A British colonel and his staff agonize over the human consequences of following their military orders to force the repatriation of Soviet refugees back to the Soviet Union. Inspired by actual events. [ The Red Danube credits: Dir: George Sidney/ Walter Pidgeon, Ethel Barrymore, Peter Lawford/ 120 min/ Drama/ Escape from Socialism]
“A useful reminder of this sad chapter in post-World War II history.”
At the end of World War II, Churchill and Roosevelt acceded to Stalin’s demands that all Soviet citizens in the British and American occupied zones be returned to the Soviet Union. Partly they did so in order to insure Soviet cooperation in other postwar matters including the return of Allied POWs, and partly it reflected their own naiveté and indifference, particularly on the part of Roosevelt.
For obvious reasons, many Soviet refugees did not want to be returned. Their socialist country was a giant prison — without liberty, without hope, impoverished and cruel — and they knew it firsthand. When the repatriations began (under the code name Operation Keelhaul), the refugees often attempted suicide, cutting themselves, hanging themselves, jumping from their convoys into icy waters, anything not to be sent back. British and American soldiers were ordered to return them anyway, a process that sometimes required a degree of brutality to be carried out, since the doomed put up what resistance they could.
Nobody knows exactly what happened to all of those who were successfully returned, but tens of thousands are known to have been either summarily executed or sent to forced labor camps. Strangely enough, while Stalin wanted all Soviet citizens returned, he didn’t necessarily want them alive. Apparently he considered those who had been in the West potential traitors.
The Red Danube incorporates some of this history into its story of an escaped Soviet ballerina who wants to stay in the West. The British colonel in charge of repatriating Soviets initially cooperates in handing her over. But later, after a moral transformation on his part, he defies the military’s orders and lets her stay. The ballerina is captured by the Soviets anyway and jumps from a building to her death rather than return to the U.S.S.R. The colonel subsequently influences the military’s policy and forced repatriation is ended. So far, so good. However, the truth is compromised in this telling.
In particular, Britain and the U.S. are made out to be opponents of forced repatriation, reluctantly going along with a policy apparently decided by the U.N. In truth, Britain and the U.S. had agreed to participate.
Much of this film is in the typical 1950s anticommie style — stiff at times, and made all the more so by a wooden performance by Walter Pidgeon as the British colonel. The bright spot is Ethel Barrymore, in the part of a persuasive mother superior who manages to manipulate the British colonel for good purposes, insult the Soviets, and get away with it. The Red Danube is just a fair film overall, but it’s a useful reminder of this sad chapter in post-World War II history.