During the Battle of Stalingrad, young Russian soldier Vasily Zaytsev (Jude Law) demonstrates a gift for sharp-shooting. He soon becomes the Russian army’s most effective sniper, with his exploits exaggerated and publicised by political commissar Danilov (Joseph Fiennes). When Zaytsev’s success grows too much for German command, they bring in crack marksman and sniping instructor Major Erwin König (Ed Harris) to kill Zaytsev in the field.
Enemy at the Gates is a 2001 war film directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. It is rather striking among English-language war films, since it does not feature any American or British characters at all. Its Stalingrad setting ensures a focus on the Russian front, and if nothing else that makes it a markedly different and refreshing take on the World War II movie genre. It is based, somewhat loosely, on a true story. It is definitely true that Vasily Zaytsev was an enormously talented and effective sniper, but claims that he fought a duel over several days against a German Major named König were entirely Zaytsev’s own. No records of a Major König have been found, and there have even been claims that Zaytsev’s duel was fabricated to boost his popularity back home.
As the saying goes: ‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.’ Enemy at the Gates, which is partly based on William Craig’s 1973 book of the same name, elects to take Zaytsev at his word and rolls out a regularly tense, well-played conflict between the two snipers against the devastating backdrop of the Battle of Stalingrad. No expense seems spared in the film’s expansive depiction of the city’s ruined buildings and smoke-filled streets. Zaytsev’s terrifying arrival via boat is a deliberately visceral experience, one that would seem to draw much of its violence from Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (released three years earlier). Jude Law plays Zaytsev with a likeable combination of wide-eyed naivete, crushing self-doubt and inherent nobility. In the opposite role Ed Harris plays König with a cold dignity and a calculating menace. Early scenes present him simply as a man doing a job, but later scenes push the character into outright despicable villainy; that’s a change that does not entirely work for me, and points to a simplification process aimed at making the film more digestible to a mainstream audience.
The concessions to the mainstream do not stop there. When the film is purely focused on combat and strategy it flourishes, but the screenplay by Annaud and Alain Godard shoe-horns in an ill-advised romance sub-plot. Both Zaytsev and Danilov fall for the same young woman, a budding Jewish sniper named Tania Chernova (Rachel Weisz). It’s a messy development with odd abandoned plot threads all over the place, and weakens the entire film in the process. Far better to simply keep Chernova how she was in real-life: a talented sniper who trained in Stalingrad under Zaytsev’s supervision. Weisz does a great job with a limited character. Fiennes is less successful with his. Both Ron Perlman and Bob Hoskins acquit themselves well in what amount to glorified cameos.
Most egregious of all is James Horner’s bombastic orchestral score, which simply does not know when to shut up and let the action speak for itself. Almost every moment in the film – certainly every emotional one – is backed by a brash, tonally inconsistent score that has a horrendous and over-bearing effect. For those familiar with Horner’s oeuvre it does provide for an unintentionally funny game, with viewers able to spot the cues and melodies casually lifted from many of his other, much better compositions. A bit of The Mark of Zorro here, a touch of Titanic there, and even the odd riff from Willow. In the film’s second half, those themes become subsumed by a continuing Jewish melody that makes it all sound cribbed from John Williams’ score to Schindler’s List.
When Annaud restricts his story to a cat-and-mouse game between two master snipers, the film is a tense and engaging experience. When he tries to make another Hollywood romantic epic, the film flounders badly. There is a good movie buried in there, but you have to dig through a lot of extraneous rubbish to find it.