From the Vault: Guys from the Army Band

Guys from the Army Band, Henrik Malyan’s first film, is the work of a skilled amateur.

In terms of its narrative structure and storytelling, it’s far from perfect, especially in comparison to his later films. The more accomplished films that would follow later in his career were more assured, but this film shows off his talents as a director. These skills would later come together and form more cohesive films, and although Guys from the Army Band cannot be regarded in the same league as his later masterpieces, it’s still an early work of an emerging filmmaker that would shape national cinema.

The structuring and thematic motif of the film is its music – perhaps influenced by the previous year’s Some Like It Hot – as the film centers on an army band in Armenia in 1920. The Turkish-Armenian War is in full swing, as Tsolak (Levon Tukhikyan), finds himself amongst the Dashnak music band, where he clashes with several of its members, including its leader, Arsen (Frunzik Mkrtchyan). The focus of the film is on its comedic situations that emerge from Tsolak’s experiences with the band, as several of the members take advantage of his naivety.

The film drags in its overextended scenes, where Malyan missteps several of its narrative beats, but regardless of its flawed timing, the film is still remarkably humorous. The lead actors of the film are particularly excellent in their roles, most notably Tukhikyan and Mkrtchyan, who play off each other well. The character actors that Malyan incorporates in this film shows off his attention to characterization. The supporting cast isn’t filled with a bunch of caricatures. These individuals all have distinct features that add to the entire ensemble. 

Guys from the Army Band, like Rio Bravo, is a rare film that makes their audience feel like they are hanging out with a group of men. It’s a film that when you watch years later, you’ll feel as if you are with old friends again. This is because of how Malyan constructs his characters, providing each member with an individual set of mannerisms and quirks. It’s no wonder then that the film peaks in its moments when these characters come together, in what feels like unscripted scenes of humor. In a particular scene, one of the group members awakens and causes panic with his friends when they discover he has lost all color in his face. The man’s bunkmates are lying – it’s a practical joke – but the entire scene benefits from their reactions and one-liners. The men torture their friend as they try to wrap him up with blankets and Malyan lets his camera capture the humor without cutting away from the action.

If this film introduces us to one characteristic of Malyan as a filmmaker, that becomes much more consistent in his later films, it’s his understanding of cutting and camera movements. In a particular scene, when the band starts playing their instruments, he cuts on one of the instruments being played, and although the next shot of the film is of a similar instrument, the location has changed and we are now at a dinner party with another band playing music. In these instances, Malyan leaps forward in time by cutting on action throughout the film, giving his film a much more assured sense of construction.

In a similar dinner party scene, one of the drunk guests walks around the room and makes a speech. In an effort to emphasize his drunkenness and disorientation, Malyan places his camera behind the man’s head. The man stumbles as he walks and when he tilts right, the camera tilts his opposite left, and when the man tilts left, the camera tilts his opposite right. The result is visual communication and an understanding of a character’s internal emotions through camera movements. In spite of this being a comedy war picture, which centers on the allegiance of the band, coming together, to fight the Bolshevik invasion, the film lacks a political agenda. The focus is instead placed on camaraderie among the members of the band.

The film ends with a dedication to the 40 year anniversary since the war – and while the director pays tribute to all the men who fought during that war – he also hints at the contribution that would follow on his end in terms of the art of cinema. Guys from the Army Band was the start of a wonderful working relationship Henrik Malyan would have with Frunzik Mkrtchyan, but the film was also the start of a more lasting relationship the director would have with his homeland and future audience.