Monthly Archives: September 2018

Grading Historical Movies: Grigorii Chukhrai’s “Ballad of a Soldier” (1959)

Note:  Students in Stephen Norris’s HST/FST 252, History at the Movies, are grading historical films and offering reviews on how assigned films render the past.  The third film assigned in this Fall 2018 version of the course, which focuses on European films about World War II, was Grigorii Chukhrai’s 1959 Ballad of a Soldier.

Overall grade from 45 students: A-

Review One

By Stephan Koclejda

Grade:  A-

Ballad of a Soldier is a brilliant, artful Soviet World War II film about a boy trying to just get home and Soviet society trying to cope with war. Filmed in 1959, Director Grigori Chukhrai beautifully and tragically captures and presents truths about the Soviet Union’s experience in the Great Patriotic war that propaganda films during the Stalin era tried so hard to hide. The result is an organic, authentic, quality piece of historical cinema.

The protagonist, Alyosha, is just a common soldier, a common grain-fed 19-year-old village boy when he performs a heroic deed while scared out of his mind fleeing from German tanks on the frontlines. Instead of a decoration, he asks for leave to go home and fix the roof for his mother – the film is a chronicle of his journey home. While stowing away on a train, he meets young Shura, a girl fleeing the war and its traumas. Together, these two children represent the two main facets of Soviet society during the war: the soldiers fighting and the civilians fleeing the war. Alyosha wants desperately to see his mother (perhaps a representation of the Soviet Motherland) and is a good person who goes out of his way to help others but will ultimately return to the front and carry out his duty defending his home. Shura is an orphan of the war, seeking something, anything to get her away from its traumas.

As Alyosha travels, he comes across several towns and characters dealing with the war. He helps a wounded man return to his wife, who the wounded man thought would not be there for him. He delivers a package to the wife of a soldier heading to the front, only to find that she’s having an affair. He meets the father of the same soldier, bedridden and worried about his son. Little white lies are told, as Alyosha tells the father great heroic things about his son who Alyosha doesn’t even know just to help the old man feel better. Everyone is merely trying to survive, to cope with the sufferings and harsh realities of the war in whatever way they can. A wife has an affair, a father is told a lie.

Ballad of a Soldier does not shy away from presenting these realities – this is no cheery propaganda narrative. Stalin is no unifying figure leading the Soviet Union and communism to great victory over German fascism: the man is never even pictured or mentioned in the film at all. The nation exists in a state of total war. Nothing will escape untouched – the land, the buildings, the people, nothing. The Great Patriotic War came at a horrific cost to the Soviet Union and the film makes it known. We learn in the first minutes of the film that Alyosha does not live to see the end of the war, which makes each scene of him helping create light in the darkness of war that much more tragic and sweet.

Review Two

By Paige Ross

Grade:  A

Ballad of a Soldier artfully and subtlety captures the Soviet experience of World War II through the eyes of nineteen-year old private Alyosha Skvortsov, who requests leave in lieu of a decoration for his bravery destroying two German tanks, in order to visit is his mother and repair her leaking roof. On his journey home, Alyosha encounters the effects of war on the land and the people of his country. Through his eyes, the viewer gains a sobering picture of the grim and devastating realities of war in Soviet Russia. Alyosha meets a variety of people on his trip home including Vasya, a wounded soldier without a leg who is being discharged, Gavrilkin a tough-talking sentry who reluctantly allows Alyosha to board an army supply train, Shura a young girl supposedly trying to get home to her aunt, the dying father and unfaithful wife of fellow soldier Sergei Pavlov, and an elderly woman who drives Alyosha part of the way home. Through each of the characters he meets, Alyosha is able to see the true impact of war on the people of his country, and each character reveals a different aspect of war: physical injury, loneliness, fear, sadness, fatigue, etc. Perhaps one of the most telling and poignant moments in Ballad of a Soldier occurs in the film’s finale, which illustrates the senselessness of war and the death of possibility, future, and hope which occurs parallel. The narrator tells the viewer, “He [Alyosha] could have become a remarkable man. He could have become a builder or beautified the land with gardens. He was, and in our memory will forever remain, a soldier…a Russian soldier.”

Ballad of a Soldier manages to accomplish being a war film without being a “war film,” and utilizes the art of subtlety to make a greater, and perhaps more “truthful” statement about war. Rather than being a film filled with obvious violence, chaos, torture, and death, Ballad of a Soldier uses other less overt devices to help the viewer understand the devastating Soviet experience of World War II. In this sense, the film is masterful and perhaps even more powerful than other more “typical” war films. Additionally, the film makes a concerted effort to disprove and unravel earlier narratives presented in the propagandistic state under Stalin, such as Mikhail Chiaureli’s 1949 film The Fall of Berlin. Director Grigori Chukhari superbly integrates interesting and dynamic camera shots from beginning to end, which appear engaging to the viewer nearly sixty years later. Additionally, Chukhari’s choice of when and when not to include music in scenes is methodical and calculated, and further adds value and depth to the viewer’s overall experience. Taken as a whole, Ballad of a Soldier is a remarkable piece of film that powerfully, and softly, illustrates the lasting impact of the Second World War on Soviet Russia and its people.

Review Three

By Aleah Sexton

Grade:  A-

Ballad of a Soldier, the 1959 Soviet film, proved to be a melancholic, humorous, and lovely drama. From the opening scene, the audience is made aware that the main character, the charming, brave, and attractive Red Army soldier – Alyosha – will not survive WWII. Due to this tragedy, the film has added suspense and viewers follow Alyosha’s journey home to simply say hello to his mother and fix their roof. This film provided the audience with an example of true nobility as they witness Alyosha when he pays tribute to the Motherland by helping Russia’s people along the way. This film beautifully portrayed how war affects life beyond the trenches and the cultural responsibility that is carried among each regular citizen.

Following Robert Rosenstone’s thesis of historical films, Ballad of Soldier should be understood as a dramatic feature film, mainly because of  the ability to “aim directly at the emotions”. It goes beyond giving us a simple description of the past and instead, “it wants you, the viewer, to experience the hurt (and pleasures) of the past”. Chukhrai brilliantly uses his camera to zoom in on the character’s faces during intense scenes, orchestrating the music to compliment the emotion, and engaging with the audience through the entirety of the film by adding humor. Through all of this, the viewers are left with an intense film that produces an emotional response to the love and loss that the characters endure. Out of all the films the audience has watched for the class, I believe Ballad of a Soldier stands as the one with the most climatic idealism. Alyosha is the accolade of the Russian propaganda of the perfect, obedient soldier and his bravery is unmatched. However, his death adds a bit of risk on Chukhrai’s end because it proves that all of the war’s heroes are also just simply people. Stalinist propaganda is absent in the film. Instead, Chukhrai focuses on the humanistic aspects of war. The metaphoric truth he conveys is evident: Alyosha’s death reveals the true cost of war. The viewers are connected to his charming character and in the final scene when he waves goodbye to his mother for the last time we truly feel the cost of war.








Nomad Power: Three Essays

 Note:  Students in Dr. Daniel Prior’s course, HST 324 Eurasian Nomads and History, analyze primary sources in relation to historical literature and draw their own conclusions in dialogue with both types of sources. Three students in the Fall 2017 class wrote excellent papers on three different eras where the history of nomad power is fraught with interpretive challenges. Yasha Shatalov, a Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies major, sorted out multipolar relations among the expanding Russian and Qing empires and the nomadic Kazakhs and Kirghiz in the eighteenth century. Madilyn Clawson, a History major, examined the formation of the Second Türk Empire in the eighth century CE by contrasting the perspectives of Türk and Chinese primary sources. Ruilin Shi, a Mathematics & Statistics major, developed a historiographically sensitive theory of nomad state formation based on the historical case of the Xiongnu confederation and empire north of China (from approximately the third century BCE to the third century CE).

