New recruit Hemminki Aaltonen (Kaarlo Angerkoski) over-sleeps at reveille, he is late for drills, and he brings up the rear on speed-marches, complaining about his rheumatism. During training at a forest camp, he takes the delicate academic Lauri Auermaa (Leo Lähteenmäki) under his wing, inadvertently blundering into a burgeoning romance between the soft-spoken professor and the Captain’s daughter Elli (Ansa Ikonen).
Rykmentin Murhenkryyni (1938) began as a 1933 stage play by “Topias” (Toivo Kauppinen) but benefits greatly in cinema form from its real-world location work, affording valuable glimpses of the men and materiel of the Finnish army just before the outbreak of the Winter War. Most striking for me is the degree to which horses still form the engine of the army, with nary a tank or armoured car in sight. This is certainly a military tale as told by a generation that hasn’t seen any real conflict. The sergeant major who turfs the young recruits out of their bunks is ridiculously nice and soft-spoken, while the drill sergeant who berates Aaltonen for being late is a cartoonish caricature; this is more Stripes than Full Metal Jacket.
A cynic might suggest that this is all part of the plan in increasingly tense times, softening the image of military service until it looks less like a dangerous job, and more like a summer camp with some outdoor sports, a bit of marching and some hearty grub. These are not the men that, barely a year later, would be slitting the throats of Russians in their sleep, and dynamiting icy lakes to drown tank divisions. Instead they are friendly guardsmen standing behind rickety barriers and indulging in gentle banter with passing carters, while the daffy cadet Auermaa prances around the parade ground with a butterfly net, and asked if he can have a spin on a cavalry horse. With that in mind, remarkably little happens in the film, with the plot often playing second fiddle to prolonged scenes of marching, swimming, training and goofing off – not since Our Boys in the Air (1934) has the Suomen Filmiteollisuus company spent quite so much time poking around the everyday life of military personnel.
Despite being a comedy, this is the first time that Suomen Filmiteollisuus has had to face issues common to dramatic war films, too – once they’re in uniform, all the men look the bloody same. Unless some is shouting or malingering, it’s often difficult to work out which of the bumbling soldiers is which. Aku Korhonen, his head shaven like a billiard ball, is all but unrecognisable as Captain Routanen, and I wasted a whole minute trying to remember which soldier was the one in glasses in the mess hall, until I realised that it was Auermaa with his jacket off.
It takes twenty minutes before Ansa Ikonen suddenly appears as the love interest, trilling a jaunty song at the piano. Ikonen has been a regular feature in the last year or so of films from the company, but here seems ill at ease as the comedy ingénue, barking her lines at her fellow actors as if comedy is determined solely by volume, and seemingly blocking herself so that her face is perpetually ill-framed by the camera. She also wanders around in silly jodhpurs and a distractingly shiny satin blouse, but at least it’s obvious who she is! This, perhaps, is part of the plan, as half an hour later she dresses up as a captain herself, and manages to fool her suitor that she is a shouty male officer. Well, I did say that the uniforms made everyone look the same, and in Auermaa’s defence, without his spectacles on the, newly arrived “captain” is just a blur to him, and it is presumably not all that unusual in Finland for a deep-voiced woman in uniform to demand that snivelling underlings clean her jackboots.
Eventually, the comedy is shut down by the arrival of the Major-General (Jalmari Rinne), a dour and authoritative figure who cuts through the various knots into which the cast have got themselves, and gets to yell the big punchline: “What kind of garrison is this? The Captain is a girl and the sergeant-major is mad!” This presumably had a whole extra level of fun for Finnish audiences at the time, since actors Rinne and Ikonen were conducting a scandalously public affair. Barely a year later, Rinne would get a hasty divorce, and with presidential permission, eschew the usual legally-mandated delay to marry Ikonen before her pregnancy bump really began to show.
But I digress. It takes another twenty minutes of running around in the forest before Auermaa proposes to Elli. He is so shy that he only achieves this with Aaltonen standing behind him in the guise of a drill sergeant, commanding: “KISS NOW! KISS NOW! KISS NOW!” You might think Finland is still like this, to a certain extent, but I couldn’t possibly comment.
A final coda shows Aaltonen in happy domestic bliss with his own love interest, Mimmi (his real-life wife Siiri Angerkoski), heartily singing a military tune as he toils in the field, all malingering gone. The message is two-fold, that military life is good for you, and one day all this will be over – stirring stuff considering what was lurking just around the corner for Finland. The Winter War would break out thirteen months to the day after this film’s premiere.
Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland.