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Posted on May 8, 2005 in Books and Movies

Enemy at the Gates – Movie Review

By David Cavaleri

eag_cover.gifStalingrad: The bloody turning point on World War II’s Eastern Front. 

Enemy at the Gates has a bit of something for everyone – a battle, a hero, and a love triangle. What it lacks, though, is historical accuracy. In the main, the film does not do justice to the Battle of Stalingrad, the “turning point” of World War II in Europe. Involving millions of men and thousands of tanks, aircraft and artillery, Stalingrad proved to the world that Hitler’s army could be stopped. The movie does not adequately address the horrific loss of life experienced by the Soviets and their German invaders, nor does it realistically illustrate the challenges of a winter urban infantry fight in a city reduced to rubble. Still, the superb portrayal of Junior Lieutenant Vassili Grigorevich Zaitsev (Jude Law) puts a human face on a nation’s struggle to comply with Stalin’s impossible “not one step back” order of July 1942, and the film is quite good as long as one doesn’t expect a history lesson.


An early scene in which Soviet reinforcements are being ferried across the Volga under intense Stuka bombardment gives viewers an idea of the hellish introduction to combat endured by so many young soldiers. Likewise, when an NKVD (precursor to the KGB) machine-gun squad opens fire on its own retreating soldiers, the scene is chillingly accurate. These teams, known as blocking detachments, had the principal mission of “motivating” Soviet soldiers to attack regardless of the cost or else die in place in obedience to Stalin’s command. Documents found recently in the former Soviet Union’s archives show that the NKVD executed individually over 13,000 of their own troops at Stalingrad. The number shot during mass attacks such as those depicted in the film likely total many thousands more.

The official record of the Heroes of the Soviet Union indicates that Zaitsev, born in 1915 to a Siberian peasant family, was a sniper assigned to the 284th Rifle Division of the Sixty-second Army. Earlier, he served six years as a sailor with the Soviet Pacific Fleet. So while his initial exposure to Stalingrad-style infantry combat may have been eye-opening, he was by no means the raw recruit depicted in the movie. Although the real details of how the two met are unknown, it is clear that Zaitsev and Comrade Danilov (political officer and propaganda specialist) did team up to kill Fascists and to tell the story to the Motherland that all was not lost. In the movie, they become fast friends – and then rivals for the affection of Tanya (Rachael Weisz).

Russian infantry move through the ruins of Stalingrad. The epic battle destroyed the city but frustrated the German war effort on the Eastern Front to the degree that the Soviet army was able to take the offensive in its aftermath.

The Soviet sniper movement took on a propaganda significance far exceeding its actual tactical success. As the film shows, snipers of both sexes operated at Stalingrad in two-person teams; one was the shooter, the other the spotter. Soviet snipers usually carried a Mosin-Nagant Model 1891/30. This 7.62 mm long-barreled rifle, fitted with a 3.5X scope, made a competent shooter very deadly out to about 500 meters – more than sufficient for a city fight.

Several scenes do a good job of portraying the skills employed by Soviet snipers: concealment within the rubble of the four massive factories; observation techniques; hiding position selection; and target selection, to name a few. The Soviet Sniper’s Handbook actually lists sniper targets in order of importance. Fascist officers are at the top of the list, followed by artillery observers; machine-gun, artillery and mortar crews; and signalmen – which explains why Zaitsev first shoots the German commander taking a shower then methodically picks off the remainder of the group, and why he later shoots several signalmen but lets the German foot soldier live.

Soviet infantry attack a German unit in one of the thousands of hard-fought engagements that characterized combat on the Eastern Front. The Soviets pressed every available man – and hundreds of thousands of women – into military service as they desperately counterattacked the invading Nazis.

The core of the movie is the head-to-head contest between Zaitsev and Koenig (Ed Harris), a German sniper; however, historians are uncertain as to the German marksman’s true identity. Still, an important “take-away” of the film is that the duel in the rubble represents combat at all three levels of war. At the tactical level, it is man against man, with Zaitsev winning; at the operational level, it represents a struggle between two armies fighting for survival in a wasteland; and at the strategic level, we see the head political commissar, Khrushchev (Bob Hoskins), desperate to please his boss, Stalin, and to motivate a flagging Red army into stopping the German invasion. Thus, the three-day struggle between the two snipers makes a powerful, multilayered story.

As for the real Stalingrad ending, the German commander Paulus, surrounded but denied permission to surrender, lost his encircled Sixth Army and 90,000 German soldiers staggered off into captivity. Hitler learned the hard way what Napoleon discovered over a century before: Getting to Russia is relatively easy, but staying there and winning is damned difficult.

Germans taken prisoner at Stalingrad march into captivity. Few would live to see home again.

And what of Comrade Zaitsev? He was awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union on February 22, 1943 , in recognition of 225 confirmed kills between October 10 and December 17, 1942 . Granted admission to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1943, he was demobilized after the war and realized a life-long dream of becoming the director of a Kiev machine-building plant. More military awards followed, and as recent as 1987, a steamer bearing his name traveled the Dnepr River.

Not bad for a peasant boy from Siberia.

Originally published in the May 2005 issue of Armchair General magazine. Photo credits – National Archives.

Author Information

Lieutenant Colonel (Ret) David Cavaleri is a published author and holds a master’s degree in history. He currently works for the Department of Defense.


  1. Thanks for this great review!

  2. What page of the magazine is this article on, I need it for citing purposes

    • Pages 94–95.