     The temporally and geographically diverse cases all focus on peoples of the Central Eurasian steppes or grasslands; a common thread running through the three contributions is the recognition that sedentary powers seeking to extend their influence into the steppe zone from outside its periphery and nomads seeking to expand their influence within and beyond the steppes often had differing views of each other’s powers and intentions. Taken together, the three authors’ contributions show Miami undergraduates using challenging source material to make sophisticated historical arguments.

How Nomad States Form and Develop

By Ruilin Shi


How nomadic states form has always been a debatable topic. I would like to present some scholars’ work about the formation of the Xiongnu (third century BCE to third century CE), and explain where I agree and disagree, particularly with Owen Lattimore’s theory of state formation in the northern Chinese frontier zone.


  1. How have Chinese scholars viewed the problem, and how have their views changed?

The first work concerning how the Xiongnu formed is the Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian of China), by Sima Qian during the Han dynasty. He thought that “the ancestor of Hsiung-nu was a descendant of the rulers of Hsia dynasty by the name of Ch’un-wei.”[1] This is a very naive guess, and does not rely on much evidence. However, because of the special position of Sima Qian in Chinese culture, almost all scholars of imperial China down to the later Qing dynasty followed and developed this idea.

The first influential scholar who amended this idea was Wang Guowei, in the early 20th century. He believed the Xiongnu were descended from other barbarians mentioned in Shiji, such as the Shanrong, Xianyun and Hunzhou.[2] This idea was common in Chinese studies of the Xiongnu in the 20th century, and most scholars agreed with this theory. Another classic work of Chinese Xiongnu study, Xiongnu Tongshi (General History of Xiongnu) developed this idea, contending that the Xiongnu formed from a number of different of nomad groups from the Yinshan area and absorbed some nomads from the Yellow River area. The evidence Lin Han (author of Xiongnu Tongshi) used in this study is quite interesting. He mentions that a surname used by the Xiongnu is the Chinese character for their original nomad group, similar to the way the surname Han was taken from the social group they used to belong to before they were mixed with another group.[3] I think Chinese and Western scholars should think more about this clue.

Having made contact with Xiongnu studies by Russian and Mongolian scholars and acquired a lot of new archaeological evidence since the 1980s, more and more scholars nowadays are interested in the theory that the Xiongnu formed on the far northern steppe. Artifacts show the huge cultural differences between different Xiongnu regions. Most of those scholars believe that there was a powerful nomadic culture in the far northern Mongolian steppe during the Shang dynasty, which absorbed nomadic groups like the Xianyun and the Guifang in the period before Qin dynasty, and finally became an ethnic group in the later Warring States period.


  1. Western ideas about the formation of the Xiongnu

There are two very popular ideas about the formation of the Xiongnu in the west: Owen Lattimore’s theory and Thomas Barfield’s theory. These two ideas are almost opposite to one another with respect to the relation between China and the development of the Xiongnu. Barfield stated that the Xiongnu were the “shadow empire” of a strong China.[4] This is a very interesting idea, but it is too simplistic, and lacks sufficient evidence over the long term. In contrast, Turchin points out that steppe states did come into existence when China was weak and divided. Moreover, Turchin states that nomadic culture in the steppe developed parallel with agrarian culture in China; unfortunately, there is not enough evidence to show that this was happening on the steppe in the Xiongnu period.[5]

Catrin Kost’s theory combines independent and dependent aspects of development. Kost has something in common with Chinese scholars regarding the formation of the Xiongnu: they agree that part of the Xiongnu were gathered by the nomadic group that used to live in the Yellow River area and moved to the north when they were attacked by the powerful Chinese states to the south. Kost states that the nomads formed alliances to enable them to attack their neighbors more effectively.[6] This idea seems popular among Western scholars.

What interests me most is the cycle of nomad rule posited by Lattimore. This cycle can be briefly described in four steps: powerful nomads appear; these nomads divide; some of them denomadize; conflicts arise among nomad groups.[7] This statement is fine in that it describes the appearance and disappearance of nomad states in a very generalizable way, but it is too abstract and does not show the details of how the Xiongnu formed as a specific nomadic group. I would like to follow Lattimore’s idea and restate the nomad cycle in my own way.


  1. My theory of nomad formations in the China–Mongolia region

3.1 The significance of the Great Wall as a geographical boundary

In the works of Barfield and some other scholars, they have noticed that Qin state was so strong that it did not need to build the Great Wall to defend itself. Moreover, they point out the cultural significance of the Great Wall and how it was used as the boundary of Chinese or Central Plain culture. Profoundly, the wall has significance as a border not only with respect to different cultures, but also in an economic, ecological and military sense. Economy always has a strong relation to the vegetation in a specific area. If we compare the position of the Great Wall to the Vegetation Map of China, we can see that the Great Wall was built near the margin of the warm temperate forest, which was the northernmost vegetation type suitable for agriculture. The different life styles in the different zones may underlie the differences in culture.

(Map: )

Moreover, the vegetation of different areas also conditions the advantages of different military units on either side of the border, and they will have to spend more if they want to control the land on the other side. If cost exceeds benefit, people will not go to the expense. Different vegetation types correspond to natural military boundaries of different cultures. Groups near the boundary will spontaneously change from seminomadic into nomads or agriculturalists. Unified countries near the boundary may divide into several countries, some choosing agricultural life and some choosing nomadism. In the Warring States period, Zhongshan changed from nomadic to agricultural.[8] Zhao, an important Han country, change their clothing and life style to become nomads, as recorded in the Hufu Qishe in Chinese history books. These two countries show the two types of change on the Great Wall margin.


3.1.1 The significance of the Great Wall as a chronological boundary

Before the Qin dynasty, Zhao, Yan and Jin expanded their territory to the Great Wall area. Chinese culture had never expanded into areas that were not suitable for agriculture, which means that before the later Warring States period, after Chinese expelled nomads or absorbed semi-nomads and took control of land, the nomads could still move north to where the land was still suitable for agriculture, and mix with another nomads or semi-nomads. The fact is that when nomads and semi-nomads lived inside of the Great Wall area, they never formed a powerful alliance that could fend off an attack from strong Chinese countries. This could be because of the great differences among those nomads. In response to the weakness of their nomadic neighbors, strong Chinese countries would attack the nomads again and again to get more land for agriculture.

But the situation is quite different when Chinese countries reach the Great Wall area. These countries were not very interested in the steppe, which is not suitable for agriculture, and where it is more and more difficult to expel nomads who can go deeper and deeper into the steppe. The situation of the nomads who were expelled is also different. When they moved north, they did not have a choice of life style; they had to become “poor” and “pure” nomads.[9] Because of the position of the Gobi Desert, sometimes they had to move far to the north, to the steppe beyond the desert. This is why I think the building of the Great Wall or the time when Chinese countries reached the Great Wall area is very important for periodization.


3.2 The cycle of nomad rule

Based on the significance of the Great Wall as both a geographical and a chronological boundary, I would divide the cycle of nomad rule into a Pre Great Wall Period and a Great Wall Period.


3.2.1 The Pre Great Wall Period

In this period, there were many nomads living inside of the future Great Wall zone, in North China and in the far northern steppe. But they were largely separated and did not have a very powerful state. We start the cycle when Chinese defeat a nomadic alliance or a single clan:

  1. Nomads were defeated by Chinese.
  2. The clan was divided into two parts: one part chose the agricultural life and became Chinese, and the other part chose to run away and move to the northern area, and mixed with other clans.
  3. The new clan chose their life style, and some of them favored agricultural life and become semi-nomadic people.
  4. This caused weakness in the military power of the clan. Start again at 1.


