Wednesday, September 28, 2011

In among the Will Rogers shorts

I should have spotted this a bit earlier, but the historically interesting British Agent is airing overnight at 3:30 AM on TCM. This is a movie that, like Seven Cities of Gold a few weeks back, takes a look at a period of history that doesn't get too much of a look in Hollywood pictures: the Russian Civil War.

Leslie Howard plays the titular British agent, a man who gets stationed to the British Consulate in Petrograd in mid-1917, just around the time of the October Revolution that was to bring the Communists to power, at least in Petrograd. That revolution, and parts of the civil war, have gotten a mention in several movies, such as Rasputin and the Empress or Knight Without Armour. But the more detailed background behind the early Soviet Union and why it wound up fighting a civil war tends to get overlooked. Part of the reason for the first revolution in February 1917 is that Imperial Russia was losing the war against Germany, and there were people who wanted to sue for peace. Eventually the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed. More or less good for Russia, or at least good for that section of Russia that wanted out of the war. But it was problematic for the western allies, as it removed one of the two fronts on which Germany was fighting the war. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Howard was first in Petrograd as a low-level functionary at the Consulate. But with the October Revolution, it became too dangerous to keep a full embassy staff; indeed, the opening scene of the movie features the revolution coming to one of the embassies in the form of gunshots coming through the windows while all the westerners are partying. Anyhow, Howard gets left behind as part of a skeleton crew, but also with an important mission: prevent the Soviets from signing that treaty with Germany. Along the way, however, Howard meets a woman (Kay Francis) seeking refuge during one revolutionary night. He falls in love with her, and it's too late before he realizes that not only is she Lenin's secretary, and she's extremely loyal to the Communists. The thing is, the westerners, as part of trying to stop the treaty, have taken the side of the Whites in the civil war, albeit without the official backing of their countries.

British Agent is an interesting movie, although it's rather muddled at times. I like that there's a fairly intelligent look at history and what surely must have been a complicated period for the western diplomats. Some of the historical parts of the plot seem accurate; there were certainly western forces helping the Whites. (One interesting example, not mentioned in this movie, is the Czechoslovak Legion, which had to escape the Reds by going east, eventually making their way to Vladivostok and thence to America from where they eventually got back to Czechoslovakia.) There's also reference made to the assassination attempt on Vladimir Lenin. But the movie races through events a bit too rapidly, and also glosses over why these westerners would take up with what are more or less urban guerrillas. The love story seems forced, and its resolution is a bit of a copout.

All in all, British Agent is a movie that's too rarely seen, and should have a bit more attention than it does, even if it does have susbtantial flaws.

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