A swashbuckler with Latvian role models

Vella kalpi

Vella kalpi is my first memory of a Latvian film. I recently saw it again. Unfortunately, it has not aged well. The cinematography is average at best, the sound is tinny, the story overblown and the acting hammy. About the only part of it that doesn’t seem to have aged is Raimonds Pauls soundtrack. Then again, if you aren’t a big fan of Pauls that isn’t much to crow about either. Despite all of that, I still loved it and always will.

You have to understand this film in its context. You have to see it through the eyes of an 8-year-old, sitting in a darkened theater, eyes glued to the screen. An 8-year-old who was growing up in a confusing world not of his own making. Trying to make sense of a contradictory existence that adults only whispered about. I was a Latvian and I lived in Latvia, but I lived in Soviet Latvia. Up to this point my mythology only contained Soviet heroes. They might have spoken Latvian. They might have been Latvian, but at the core they were Soviets. This was the first time I had ever seen Latvian heroes and I couldn’t tear my eyes from the screen.

Basically, Vella kalpi is a swashbuckler. The film itself is based on the stories of Rutku Tēvs, but anyone familiar with the many variants of the “Three Musketeers” will recognize the plot. It’s about three young men who, motivated by both circumstance and national pride, rise up to protect Rīga from a foreign invasion. They do this with strength and cunning, exhibiting all of the traits that we consider to be Latvian: hard work, loyalty and a sense of humor.

I am sure that the film was supposed to reinforce the Soviet ideals of being vigilant to bourgeoisie ideals—our heroes are strapping farm lads with simple tastes and simple needs, and all of the villians were either nobility or foreigners—but all I could see was Latvian heroes doing great deeds with a great bit of panache.  This is who I wanted to be when I grew up.

It was my first exposure to Latvian role models outside of my own family. You might think it hyperbole, but you have to understand the total control that the Soviets had over all media. The goal of Soviet media was to produce good Soviets and not good Latvians. Perhaps the most amazing thing is that this movie managed to bypass all of that. While on the surface seems to reinforce Soviet mythology, at its heart it is about Latvian identity and Latvian ideals.


Vella kalpi

Aleksandrs Leimanis, director

Rīgas kinostudija,  1970

Notes: In Latvian. Musical/adventure/comedy, color, 80 minutes. Principal actors: Olga Dreģe, Arturs Ēķis, Eduards Pāvuls, Elza Radziņa, Haralds Ritenbergs and Kārlis Sebris; screenplay: Jānis Anerauds (based on the stories of Rutku Tēvs); music: Raimonds Pauls.

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