Repeating the cycle several times might form a powerful alliance which can defeat some weak Chinese states, but it would still not be powerful enough to defeat strong Chinese states. They would be defeated by the Chinese and separate into small clans again. The Zhunwang Rangyi (‘Respect the king of Zhou and expel the barbarian’) War led by Jin and Qi from 680 to 580 BCE is quite a good example to show the cycle[10]: the Jin expelled several different clans of the Di and Rong, and some became followers of Jin and married with Jin rulers (both Jin Xigong’s and Jin Wengong’s mothers were the daughters of the chiefs of Di and Rong). After 30 years of war, several clans of Di gathered into a powerful alliance, and this alliance was able to conquer some small Chinese states. Thus began a long period of war with Jin and Qi, which ended in defeat; the alliance separated, and some nomads moved to the north and some became followers of Jin and Qi.

This cycle is quite simple from the perspective of the Chinese. It is a long-term, and never-ending war between Chinese and different kinds of barbarians. Sometimes they met nomads (Xiao Yu ding) and sometimes they met semi-nomads (Shiji: Zhou Muwang). The great poetry collection of the Zhou dynasty, Shi Jin, contains a huge number of poems about the war between Zhou and the Hu, Di, and Rong, which is evidence of the never-ending war.


3.2.2 The Great Wall Period

This period is much more complex than the Pre Great Wall Period. Again we start with Chinese defeating clans or an alliance near the Great Wall area:

  1. Chinese defeat nomadic or semi-nomadic people near the Great Wall area.
  2. Some of them became followers of the Chinese, and another part moved to the northern Yin Shan area or the far northern steppe.
  3. Since Chinese military force could not reach the far northern steppe, steps 1 and 2 repeat several times; the nomads in the steppe can develop without attacking and gather more and more people from different clans and life styles.
  4. Because of their common life style and some interest in trade, the northern steppe nomads would form a powerful alliance.
  5. Some of these alliances expanded their territory to the south, and met Chinese countries. Because of significance of this boundary discussed in 3.1, these alliances would be in stalemate with Chinese countries. Even if they were sometimes expelled by the Chinese, the far northern steppe nomads could still develop.
  6. The above step repeats several times. After a weak clan or alliance was expelled to the far north, and the far north steppe nomads developed sufficiently, then this alliance would try to gain more allies among clans of far north to restore their power. At this time, if there was an ambitious chief, he would try to build a powerful state and rule all the people in the north. This is what Modun of Xiongnu, Taba Gui of Northern Wei (Xian Bei), and Elterish of the Second Turk Empire did.
  7. Then the nomad state would expand to the south, to the the Great Wall area and even further south.
  8. The next step is as Lattimore states: division of the society, denomadization, conflict, and defeat and expulsion by Chinese, and separation into small clans.


The Xiongnu, the Wusun, and the Donghu were the first alliances generated in this cycle, and the Xiongnu became the first nomadic state in the Great Wall Period. After the collapse of the Xiongnu in the later Han dynasty, there was no powerful alliance to the north of China until the Jin dynasty (265-420 CE). Later, small nomadic powers established within the Jin dynasty, and the Qian Qin, the Northern Wei, and the Ruan Ruan developed one by one in the north.

In this cycle, the far northern steppe is very important. It is the petri dish and hometown of the nomadic culture. The “poor but pure” nomads always lived in the area, developing their culture without attacking the Chinese and absorbing many different clans from the south, some of whom were nomads and others semi-nomads, workers, and merchants. These new migrations were the source of the development of the far northern steppe. Di Cosmo discusses the problem of comparing nomadic and Chinese ideas about the colors of the four cardinal directions and the administrative meaning of “left” and “right.” He challenged the idea that these ideas among the Xiongnu show that they got their culture from Chinese.[11] I agree with Di Cosmo; I do not believe the Xiongnu got these ideas from China directly. They may have developed the same system during the 1000 years they were in the far north, or they may have got it from the people who moved to the far north.

The far northern steppe was like a tree, and the nomads were like dew on the tree: when enough dew gathers, it drops to the ground. Some of the drops are absorbed by the ground, while others evaporate and become dew again the next day. Every drop was a developing nomadic group.


[1] Burton Watson (trans.), Records of the Grand Historian of China: The Shih Chi of Ssu-ma Ch’ien, vol.2 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961), 155.

[2]Ma Changshou, Beidi yu Xiongnu (Shanlian Bookstore, 1962), 3.

[3] Li Han, Xiongnu Tongshi, (Renmin Press, 1983), 2-4.

[4] Thomas Barfield, The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989).

[5] Nicola Di Cosmo, “Ethnogenesis, Coevolution and Political Morphology of the Earliest Steppe Empire: The Xiongnu Question Revisited,” in Xiongnu Archaeology Multidisciplinary Perspectives of the First Steppe Empire in Inner Asia, edited by Ursula Brosseder and Bryan K. Miller (Bonn, 2011), 43-44.

[6] Catrin Kost, The Practice of Imagery in the Northern Chinese Steppe (5th-lst centuries BCE) (Bonn, 2014), 69-82.

[7] Owen Lattimore, Inner Asian Frontiers of China (New York: American Geographical Society, 1940), 511-529.

[8] Kost, “The Practice of Imagery,” 71.

[9] Lattimore, Inner Asian Frontiers of China, 522.

[10] Ma Changshou, Beidi yu Xiongnu (Shanlian Bookstore, 1962), 14-21.

[11] Di Cosmo, “Ethnogenesis, Coevolution and Political Morphology,” 47.


Recording Türkic History: The Legitimation of an Empire

By Madilyn Clawson

The history of nomadic peoples is often lumped into the histories of neighboring sedentary empires, which frequently lack accuracy and detail in their depiction of individuals and events. Many nomadic peoples did not record their own history, because they often moved from one place to another and it simply would not have been practical to maintain an extensive history. The Türks were an exceptional nomadic group because they kept records of their empire; this has allowed modern scholars to better understand the Türks and their relationship with the Chinese Empire. History appears to have been an important tool for the Türks. The Türks utilized the recording of history as a source of legitimation for their empire and a source of unification among their people. Additionally, history was used to distribute collective ideas across Inner Asia and to document the important role of the Türks in Inner Asia for future generations.

