War is not so much the focus, as how it affects the budding relationship between Boris and Veronika, two young sweethearts. It's easy for us to root for them at all times; their courtship is cute and at times amusing (their animal nicknames, getting soaked in the rain, Boris chased by a neighbour's dog when taking Veronika home). However the outbreak of war smashes this idyllic situation. Boris is conscripted, whilst his cousin Mark, who is a promising conductor, is waived service (as he uses his respected father's name to do so). Boris's absence encourages Mark to make his moves upon Veronika. The scene in which he tries to force himself upon her is reprehensible, but Kalatozov used light and sound so well in framing it (shadows, windows blown open violently - metaphors perhaps) that you have to watch.
Very little is shown of the war as such; the camaraderie of the down to earth soldiers is given more importance than fighting the Germans. On the home front Veronika works as a nurse and adopts an orphaned boy; the sole comfort she has after marrying Mark, in what we sense to be guilt from the rape. Mark predictably gets his just desserts when his father discovers his deception, and he is disowned by his family, yet there is to be no predictable happy ending with Veronika and Boris. Kalatozov simply presents the likely scenario; that good men sent to war often die, but he doesn't show Boris as a hero or martyr, but as a soldier serving his country.
A winner of the Palm D'Or in 1958, The Cranes are Flying is a superb melodrama which is restrained enough to not degenerate into pure propaganda. Indeed, one final scene shows hundreds of women waiting to hear of the fates of their loved ones. A friend of Boris's seeks Veronika and explains how he died on the front, and though this is perhaps too contrived and tries to push our emotional buttons a bit too much, I'm happy with it. One member of the public makes a speech about the war; it is sombre rather than fervent, and pacifist in tone, asking that loved ones never be separated by war again. Zalatov would in 1964 direct the excellent Soy Cuba; otherwise his work remains fairly unknown in the West (The Letter That Was Never Sent from 1959 remains unavailable).