snorting adds another number to her “tally.” She falls in love with a good-humored but imperious landowner. Not because he is attractive, not because she is surrounded by sand, but seemingly because (as Pushkin would have it) “the time has come” and because she is still a woman after all. And having fallen in love, she genuinely turns into a woman: her facial expression changes, as does the lighting of her face (shot by Protazanov’s constant cameraman Petr Ermolov, who would go on to work with Mark Donskoi on the Gor’kii trilogy), and even her trousers imperceptibly turn into a skirt. After the fatal shot, Mariutka lifts her head and her face is once again gray and stony. Does this resemble melodrama? Not at all. But the plot is absolutely melodramatic.