The Türk Empire began slowly after the dissolution of the Juan-juan. The Juan-juan did not leave behind any written records of their own. Therefore, everything that is known about these people has been learned from Chinese records. Unfortunately, these transcriptions “contain little information of real interest” concerning the Turk’s predecessors.[1] Each Chinese dynasty would transcribe the history of the former dynasty in order to have a complete history of the empire but oftentimes these histories were criticized for their inaccuracies or rushed creation. It is possible that the Chinese records left out a great deal of history, especially that of certain people or events that may have seemed insignificant to the great Chinese Empire. The Chiu T’ang Shu gives the history of the T’ang dynasty which includes mention of the Türks; mainly the founding of the Second Türk Empire, which the writer refers to as a “rebellion”.[2] The founding of the Second Türk Empire is also included in the Kül Tigin inscription, the funerary stele of Kül Tigin, created by his brother, Bilgä Kagan.[3] However, rather than simply calling the actions of his father, İlteriš Kagan, a “rebellion,”[4] Bilgä Kagan gives a more extensive history of the founding of the Türk Empire and refers to his father’s campaigns as “organized” and “ordered,” which indicates that these military actions were not merely an impulsive rebellion, but rather an act that was facilitated by the Turkish god, so that “the Turkish people would not go to ruin”.[5] This difference in the conception of history may have inspired the Türks to record their own history so that their people would know the truth (or the accepted Türkic version) about the events that took place between the Chinese and the Türks. The Kül Tigin inscription warns about the “wily and deceitful” Chinese people, so it stands to reason that the Türks might not have trusted the Chinese to document their history and would have certainly wanted to produce their own for the people living at the time and in the future.[6]

The production of history by the Türks may have also been a strategy for nation-building. The author of the Kül Tigin repeatedly addresses the “Turkish people,” as though working to remind readers that they are Türks.[7] Beckwith writes about the separation between the Western Turkic realm and the Eastern Türk realm, saying that “the two halves of the empire became increasingly separate over time,” which might have contributed to the decline of the First Türk Empire around 630 CE.[8] The monument establishes the Türks as a people by instituting a collective history and giving them advice for the future. It instructs the Türkish people to “[h]ear these words of mine well, and listen hard!” because Bilgä Kagan wanted the Türkish people to not only learn the history, but learn from it.[9] Using history to project a certain idea or lesson would have been an effective governing technique, especially in a large area like the Türk empires of Inner Asia. The inscriptions on the stele were meant to be read aloud by passersby. This is why it was erected in a high traffic area where many people would be able to hear the words of Bilgä Kagan read aloud by literate Türks.[10] The formation of a common history would have helped to create a sense of unity among the people.

In their individual works, both Denis Sinor and Christopher Beckwith grapple with the question of what made these people Türks, which is a very difficult, if not impossible, question to attempt to answer completely. Today, scholars attempt to determine which groups in the past should be considered Türks. However, distinguishing Türks from non-Türks was a problem in the past as well. Sinor writes about “Türk splinter groups” that were “ethnically and linguistically similar to or identical with the Türks proper, but living either on the fringes or beyond the borders of the centrally governed Türk states,” who might not have identified as Türks even though they spoke the same language and lived near the edge of the state.[11] Monuments like the Kül Tigin inscription would have certainly influenced the way in which its readers viewed themselves. The inscription repeatedly addresses the reader saying, “O Turkish people” five times on the southern inscription alone, which I believe would have had an effect on its audience.[12] Hearing the words of Bilgä Kagan read aloud describing the history of the empire and chronicling the life of the great hero Kül Tigin might have inspired the listener or reader to want to identify as a member of this great Türk state, rather than be a member of a small group associated with the Türks.

According to Chinese sources like the Chiu T’ang Shu, the Türks were “barbarians” who were often engaged in fights with the Chinese empire.[13] However, according to Sinor, the Türks were regularly “fighting or forming short-lived alliances with other Inner Asian peoples.”[14] This constant fighting among the Inner Asian people may have been another reason for the Türks to record their own history in the form of public monuments. The Kül Tigin inscription repeatedly warns its reader about the dangers of the Chinese, which may have been another nation-building tactic by the Türk leaders. If the readers of the stone could collectively recognize the Chinese as their enemy, they might work together to defend against the Chinese rather than fighting amongst themselves. Also, this notion that the Chinese were the enemy of the Türks might have encouraged other groups of people to identify as Türks based solely on the fact that they lived in the same area, spoke similar languages, and were enemies of the Chinese as well. This would have helped to create a larger, stronger state full of people willing to call themselves Türks.

The writing of history could be seen as a legitimation strategy by the leaders of the Türks. The Chinese empires had an extensive history, so perhaps the Türks saw historical recordkeeping as an indication of power. After the fall of the Juan-juan, the only record of them was that of the Chinese empire, which described the people as “‘another kind of Hsiung-nu,’” or “barbarian.”[15] It is possible that the Türks observed this misrepresentation and realized the importance of recording their own history so that future generations would know the true history of the Türks. There are a number of discrepancies between the history of the Türks according to the Chinese compared to that of the Türks themselves. According to Beckwith, some differences between accounts concerning Türk invasions are due to the Chinese inventing stories in order to “justify the subsequent massive aggression by the T’ang against the Türk.”[16] Historians today have a good understanding of the complexity of the Türks, which would not be possible if the only documentation of the Türks came from Chinese imperial records.

The Türks were a very dynamic people whose history cannot be defined simply as a small part of the history of the Chinese Empire. To the people of Central Asia, history might have represented power. The Chinese employed historians to keep accurate records of their dynasties, so the Türks most likely viewed written history as an indication of authority. If you were able to write things down and create actual records, you had a sense of influence and prestige. Unlike the Juan-juan who came before them, the Türks are not described as simple barbarians. This is because they kept their own histories that brought into question the Chinese records considered by many to be accurate representations of other groups. Türk history cannot be accepted as completely accurate either, but it does allow historians to have a different perspective concerning the same events. The Türks seem to have understood the importance of history in all of its uses. The Türks utilized history as a way to legitimate their empire, inspire unity among the Türks, promulgate their collective ideas concerning other groups, and to keep an accurate record of their important role in Inner Asia.


[1] Denis Sinor, “The Establishment and Dissolution of the Türk Empire,” in The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia, ed. Denis Sinor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 291.

[2] Liu Mau-tsai, Die chinesischen Nachrichlen zur Geschichte der Ost-Türken (T’u-kiie), vol. 1 (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1958), 158.

[3] Daniel Prior, “Unit 5: Turk Empires ” (lecture, History 324: Eurasian Nomads and History, Upham Hall 289, Oxford, November 3, 2017).

[4] Liu Mau-tsai, Die chinesischen Nachrichlen zur Geschichte der Ost-Türken (T’u-kiie), vol. 1 (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1958), 158.

[5] Talat Tekin, A Grammar of Orkhon Turkic (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968), 265.

[6] Talat Tekin, A Grammar of Orkhon Turkic (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968), 264.

[7] Talat Tekin, A Grammar of Orkhon Turkic (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968), 262.

[8] Christopher I. Beckwith, Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 117.

[9] Talat Tekin, A Grammar of Orkhon Turkic (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968), 261.

[10] Daniel Prior, “Unit 5: Turk Empires ” (lecture, History 324: Eurasian Nomads and History, Upham Hall 289, Oxford, November 3, 2017).

[11] Denis Sinor, “The Establishment and Dissolution of the Türk Empire,” in The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia, ed. Denis Sinor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 289.

[12] Talat Tekin, A Grammar of Orkhon Turkic (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968), 262.

[13] Liu Mau-tsai, Die chinesischen Nachrichlen zur Geschichte der Ost-Türken (T’u-kiie), vol. 1 (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1958), 170-171.

[14] Denis Sinor, “The Establishment and Dissolution of the Türk Empire,” in The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia, ed. Denis Sinor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 312.

[15] Denis Sinor, “The Establishment and Dissolution of the Türk Empire,” in The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia, ed. Denis Sinor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 293.

[16] Christopher I. Beckwith, Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 125.


Beckwith, Christopher I. Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.

Mau-tsai, Liu. Die chinesischen Nachrichlen zur Geschichte der Ost-Türken (T’u-kiie). Vol. 1. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1958.

Prior, Daniel. “Unit 5: Turk Empires.” Lecture, History 324: Eurasian Nomads and History, Upham Hall 289, Oxford, November 3, 2017.

Sinor, Denis. “The Establishment and Dissolution of the Türk Empire.” In The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia, edited by Denis Sinor, 285-316. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Tekin, Talat. A Grammar of Orkhon Turkic. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968.


