Only Old Men Are Going to Battle (В бой идут одни «старики» / V boy idut odni “stariki”) is a Ukrainian war movie directed by Leonid Bykov in 1973. It tells the story of a Soviet air force squadron which doubles as an amateur band during the Second World War. It’s an iconic movie with characters and phrases that have slipped into everyday Russian culture.
The film’s plot is based on the real-life memoirs of famed Soviet fighter pilot, Vitaly Popkov, whose squadron doubled as an amateur choir during World War Two.
The film describes the wartime experience of a Soviet air squadron, starting during the Battle of the Dnieper of 1943. What makes this squadron’s experience so special is that they form an amateur band when they’re not fighting.
The squadron leader, Captain Titarenko, doubles as an enthusiastic conductor of this band. He leads resting pilots to beautiful renditions of favorite Russian songs, including, most famously, The Swarthy Moldovan girl (Смуглянка-Молдаванка).
When the pilots are not playing music, only the experienced ones go up to fight with the Germans. Hence, the title of the film. It means that only the “old men” – or rather, experienced pilots – go to battle.
As the movie progresses, we see that the generations of “old men” are replaced pretty quickly. The reason, of course, is the high casualty rate of the Red Army pilots.
It’s all the more difficult to see the changing generations of pilots because we get to know them so well. We see them having fun playing music together. We also see them fall in love.
A major plot point in the movie is the romance between two Soviet pilots, Romeo and Masha. As the war nears its end, Romeo and Masha get married before a sortie. Tragically, during that flight both Romeo and Masha die.
Only Old Men Are Going to Battle is famous for its music. And the most popular song from the film is undoubtedly The Swarthy Moldovan girl (Смуглянка-Молдаванка / Smuglyanka-Moldovanka). The movie’s director, Leonid Bykov, reportedly (interview here) first fell in love with the song when he was a young boy. He heard a group of Red Army soldiers singing the song together, as they headed to the front in World War Two, and knew he wanted to include it in a film.
Other songs from the film include: Evening Bells (Вечерний звон); What a Moonlit Night (Ніч яка місячна); Oh, the roads… (Эх, дороги…); For that guy (За того парня); In the dugout (В землянке); and Burnt by the Sun (Утомлённое солнце).