Firecrosser is a 2011 Ukrainian movie that is both fascinating and deeply, deeply weird. The movie follows Ivan Dodoka, a Soviet fighter pilot from Ukraine, who is shot down and presumed dead on the Eastern Front during WWII. His wife, who is of eastern Tartar origin, doesn’t believe he is dead and waits for him after the war, holding off the advances of a drunken and manipulative former friend of Dodoka’s.
Dodoka is indeed alive, but after surviving German capture and returning to Soviet hands, he is sent to a Siberian gulag (a fate that awaited many Soviet former-POWs in real life). He escapes, and then the movie takes a weird turn – instead of returning to find her, he heads further east to find her family, and then through slightly unclear circumstances, ends up in being moved by locals for safety through the Russian far east, Alaska, and into northern Canada. There he tries to repair a plane to fly back to the USSR, while living in a remote First Nations community. When he learns of his wife’s death, he then stays in Canada and becomes a chief in the community.
The pacing is incredibly fast – this feels like this could be twice the length to get all the plot twists and details in. It was also a very, er, European depiction of First Nations (you could tell none of this was actually filmed in Canada) and the main Indigenous characters spoke English with stilted, over-perfect, almost American accents. Turns out all the actors were Ukrainian.
The other weird thing is that this is purported to be “based on a true story” – even that is a bit of a stretch. There was a real life Ukrainian pilot named Ivan Datsenko who was officially killed in WWII. When Soviet journalists and officials came to Canada for Expo 67 in Montreal, a Ukrainian journalist claimed he met a Mohawk chief that could speak perfect Russian and Ukrainian. The rumour became that Datsenko had not been killed in the war, but instead had made it to Canada and had been living undetected among First Nations for the past 20 years.
The movie takes this for fact and interprets this as a remote nation in northern BC / Yukon – which is slightly more plausible than the Mohawk Nation, which is south of Montreal along the border with New York, and not remote at all – it’s basically urban. Any pics claiming to be him are all people with tipis and in traditional dress (or stereotypical versions of it) from prairie nations like the Blackfoot. The Mohawk, who are on the opposite side of Canada, have a different regalia, built permanent longhouses instead of tipis, and were long urbanized / victims of Canada’s cultural genocide by the 60s. But what really makes the original urban legend ring pretty hollow is that we’ve never heard of this in Canada.
We learned in school about Grey Owl, a British man who faked being First Nations, but nothing about Datsenko – and trust me, if a Soviet fighter pilot successfully faked his way into Canada, convinced the Mohawk to let him pretend to be one of them, and then was discovered during Expo 67? We love these kind of stories. He would be on every Canadian trivia quiz and there would be an exhibit on him in the Diefenbunker or the War Museum (probably next to the disguised German WWII weather station that was only discovered in Labrador in the 70s).
Still, I do like a good war movie, and Firecrosser was definitely something different.