However involuntarily comic “Convicts” looks today, it was viewed as a straight prison tale when it came out in 1936. Based on scriptwriter Nikolai Pogodin’s official play about how the gulag gently helps steer prisoners toward a happy, socially productive life, pic is an amazing piece of propaganda which it is hard to believe anyone swallowed whole even at the time.
A train full of convicts arrives in a gulag in Russia’s far north, where they are set to work building a canal. Though the prison warden is wise and caring, a dyed-in-the-wool crook (Mihail Astangov) and his ex-moll (Vera Yanukova, who was Eisenstein’s great love) take a long time to get into the spirit. (Historically, hundreds of thousands of people, mostly political prisoners, died in Stalin’s canal-building projects.) Director Evgeni Chervyakov is said to have shot the picture reluctantly, after the studio promised to let him direct a liberal pet project as a reward.