I came across a movie this week on YouTube entitled Ballad of a Soldier (1959). Directed by Grigoriy Chukhray, the film tells the story of a young private in the Red Army during World War Two named Alyosha Skvortsov (Volodya Ivashov).
Alyosha manages to cripple two German Panzers by himself with a heavy machine gun. For his heroism in battle, he is awarded a six-day pass to go home. He has two days to travel there, two days to spend with his mother, and two days to return to the front. This seems simple enough and not very interesting, but the story turns into a Greek tragedy quickly with Alyosha playing the part of a wandering Odysseus.
As Alyosha begins his journey, he encounters a soldier headed for the front who asks Alyosha to visit his wife and father for him. Alyosha does so and presents both with gifts of soap from the soldier, who is a faithful husband and son. Unfortunately for the soldier, his wife turns out to be not nearly as faithful.
Alyosha then helps a man who lost his leg in battle return to his wife, which takes up precious time on his pass. That completed, Alyosha turns his attention back to going home but meets a young woman named Shura (Zhanna Prokhorenko) as both stow away on a train. One setback leads to another, and the two fall in love.
Eventually, Alyosha has to part with Shura. In a wrenching scene, she watches as his train pulls away. He endures more setbacks, including his train exploding from a German artillery attack, and finally arrives at his village. However, by then there is time only to embrace his mother and say goodbye. Like Shura, his mother is left watching as Alyosha departs.
Ballad of a Soldier depicts the tedium and horror of war, but it also raises the question of fate and how we respond to life’s challenges. Specifically, is it better to remain fixed on your goals or experience life as it comes to you? Clearly, Alyosha did the latter, but he did so out of a generosity of spirit that compelled him to help others, especially those who had been wronged or were suffering. In the end, he paid dearly for his generosity.
But the choice may not be ours after all, particularly for people of faith. For instance, the psalmist exclaims, “Like an open book, you watched me grow from conception to birth; all the stages of my life were spread out before you, The days of my life all prepared before I’d even lived one day” (Psalm 139:16).
This is not to say that free will does not exist, but maybe our choice comes down to accepting our fate or not. If we do not, then we must spend our days struggling to create another reality. That is the modern dilemma with many succumbing to nihilism, which is nothing but intellectual despair. The ancients had it easier. They believed that no one could escape their fate no matter how hard they tried.
Alyosha could have denied the soldier’s request and ignored the one-legged vet, which means he likely would not have met Shura. He would have arrived at his village and spent two days with his mother. He even might have ended up marrying the girl next door, who showed up during his brief visit. Instead, he let himself get sidetracked by other people and their needs.
You might argue that Alyosha followed his heart, but then you would have to justify the cruelty of doing so. By following his heart, he lost the relationship with Shura and time with his mother. This, after having squandered four days on the road. That doesn’t exactly reflect well on the “come what may” approach to life. Was he simply an inexperienced youth, an idiot, a sucker?
The real dilemma is not deciding which should govern your life: the heart or intellect. It’s clear that we need balance. Too much of the former can lead to suffering and heartache. Too much of the latter can make people successful but insufferable.
The best way to get sidetracked is to know what’s happening and to agree to go along for the ride.
Nobody wants to get railroaded.
Image credits: Film images used under Fair Use. No copyright infringement intended.