Power on the Steppe

By Yasha Shatalov

          During the eighteenth century, power on the steppe was not held by a single entity or group. Taking primary sources into account, cases could be made for the Empires of China and Russia, or the Kazakh and Kirghiz tribes. The various sources tell markedly different tales, but they have one thing in common, they do not come close to attempting to explain the full geopolitical climate of the steppe. This is obviously not something that is to be expected of the time, as the 1700’s were nowhere near where we stand today in terms of the ease of spreading and sharing information. Only by viewing these sources as a whole, as chapters in a book, can we build ourselves a clear idea of the power struggle that was the steppe in the eighteenth century.

Sources from this time period generally focus on a native group (Kazakh or Kirghiz) and their interactions with an imperial power. Many of the interactions between the Chinese and steppe peoples that we analyzed focus on tribute and the diplomatic dialogues they engaged in. Through these texts, we can interpret the nature of this relationship, and what kind of power these groups, and the Chinese specifically, had in the region. The documents featured in Noda and Onuma’s piece highlight the lack of total control both the Qing Empire and the Kazakhs had. In Ablai’s letter to the emperor he writes, “Now, hearing your edict, I am glad to know you have regard for us… and all the Kazakhs have become your albatu [subjects]” (Noda & Onuma, 12). Ablai writes this after explaining that the message he received was the first his people had ever heard from the Qing Emperor.

This situation is interesting in relation to the question of who held power in the steppe because at first, it appears that the Kazakhs are immediately submissive to the Chinese, but reading into what Ablai says, as well as the circumstances in general, inferences can be made that would challenge this assumption. Addressing Ablai’s initial words in his letter gives us clues to the extent of Chinese influence in the region. Ablai states that “since the time of my grandfather and father… your edict has not reached me” (Noda & Onuma, 12). From this statement it is obvious that the Chinese have held little sway over the Kazakhs and the lands of the steppe. Ablai’s submissiveness in the letter can also be interpreted in a different tone than how it reads at face value.

In class we have spoken of how translation can cause discrepancies compared to the original version of a text, and that is likely true here. These messages had to be translated from Kazakh to Chinese before reaching the emperor, and along the way likely received alterations that would make them more “presentable”. As we discussed in class, the bureaucratic language in imperial China was both very formal in addition to including pleasantries that in the case of this letter, were likely added in by Chinese scribes.

While Ablai appears eager to serve the Qing, it is likely that this play was in the interest of advancing his own agenda rather than the Emperor’s. This strategy can also be seen in the nomads’ interactions with the Russian empire during this time. In Akiyama’s piece, he says, “it was not the case that they passively collaborated with the Russian Empire… the manaps plotted to secure and expand their pastureland by offering their mobility to the Russian Empire” (Akiyama, 158). Many nomads seemed to realize that the easiest route to take was not to attempt to fight the imperial powers, who had more men, resources, and technology, but rather to collaborate, or give the appearance of collaborating. Through this tactic, they were able to pursue their own interests while still giving the appearance of supporting the imperial powers.

The fact that the Russians and Chinese resorted to diplomatic tactics rather than simply moving in and taking the land by force also gives insight into the distribution of power across the steppe. They used tribute and trade “to maintain peaceful relations with the nomadic Kirghiz tribes” (Di Cosmo, 351) while the “Kirghiz chiefs gained access to markets and political protection” (Di Cosmo, 366). The act of tribute was as much of an exchange of services as it was an act of submissiveness. Neither empire felt confident enough to use military strength as their sole strategy for controlling the steppe; therefore, we can assume that neither empire had full control of the steppe. Both the Qing and the Russians had to contend with native traditions, like barimta or cattle appropriations, which challenged their concepts of peace, law, and justice. “[T]he practice of barimta did become suppressed on the basis that it would aggravate…and that it may threaten the stability of the region” (Akiyama, 153). Despite this, the nomads ignored the Russians and continued to engage in this practice. Shabdan describes his raid on the Qalmaqs, though in the end “[f]ollowing Kolpakovskii’s orders, we had to return the livestock to the Qalmaqs” (Akiyama, 153).  This mixture of compliance with the foreign powers enough to avert full conflict, and autonomy in the face of attempts by those powers to assert control, shows a clear disconnect between holding influence over a region and having control over a region.

Another telltale sign that the distribution of power on the steppe was not concentrated in one entity or group is the content featured in two maps of central Asia and their accompanying texts. Bregel notes that “after 1758, the political situation of all three hordes remained unstable, Russia took advantage of this to expand her influence” (Bregel, 114). This excerpt does not tell the tale of a single superpower controlling the region, as it can be inferred from this quote that Russia was only able to make gains in the region in times where its opponents were weak. A similar conclusion can be drawn from the writing included with the map “Kazakhstan in the Second Half of the 18th Century,” where it is said that “The Russian Empire, as it unfolded its military and Cossack colonization of Kazakhstan still had to take the position of prominent Kazakh leaders into account” (116). We can assume the Chinese were similarly restricted in their ability to gain influence and territory based on their attack on the Junghars “after a brief period of internal strife” (Bregel, 114) and the fact that “[t]he ruler of the Middle Horde, sultan Ablay took an oath of allegiance to both China and Russia.”

The map titled “Kazakhstan in the Second Half of the 18th Century” features a clearly defined breakdown of the territories controlled by each group on the steppe. This map features nearly ten different groups, and is in clear contrast to the map featured in the atlas by Bregel. This map shows the historical boundaries of these groups, but many of the borders do not align with what is shown on the aforementioned map. These differences show a lack of collective agreement by modern historians on the spheres of influence of actors on the Asian steppe, as well as a lack of a single entity clearly holding power over the region.

Today, for an actor to hold power in a territory, they should be able to exert their will, whether militarily, judicially, or culturally, to the point where it is apparent that they are first and foremost the most influential group in the area. It is evident by the sources we have examined that neither the imperial powers nor the nomads could claim to have this ability throughout Central Asia. Multiple sources show that all of these groups were willing to be both submissive as well as demanding to each other. No single group was able to realize full control of the region to the point where they could pursue their own objectives without being significantly disrupted by other factions.

This notion of no one truly holding power in the steppe is historically significant because it rules out the simplification of history in that region and era. This idea makes it impossible to focus on just one group as the winners, the dominant power. It provides reason for historians to consider more than the “winning” side’s perspective because there was no overall winner. With no king of the hill, all accounts from that time are that much more important, and to accurately depict an overview of the region as a whole during that time requires more than just sources from China, or sources from Russia, or from the nomads. Accepting that power was not held by one entity pushes historians to conduct their research differently than if the opposite were true.

Works Cited

Akiyama, Tetsu. Nomads Negotiating the Establishment of Russian Central Asia: Focusing on      the Activities of Kyrgyz Tribal Chiefs. Memoirs of the Research Dept of the Toyo Bunko    71,       2013.

Bregel, Yuri, An Historical Atlas of Central Asia. Leiden. Brill, 2003.

Di Cosmo, Nicola & Wyatt, Don (ed.) , Political Frontiers, Ethnic Boundaries, and Human         Geographies in Chinese History. London. RoutledgeCurzon, 2003.

Kazakhstan in the Second Half of the 18th Century. Historical Atlas of Kazakhstan. Almaty. Kitap, 2006.

Noda, Jin & Onuma, Takahiro, A Collection of Documents From the Kazakh Sultans to the Qing    Dynasty. Tokyo, 2010.


The Salamander

By Caroline Godard

Caroline Godard is majoring in English and is also enrolled in the combined BA/MA program in French.  In addition, she has done coursework and an Undergraduate Summer Scholars project in Renaissance history and art history.  Earlier this year, she published an article on Andrea Alciato and the early modern emblem in Journeys into the Past [].  This summer, following a study-abroad program in Paris, she worked as a tour guide at the Château de Gizeux in the Loire Valley, France.  Here she reflects on that experience.


