MOSCOW – An anxious hush descends as the Russians move up the ice... first one defenceman, then another is left trailing in the forward’s wake... the shot comes, and flies into the Canadian net! Even amid the rustle of popcorn, cinema audiences in Moscow spontaneously applaud as Kharlamov fires the USSR ahead in Montreal.
And yet it’s no longer 1972. Audiences already know perfectly well what happened in the opening game of the Summit Series, when Kharlamov’s double inspired the unfancied Soviets to a sensational victory over Canada’s NHL All-Star roster. Such is the power of recent Russian movie “Legenda №17” (Legend No. 17) that it manages to pack the same emotional punch as the original series, at least for audiences back in the Motherland where it was released on the same day as Sochi’s Bolshoy Hockey Arena staged its first major game and has been filling theaters ever since.
Even Vladislav Tretiak, another player who was catapulted to stardom by the Summit Series after a string of brilliant goaltending displays, admitted that seeing those events recaptured on the silver screen was a moving experience.
“I really liked the film,” he said after the red-carpet Moscow premiere. “I must confess it even brought a tear to my eye in places. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen a film like this about our hockey – it’s something we could show to any youth team, to remind them how we fought for our country.”
Vyacheslav Fetisov, a team-mate of both Tretiak and Kharlamov, was also impressed: “I was a bit worried about it before the premiere, but after watching it I’d like to say a big thank-you to everyone involved. We should have more films like this.”
It’s picked up plenty of praise from those who knew Kharlamov – and his equally legendary coach and mentor Anatoli Tarasov – better than most: the sportsmen’s colleagues and relatives have been impressed with the biopic, which tells the story of Kharlamov’s career from his days as a raw recruit in CSKA Moscow’s youth team to that sensational night in Canada when he shattered the supposedly invincible Canadians.
Kharlamov’s son, Alexander, played a small role in the film – but admitted he had been worried about the final cut until he saw the premiere.
“In the end, it all seems to have worked,” he said. “[Danila] Kozlovski plays my father really well, and by the end of the film the hero on the screen really matched the real-life Valeri Kharlamov.”
His words were echoed by Tatyana Tarasova, daughter of Anatoli, who praised Oleg Menshikov’s portrayal of the coach. “Today it was as if I was back in my childhood, just how I felt before a big game. He brought me up the way he worked with his players – as a teacher, a psychologist and an artist.”
The film’s backers admit that it isn’t a historical reconstruction of Kharlamov’s life: the 1976 car crash which almost ended his career is brought forward to the months between Olympic Gold in Sapporo and facing the Canadians in Montreal, while the chronology of his early appearances for CSKA and his stint as a rookie pro at gritty lower-league Zvezda Cherbakul is tweaked for dramatic effect.
Yet even the fictionalized scenes manage a discreet nod to a much-loved Russian movie classic: a youthful Kharlamov and his friend Alexander Gusev mistakenly go to the airport, hoping to join up with the national team as it heads to Japan, just as a couple of genial drunks stagger out of the terminal wishing everyone a happy new year and evoking the Soviet festive smash “Ironia Sudby” (The Irony of Fate).
Boris Mikhailov, who flew to Japan on the trip that the screen Kharlamov vainly expected to join, admitted that he had no memory of that confusion happening in real life but said it made for an interesting fiction. And Tretiak pointed out that while he and his team-mates might spot a couple of small tweaks, the film was sold as a piece of entertainment rather than a strictly factual documentary.
In that vein, it’s easy to shrug off doubts about one of the film’s set pieces: the action starts not in the USSR, but in Spain, where a young Kharlamov and his Basque-born mother are visiting his uncle. While that trip did take place in 1956/1957, and Valeri even spent some months at a Spanish school, it is less clear whether the bull-fighting sequence depicted here ever happened.
Nonetheless, it enables the movie to fulfil one of Chekhov’s observations that a shotgun over the fireplace in act one must, inevitably, be fired before the end of the play. And so Spanish those bulls merge with the aggressive bulk of Phil Esposito and colleagues, to be tamed by Kharlamov’s bravado and flair on the ice.
The role of Kharlamov is played by Danila Kozlovski, a familiar face to Russian movie-goers after his starring role in last year’s “Dukhless” (Soulless), a satire of post-Soviet Russia and the rise of the vapid, vacuous consumer culture which boomed in the early ‘90s. But as the hockey star, the young actor was able to relive a few personal dreams – and thrill his father into the bargain.
“For a long time I’d been wanting to play hockey, if only for fun, and that’s not just because of the film,” he said at a preview screening in Ufa. “I’ve always loved the game, and in Russia it’s always been number one – especially now. When I was asked to play this part I was amazed, and of course I couldn’t refuse.”
During early test shoots Kozlovski was asked to keep quiet about the role, and his parents didn’t find out until sometime later. The actor’s father, meanwhile, heard the news at a slightly awkward moment.
“He called me, and I mentioned that I’d been given the part but it wasn’t very convenient to talk just then,” said Kozlovski. “But when he heard the name of Kharlamov he shouted: ‘Son! I knew him!’ And for the next half-hour he told me the full story of his acquaintance with Valeri Borisovich [Kharlamov] while I was standing in line at the store waiting to pay for my shopping!”
His father’s reminiscences were not the only resources the actor drew on. Kozlovski studied archive footage, media interviews and took time to meet the player’s friends and relatives. And from that he got a real insight into the man behind the legend.
“Kharlamov devoted so much time and energy to the ice that it’s impossible to imagine his life without the game,” he said. “So I treated everything in the film as one, without distinguishing between his sporting achievements and his personal life. I know a few people for whom their profession is very important, even though they have a family, children. Of course they are fond of their loved ones, but they can’t live without their work as well. Kharlamov was one of those people.”
Legenda #17 is distributed by Central Partnerships. Click here for the trailer (in Russian).