1700: in the sleepy Savonian village of Kurmitsa, Pastor Petrelius (Kaarlo Saarnio) announces that King Charles XII is recruiting strong men to help fight in the war with Russia, an expedition to Estonia in order to push back “the Muscovites, the enemy” (moskoviitteja, perivihollista). Local boy Paavo (Kalevi Myykänen) asks for the hand in marriage of the pastor’s daughter Karoliina (Hilkka Helinä) but is told that he is too young and has no prospects. Karoliina is packed off to That Fancy Turku to keep her out of temptation, and a heartbroken Paavo joins the army.
Paavo fights in the high-point of the Swedish advance, the Battle of Narva, but is missing, presumed dead, after the crushing Swedish defeat at the Battle of Poltava nine years later. From the pulpit, the pastor proclaims him to be dead, but Karoliina proclaims that she will never stop waiting for him.
By 1713, the Russian counter-attack has reached Kurmitsa, a fact made obvious at first when the Cossack leader Voronoff (Santeri Karilo in a silly hat) surprises Karoliina in the forest. She fights off his advances – he concedes that she is a “noble maid”, which presumably means he would have been pushier if she’s just been a random Finn – and then she steals his horse and pistol, like a proper Finnish girl would.
Not unlike other Russian adversaries in The Activists (1939), Voronoff is a conflicted figure, a just and arguably noble man obliged to carry out unjust policies on behalf of his masters. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the occupation of Kurmitsa, during which Petrelius is wounded, several villagers are killed, and Voronoff resorts to shooting one of his own men to keep him away from Karoliina. In a study of coercion, Voronoff the “saviour” of Karoliina now expects her affection in return (rather ignoring the fact that she wouldn’t have needed saving if he hadn’t invaded her country in the first place). Paavo, however, (for it is he), escapes from his Russian captors, re-arms himself with stolen weapons, and dashes to Karoliina’s rescue.
The fleeing lovers are cornered, but Voronoff orders his men to cease fire, as he wants Karoliina in one piece for himself. Paavo and Voronoff duel on horseback, with Paavo the ultimate victor. The vengeful Cossacks advance, only to flee when they see a signal, purporting to be from reinforcements in the Rantasalmi Regiment, but actually a ruse concocted by Paavo’s comrade-in-arms, Kalmukki-Kalle (Anton Soini, whose character’s name, Kalle the Kalmyk, implies that he is Finnish cinema’s first Mongolian war hero).
The Russian menace is scared away, for now, and Paavo and Karoliina are reunited at the pastor’s bedside, opposition to their marriage now presumably withdrawn after a long decade. Paavo tells the villagers to go back to their daily lives, but warns them the Russians could return at any moment, and the Finns should be ready to take up arms once more…
While other studios in Finland embraced the looming onset of war with Russia by focussing on military life in films such as Kalle Kollola, Cavalryman (1939) and The Red Trousers (1939), the obscure minor outfit of Jäger-Filmi instead delved back into the past, seeing instead a ready allegory in Russia’s invasion of what was then Sweden in the Great Northern War of 1700-21, Sweden having effectively abandoned its Finnish provinces to their own fate after the disastrous battle of Poltava. Based on a 1933 novel, Vaeltavan sinitakin tarina (Tales of a Wandering Bluejacket) by Jyrki Mikkonen, who adapted his own work for the screen, Kalle Kaarna’s film took a year to shoot, and sneakily lifted battle sequences from a decade-old Swedish film, John W. Brunius’ Charles XII (1925) for much of its epic action.
It was not officially completed until after the Second World War had already broken out, and spent a few days in censorship limbo, as military critics debated whether it should be shorn of four minutes of footage liable to annoy the Russians – one is surprised they didn’t realise that all of it would annoy the Russians. It was due to have its premiere in October 1939, but was held back on the grounds that it was one of the films that “were likely to worsen the country’s relations with foreign powers or to jeopardize the country’s neutrality.” It’s here, in fact, that we can see just how smart the other studios were in concentrating not on the reality of war, but the comedy to be found in everyday military life – there is no enemy in The Red Trousers or Kalle Kollola, thereby sneaking around any likely complaints from the censor.
After the outbreak of the Winter War, in which Russia behaved in a way that made The Great Wrath look oddly prescient, the Finnish censors overcame their timidity, and the film had a belated premiere in Turku on 14th December. It was greeted with ovations and cheers in cinemas around Finland, and a press reaction that was conspicuously enthusiastic. It was, however, banned a second time in September 1940, in the wake of the uneasy truce with the Soviet Union, and complaints from the Russians that it made them look like a bunch of arseholes. In a typically Finnish moment of bloody-mindedness, producer Kurt Jäger facetiously demanded that the Ministry of the Interior explain why it had suddenly decided to decree a police clampdown on his film, forcing the censorship authorities to come up with a backdated and intricately worded account of how a film could be banned, un-banned and re-banned in the space of two years.
But the drama doesn’t even end there. The film was double-re-banned after 1945, when Finland’s tense Cold War situation led to several of its more patriotic movies, The Activists and The Jaeger’s Bride among them, being discreetly tucked out of harm’s way in film archives, and not shown to the public. The Great Wrath, in fact, was believed lost, all prints thought to have been destroyed in a fire in 1959, until the Swedish Film Archive uncovered a copy in 1978 and sent it back to Finland, since let’s face it, it kind of makes the Swedes look like arseholes, too, abandoning their eastern provinces to the enemy, in the middle of a plague. Much as the lost Japanese propaganda film Momotaro: Sacred Sailors was joyously returned to the public in the 1980s, The Great Wrath was resubmitted to the Finnish censors, and finally set free in 1985…
Screened on TV-1 in 1985 (with six cuts even then!), it met with little praise from modern-day critics, with the Turun Sanomat dismissing it as a “curiosity from the past”, and Aamulehti calling it a “purposeless and often unintentionally comic film.” The Helsingin Sanomat called it “a condensed dose of 1930s Finnish foreign policy,” which hardly sounds like a rip-roaring night at the movies.
The Great Wrath is, indeed, a fascinating historical curio, not the least for the lack of metadata around its media footprint. The Elonet site, which is a treasure trove of Finnish films, lacks an online copy for viewing, and only has ten stills instead of the usual several dozen, many of which concentrate on Voronoff as if he is the dashing hero. There is also no poster extant in the Finnish national archives, almost as if someone in the last few decades has gently redacted anything that might be perceived as negative towards the Russians. This is why I love propaganda so much, for all the drama it generates, even when people are trying to push it out of the way.
In modern times, the term “Great Wrath” (isoviha) has also since been cheekily appropriated by the Savuhovi corporation as the brand name for their extra-hot chili sausages, because Finland.
Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland. He is watching all the Finnish films so you don’t have to.