When I think of the Galerie François Ier at the château de Gizeux, I first remember the large mantelpiece anchored along one wall, and how the deep brown painted paneling is patterned with soft shades of gray and blue and yellow and red that dance across the wood. Depicted at the very top of the mantelpiece is a slender four-legged animal surrounded by flames. When I asked visitors to identify this animal, they often couldn’t. Perhaps it looked distorted to them because it was too high up on the mantelpiece, or perhaps the contrast between the grayish animal and the murky blue background wasn’t strong enough.

This animal is a salamander, and when analyzed together with several other symbols, it indicates that the mantelpiece represents King Francis I’s personal device. The salamander was the French king’s personal symbol, and above it rests a golden crown, alluding to his connection to the monarchy. And, in a typical Renaissance combination of text and image, we find emblazoned just above the fireplace King Francis’s Latin motto: nutrisco et extingo: je nourris le bon feu et j’éteins le mauvais feu. In English, this means that “I nourish the good fire and extinguish the bad.”

Francis I (1494-1547) was a sixteenth-century French king who is credited with bringing the Italian Renaissance to France. He reigned from 1515 until his death in 1547, and the Renaissance movement’s migration to France can be traced to Francis I’s involvement in the Italian Wars, during which he battled other European powers for control of the Italian peninsula. However, the war also allowed Francis I to establish contacts with several influential Italian artists and writers. Most famously, Leonardo da Vinci came to live and work in the Loire valley under Francis I’s patronage.

The mantelpiece with Francis I’s symbol is located at the château de Gizeux, a castle in the Loire valley. While the paneling in the room dates to the early seventeenth century, this mantelpiece was added during the nineteenth century, about two hundred years later. It was copied after an older stone mantelpiece located in an older part of the château. After learning about Francis’s symbol at Gizeux, I noticed this salamander popping up elsewhere in the Loire valley, like at the château de Chambord and château de Blois, several of Francis I’s residences that I toured on one of my days off.

For the month of July, I was a tour guide at the Gizeux castle in the Loire valley of France. I was the only American there, and the four other interns with whom I worked—Emeline, Juliette, Keltia and Marie, all students around my age—were French. Although we only knew each other for a short while, we quickly became inseparable, first by necessity and then by choice. We worked together, ate together and slept in the same bedroom, but then in the evenings after the château’s closure we would do everything together, too. Sometimes we would leave Gizeux and go out to dinner in the towns of Bourgeuil or Langeais, and once we picnicked at a park in Candes Saint-Martin, where we watched the sun set over the Loire river.

The Galerie François I was upstairs, right next to the area of the castle where we lived. Every morning after breakfast, we interns would split up to prepare the château for the influx of visitors soon to arrive. Some of us would open the first-floor salons, others would handle the gift shop, and one or two of us would always have to “check the Galerie François Ier.” Normally the gallery was already orderly, so we didn’t have to do much more than straighten the table and chairs into its usual arrangement. During this time of the morning, the weak sunlight would filter through the huge windows facing the enclosed garden out back. I was rarely alone in that room, but whenever I was everything felt very gloomy and still.

The château de Gizeux’s Renaissance owners were the du Bellay family, a very powerful and well-known noble line with connections to the Catholic church and French government. Francis I’s device is painted above the mantelpiece because he visited the château twice for two of the family’s marriages. The du Bellays thus added Francis’s symbol to commemorate the king’s presence, which was a great honor.

I always loved explaining the Galerie François I to visitors because I was fascinated by the du Bellay family history. A year ago, I had studied several poems written by another du Bellay family member, Joachim du Bellay, in a French literature course at Miami University. Joachim du Bellay never lived at Gizeux—it belonged to another branch of his family—but while at Gizeux, I tried to learn as much as I could about him. Most of my research was rudimentary, limited to quick Google searches (there was no cell phone service in the château, and the only WiFi hotspot was in our bedroom).

Joachim du Bellay, I learned, was a sixteenth-century Renaissance French poet from the Loire valley region of France. At the time of du Bellay’s birth in 1522, King Francis I had been reigning for the past six years and France had been at war with Italy off and on for the past twenty-eight years. In 1549, when Joachim du Bellay was 27, he wrote the Defense and Illustration of the French Language, a text promoting the use of the French vernacular in scientific and literary works. In this text, Joachim du Bellay argues that French writers need to create a new style of poetry inspired by classical works, that they should work to enrich the French vocabulary while also imitating ancient Greek and Roman writers.

This text is now considered the manifesto of a group of Parisian poets called La Pléiade, and Joachim du Bellay was one of the Pléiade’s principal members. These poets were humanists, and they drew inspiration from the classics, including ancient Greek and Latin languages, literature and history. Several of the seven Pléiade poets, including Joachim du Bellay and Pierre de Ronsard, popularized the form of the Petrarchan sonnet in France. The Petrarchan sonnet originated in Italy, and it is a fourteen-line poem with a specific rhyme scheme that is divided into two stanzas. The first stanza has eight lines, so it is an octave, and the second has six, so it is a sestet. By innovating the French language, Joachim du Bellay continued the literary, artistic and philosophical Renaissance movement that Francis I had brought to France.

In my French literature class, we studied several of du Bellay’s poems from The Ruins of Rome, a collection of poems that Joachim du Bellay wrote upon his arrival in Rome in 1553. He was in Rome with his cousin, the cardinal Jean du Bellay. These poems are melancholic, and Joachim confronts his past illusion of Rome—which was largely informed by Latin literature and language that he had been studying—with the real Rome that he is surprised and somewhat disappointed to see in front of him. In The Ruins of Rome, Joachim du Bellay expresses his longing for a city that doesn’t exist anymore, or perhaps for a city that never truly existed.

Gizeux’s archives were destroyed during the French Revolution, so it is difficult to know whether Joachim du Bellay ever visited the castle. Sometimes I wondered why I was so interested in Joachim du Bellay, since it is doubtful that he was ever connected to Gizeux. However, despite this ambiguity, I liked that here at Gizeux my connection to Joachim du Bellay felt more concrete than it ever had before. I had previously studied Joachim’s rhyme schemes and stanzas, but now his poetry felt more tangible, connected to the history of objects and people that I talked about every day.

Before my arrival at Gizeux, Renaissance France was an abstract idea formed by the literature and history that I had read about at home in Oxford, Ohio, thousands of miles away. I loved my idealized image of France, but this summer I realized that it was something I had built myself. Like Joachim du Bellay’s Rome, it didn’t really exist, and probably never did.

Early in July, Emeline, the head intern, took us to see the decaying vieux château, the oldest and most dilapidated part of the castle. The interior is so unstable that visitors are forbidden from entering, but sometimes the interns and the de Laffon family’s children—the de Laffons are the owners and managers of the castle—would hang out in “le vieux château” for fun.

Emeline wanted to show us the original Francis I mantelpiece, which was on the second floor. She led us up the crumbling stairs, which felt dark and dangerous and narrow, and then guided us to our left for the clearest view of the old stone object.

“You can take pictures, but don’t show them to anyone. This part of the château isn’t open to visitors,” Emeline reminded us.

I opened my iPhone and took a picture of the mantelpiece, mostly because I knew that I would probably never see it again. Then I took two more photos, from a distance this time, so I could see Francis I’s Latin motto and the salamander symbol represented above. In contrast to the restored mantelpiece in the Galerie François I, this image was duller, the paint was fainter and less vibrant.

