Director: Dariusz Gajewski | 2h 20mins | War, Drama, Romance | Language: Polish
With the explosion of WWI and allied powers at war, a Polish military force is formed to fight against the countries that occupy Poland. While at war, many soldiers fight hardship and heartbreak all in the name of freedom.
The War genre is arguably one of the most overplayed genres to date, with so many out there and so much inspiration to draw from, to make them stand out in the modern era they have to do something very special. Something like Sam Mendes’ 1917, or more recently Edward Berger’s All Quiet on the Western Front, achieve this with a more grounded and visceral approach to their depictions of World War I – honing in on the barbarity more so than the patriotism. But, Polish epic Legions takes an old-school approach to its style – telling a story rife with romance, heroism and freedom.
For those unfamiliar with the story of the Polish Legions, they were a group of soldiers who fought against Russia and Germany to bring independence to their nation – becoming the first Polish armed forces in generations. They were scrappy and excitable young men who, in the chaos of war, emerged as resilient soldiers and eventually, heroes. It is a tale as old as time within the war genre, but Legions consistently remains unaffected by the familiar tones of its story – understanding that it’s the only way to do these heroes justice.
Director Dariusz Gajewski understands that scope is key when telling this story, but it’s the characters that need to flourish in order to really connect with its audience. The film follows 4 characters closely; Tadeusz and Aleksandra as lovers separated by war, the patriotic leader ‘Krol’ and finally Józek – who’s transition from uncaring deserter to reluctant hero is the most interesting arc the film offers.
Sebastian Fabijianski’s performance as Józek is muted and stoic, playing off of the narrative well and eventually, along with co-star Miroslaw Baka, taking the brunt of the more emotionally resonating scenes. It’s in the latter stages of the film when Józek is pulled into the subpar love triangle between the separated lovers, which is unfortunately the part that brings Legions crashing down into mediocrity.
After Józek returns from imprisonment he quickly falls for Aleksandra (played by Wiktoria Wolanska) who, despite grieving her supposedly dead fiancée, quickly finds solace in Józek’s arms. While this triangle isn’t as sloppy as the one in Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor, it still softens the poignant themes beyond repair. It feels like an old school way of thinking – in which every narrative needs an element of romance in order to exist – but Legions would have benefited more from sticking to its guns and leaving the stuffy love story aside.
The conventional feel of the film does well to hit home the themes, putting its narrative above all else. However, while there’s nothing distinctively wrong with making a film in this way, Legions still struggles to find anything to make it sparkle. There is one scene during Jozek and Krol’s snowy imprisonment that stays with you, but the rest of the film feels like a sequential trudge through the narrative that, while interesting, never manages to excite.
Despite its conservative nature though, the film succeeds in its goal to share an important slice of history that seems to have gone unnoticed. Legions may not break boundaries in the war genre, or have the most enchanting love story, but the honest approach to storytelling is a testament to the struggle these heroes went through, making this a collaborative effort worth celebrating.