As I look at these photographs now, I also remember everything that isn’t contained in the images, like how I was casually nervous that the floor would cave in, and how the space smelled musty and weird and was obviously rarely used. I remember Marie’s and Keltia’s quiet excitement, and how I was quiet, too, partly because I was still a little shy speaking French but mostly because I just didn’t have anything to say.

Interning at Gizeux felt like living in another world and, in a way, it was. I have many pictures from my summer, some of which I cannot share and others that I probably never will. Sometimes, absentmindedly, I scroll through all of these images on my phone and wonder what I will do with them. Will I ever delete these images? Or, if I keep them, will they slowly become less significant to me, buried in my iPhone camera roll under everything else in the world that I deem worthy of documentation?

I have a few pictures of the Galerie François I, and I know that I could find more online if I wanted. On my last day at Gizeux, Keltia and held a mini photo shoot for ourselves, which began seriously but then quickly grew sarcastic. We took pictures of each other inside all of the salons and galleries, documenting our relationship to the rooms we knew so well.

I still have those pictures on my phone, too. But when I think of the Galerie François I at the château de Gizeux, that photo shoot with Keltia isn’t what I immediately remember. Instead, all I can think of is the combination of colors on the huge patterned mantelpiece, and of how excited I was every time someone recognized that the painting of a grayish flaming animal was Francis I’s salamander. I am fascinated now more than ever by everything that I cannot see.

Grading Historical Movies: Rene Clement’s “Forbidden Games”

Note:  Students in Stephen Norris’s HST/FST 252, History at the Movies, are grading historical films and offering reviews on how assigned films render the past.  The second film assigned in this Fall 2018 version of the course, which focuses on European films about World War II, was Rene Clement’s 1952  “Forbidden Games.”

Overall grade from 45 students: B+

Review One

By Sean Mullee

Grade:  A

Rene Clement’s Forbidden Games opens during the French Exodus of 1940 after the German invasion and subsequent occupation. It follows a young Parisian girl named Paulette who, after losing her parents and dog at the beginning of the film, finds a place in the house of the Dolles, a rural family of farmers. Paulette quickly makes friends with the youngest Dolle, Michel, and the two begin to create their own fun in the wake of war, making an animal graveyard so that Paulette’s dog will not be lonely in the afterlife. The film is phenomenally well made, due mostly in part to director Rene Clement who meticulously directed both Brigitte Fossey (Paulette) and Georges Pujouly (Michel), having them retake many shots to get the exact reactions he wanted. Both children are incredibly well-written characters and their dialogue and performances are believable. The story is at its most endearing as Michel becomes an older brother to Paulette, helping her to cope with the loss of her parents through the construction of the graveyard. And in the same way Michel shields Paulette from the atrocities of poverty and war, Paulette becomes Michel’s companion and friend as he struggles with the loss of his own brother. In addition, the film explores themes of familial bonds and rivalries as the Dolles must bury their son as their neighbors’ son returns home from war and connects with their daughter. Perhaps most importantly, the film illustrates the loss of innocence that is so often caused by wars and poverty, as Michel and Paulette must grow up fast to understand and cope with the world around them. As a film, the movie is expertly crafted and challenges norms to tackle the difficult topic of finding happiness in wartime.

Not only does the movie succeed as a film about childhood innocence, it also depicts and comments upon the difficulties faced by the civilians of France. In the first scene the exodus out of France reveals the chaos of people being shot and bombed by aerial forces, showing the hopelessness many of these citizens felt. As it transitions to the Dolle’s farm, we, the viewers, get a snapshot look at the life of the impoverished rural farmers who lived in the countryside of France. Clement manages to capture their lifestyle and feelings towards family and religion. On a deeper level, Clement also reveals many truths about the war, showing the audience how war is unrelenting in its damage. War is a time where no one is spared, not even children, and all must face its atrocities, which can scar for life. Clement’s film is integral to showing a part of war we so seldom overlook, especially in America; the toll it takes on the civilians who must witness it firsthand. This is why Forbidden Games earns such a high rating from me, for depicting so expertly the struggles everyday citizens face during the war.

Review Two

By Blake Mullennix

Grade:  A

Forbidden Games illustrates the chaos of France in June 1940, after Nazi forces entered
Paris. The film opens with French men and women fleeing Paris through the countryside as Nazi
planes shoot down at them. Within the first five minutes, director René Clément highlights a
major, recurring theme of the film: a lack of human connection among mankind. While this is
more obvious in regards to the conflict between the Germans and French, Clément suggests that the French themselves lack cohesion as the path out of Paris becomes an “everyone for
themselves” situation. After the main character’s (Paulette) family is gunned down, the five
year old is reluctantly taken in by a caravan, but they hardly notice when she leaves to retrieve
her dead dog from the nearby stream. This is the first of many examples of people not looking
out for one another, thus exemplifying France’s deep fragmentation. Historically speaking, there
had already been talk of “two Frances” (urban and rural) at that time and while Clément does
show a clear distinction between Parisians and the rural French, Forbidden Games highlights the
overall discord among all French. The two neighbors of rural France don’t get along in the film
and are heavily concerned with who is more French, who are, “deserters” of the French military
cause, and what the other is up to.

The lack of personal connection can too be seen through the unique perspective of
children under war. The Dollé family initially is not very welcoming to Paulette. They withhold human
kindness and are very cold toward the distraught five year old. There too, is a disconnect
between the children and the adults in Forbidden Games. Michel and Paulette are often
overlooked and discounted as kids who don’t know anything. For example, when the police
come to take Paulette, the Dollé adults laugh and say, “kids are just like that,” as Paulette
demands to stay at the farm. In fact, the adults seem to be unchanged by the departure of Paulette
shortly thereafter. The significance for all of the disunity between the characters and the people
of France comes back to two main ideas that help Forbidden Games convey a historical and
metaphorical truth of France in 1940. One being that France, since the revolution in 1789, had
undergone numerous republics, dictatorships, and overall political chaos. The second, being the
more metaphorical/emotional truth, relates to the future of France. Clément questions that if all
of these groups are lacking some sort of unity, comradery, or even the ability to look out for one
another, then how can France continue to exist in the future?

Although the narrative and characters were fictional, the plot to Forbidden Games was
plausible. The way in which Clément illustrates the fragmentation of France is so effective that it
conveys deeper truths. The historical, emotional, and metaphorical truths revealed in this film are incredibly powerful, and thus make Forbidden Games an important historical film.

Review 3

By Adam Ring

Grade:  A

René Clément takes a step back from the stereotypical World War II movie glorifying war—and instead decides to focus on meager peasants residing on a farm. Very underwhelming…? Not even close. Many people could take different images away from this movie, but I will centralize around the following point: this movie was raw. It was authentic. There was nothing phony about it. Too often it seems as though directors are so focused on the sensationalized response they hope to elicit from their movies that they often forget what really matters—believability. A movie can (and Forbidden Games is certainly an example of this) for all intents and purposes seem overly simplistic, but if the message it manages to convey is meaningful, then it has achieved its purpose.

At its core, this movie focuses on two children, and their attempts at making sense of death and loss. A simple concept, but one that leaves the audience with several questions to ponder. What is morality? How do children interpret death? How do children react to death? Why do children do what they do? What are the long-forgotten effects of war on some of the most vulnerable of all people? What is the role of faith in understanding the unknown?

There is not enough space for a lengthy plot summary, but I feel it only proper to provide some background to aid in making my argument more coherent. A young girl finds herself facing immense loss after the death of both her parents as well as her dog. She is taken in by some nearby peasants, and instantly forms a unique bond with one of the boys, Michel. This bond is what drives the entire movie. Michel can be seen as sort of a fatherly-figure in the movie, despite his young age. Most obviously, he is the bedrock for Paulette… a source of comfort and security she so desperately needs. He also helps take care of his wounded brother. The connection between Michel and Paulette is one that is so raw and authentic, one forgets they are watching a movie. As Robert Rosenstone brilliantly puts it, “The ability to elicit strong, immediate emotion…[is] no doubt the practice that most clearly distinguish[es] the history film from history on the page” (Rosenstone 15). Clément’s directing produced scenes where the audience was naturally inclined to feel emotional in a way that simply could not be accomplished on printed page. By showing the steadily increasing collection of stolen crosses and how both children become more and more obsessed with them, it allows the audience to witness a true childhood dilemma: attempting to answer questions that are too large to comprehend. Since neither Michael (and especially not Paulette) can fully understand death, they become obsessed with it… so much so they stockpile an abandoned mill full of dead animals and crucifixes.

Despite the somewhat strange decisions of these two children, a theme begins to emerge—one that is quite profound and very applicable even today. In even the bleakest of times, little kids often attempt to find the goodness in the world. In this case, that took the form of both of them bonding together and finding something that helped them make sense of the world. As twisted as it might have been, it was raw and touching. On the other hand, the positivity of the children juxtaposes somewhat humorously with the adults, who seem to be grumpy, miserable, and stressed. Granted—they oftentimes have good reason to be, but something is to be said about how children have the ability to see the light in the darkest of times.


Grading Historical Movies: Roberto Rossellini’s “Rome Open City”

Note:  Students in Stephen Norris’s HST/FST 252, History at the Movies, are grading historical films and offering reviews on how assigned films render the past.  The first film assigned in this Fall 2018 version of the course, which focuses on European films about World War II, was Roberto Rossellini’s 1945 neorealist classic, “Rome Open City.”

Overall grade from 45 students: B+

Review One:

By Paige Ross

Rome, Open City illustrates the multi-faceted struggle of Italian citizens living under the oppressive occupation of Nazi forces following the ousting of Mussolini and the declaration of Rome as an “open city.” The film gives insight into the mindset and motivations of those in the Italian resistance and renders an image of a “full” resistance by Italian citizens which includes every kind/type of person in Italian society, from the clergy to the children. Additionally, Rome, Open City poignantly illustrates the human consequences of war. These consequences can be seen throughout the film in instances such as Pina’s senseless death, Giorgio’s death as a result of brutal torture, and Don Pietro’s death at the hands of a firing squad. Death is a strategic motif utilized throughout the film to further demonstrate the overreaching struggle of everyday Italians and the theme that war is a brutal enterprise with permanent consequences. Rome, Open City also displays the intersection of war and faith, hope and hopelessness, love and hatred. Throughout the film the characters (both major and minor) are forced to grapple with morality and mortality, as well as self-perseverance, and this plays a significant role in the plot and the character development as well as further stresses that war is a human conflict, and that humans cannot be entirely good or entirely evil. This instance is most pointedly illustrated in one of the last scenes of the film in which Captain Hartmann drunkenly admits to the mass wrongdoing committed by his side (the Nazis).

However, while Rome, Open City does an exceptional job of illustrating the human consequences of war and conflict, it struggles with some elements of pacing (nearly all the action occurs in the final half hour) as well as has issues creating deep or meaningful bonds between the audience and its characters. Every character was developed seemingly “at surface level,” as the director sought to represent multiple factions of Italian society at the time. Any alliance the audience has to any specific character is loose for the majority of the film, and I myself struggled to feel some of the characters’ pain/struggle/suffering until the latter portion of the film. This I believe hindered some of my ability to connect emotionally to the past conveyed in Rome, Open City, however this did not in my opinion, hinder the overall depiction of the past and the experiences of the Italian citizens under Nazi rule as illustrated in the film. Lastly, I believe that the fact that the film was released in 1945 so soon after the conclusion of the Second World War provides some additional validity or “truth” to the experiences and emotions conveyed throughout the film.

Review Two

By Madeline Phaby

Rome, Open City provides unique insight into the struggles and fear-inducing episodes endured by Italians during the World War II Nazi occupation of Rome. The film is largely told from the point of view of the Italian citizens who suffered both economically and physically at the hands of the Germans and as a consequence of the brutal war. The main focus is placed on Giorgio Manfredi, an engineer who is a part of the communist resistance, Pina and Francesco, fiancees who are also part of the resistance, and Don Pietro, a priest who aids the resistance as well and frequently shows animosity towards the Nazis despite being a man of God. The fact that Rossellini decides to tell the story of the war from the perspective of these poor, ordinary citizens allows the viewer to become more engrossed in the plot since we are more likely to relate to an “everyman” fighting for a working-class movement such as Giorgio than some Italian bureaucrat who was likely not nearly as crippled by the war as lower-class individuals. The film also provides a whirlwind of emotions for the viewer – anger at the ruthlessness of the SS and Major Bergmann in particular, fright as the pursuit of Manfredi by the Germans intensifies, and sorrow upon Pina’s shocking and passionate death – which serve as further evidence of Rossellini’s skill in creating a heartfelt connection between us and the hopeless but persistent revolutionaries. The way I see it, if a film doesn’t make one feel precisely the same emotions expressed by its characters, then the director hasn’t done his job.

Although Rome, Open City is a tale of betrayal, tragedy, and thwarted spirit, it also serves as a passionate display of human perseverance. Unfortunately, we have learned time and time again that few revolutions are carried out without bloodshed, and the communist rebellion depicted in the film is no exception. However, the last part of the film during which Manfredi and Don Pietro both refuse to betray their cause and thus weaken the German morale is nothing short of triumphant and, in essence, what resistance is all about. Yes, it’s sad that everyone ends up dying, but the result of the men’s steadfastness is satisfying nonetheless.

Review Three

By Emma Darby

Rome, Open City was a fascinating and deeply disturbing account of the lives controlled within German-dominated Rome. The many religious undertones throughout the film, highlighted by Don Pietro and Pina’s questioning of God’s mercy caused by the continual beratement and attacks by the Germans, all the more powerful. The juxtaposition between the residents and the German troops were also quite striking, seeing the depravity and isolation that the Italians experienced compared to the luxury and poshness the Germans were able to create, especially the fur coat for Marina.  This juxtaposition continued through the relationships that were displayed throughout the film.  Marina and Giorgio, for example, have a tainted relationship because of her stronger desire for wealth and luxury provided by the dominating forces in exchange for information.  Pina and Francesco, on the other hand, find safety and trust in each other, the German invitation for prosperity not within their desires. It also offers a slight relief from the overall dark film. The characterization of Pina, as well as the children, were highly interesting in their displays to Fascist expectations. Pina fought for power and visibility in the world rather than just remaining a childbearing utility. The children showed a great deal of courage in fighting, which fascism dictated boys should do, but they fought against the government above them.

Though the characters were fictionalized, the plot itself was quite believable. Rossellini made very clear and careful choices in how his characters were displayed, the Germans all much taller and in dark clothing throughout the film, their presence as dread-inducing as the threat of a world take over. The choice to also have Pina, a face of the resistance, shot dead in the street, followed by two sheep being killed in a similar manner highlight the villainy Rossellini was trying to capture. What was most alarming was definitely the death of Don Pietro.  Metaphorically, it stood out as a silencing of God’s word, or killing a figure of God himself, crushing the spirits and hopes of the children also in the Resistance.  Through these choices, the story itself became not only the more heartbreaking, but helped one understand the complete lack of hope those being occupied may have felt during the war.