Thursday, June 9, 2011

Setting the East Ablaze

Thanks to British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat), almost everyone is now, to some degree, familiar with Kazakhstan and its neighbors Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan in post-Soviet Central Asia.  Colloquially known as "the stans" ("-stan" being a Persian suffix meaning "place of"), four of these nations speak Turkic languages while only one speaks a dialect of Farsi (Tajik).  Though they are all predominately Sunni Islamic, they also share strong cultural affinities with mainly-Shia Iran.

Map of Post-Soviet Central Asia

Home to grand Islamic cultural centers like Khiva and Bukhara, post-Soviet Central Asia is also rich in natural resources and occupies a key strategic position between China and India.  It was for these reasons that the region was coveted by so many powers, dating back to Alexander the Great.  In the nineteenth century, it was at the center of a major geopolitical competition between the Russian and British Empires, famously dubbed "the Great Game" by writer Rudyard Kipling.  This "Game" finally concluded in 1907 with a sporting entente between the two European powers.  By this time, however, most of the region had been absorbed into Tsarist Russia.

Seven years later, World War I erupted, thrusting Russia violently into modernity.   For many Russians, the war was a miserable experience that only fed a popular desire for major political change, a sentiment that had already been brewing for years.  The war eventually led to the collapse of the Romanov Dynasty, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, and the bloody Russian Civil War of 1917-1923.

This brings us to the film that I will be focusing on today.  Set in the Central Asian front of the Civil War, it is a prime example of a popular genre known as the "Ostern," a Soviet spin on the traditional American Western, set in Samarkand as opposed to Santa Fe.

So while Western audiences were being awed by the violent world of Sergio Leone's Spaghetti Westerns...

...Soviet audiences were being captivated by stories of how valiant Bolshevik heroes secured control of the East, bringing literacy and women's lib to the locals.

This is the basic idea behind the film White Sun of the Desert.  Released in the Soviet Union in 1969, the film was initially scripted by Andrei Konchalovsky, who also was slated to direct the film.  However, he became dissatisfied with his work and brought in Valentin Yezhov (Ballad of a Soldier) and Azerbaijani-born Rustam Ibragimbekov (Burnt by the Sun) to co-write a new script.  Despite this, Konchalovsky ultimately left the project, believing that only American actors could truly pull off the "Western" lead.

Original poster for White Sun of the Desert.
The new Yezhov-Ibragimbekov script was then offered to several different directors, including cinematic auteur Andrei Tarkovsky, the Lithuanian director Vytautas Žalakevičius, Armenian native Edmond Keosayan, and the comedy-oriented Yuri Chulyukin.  All, however, refused it until it was finally accepted by Vladimir Motyl, who had previously fallen out of favor with Soviet authorities over his World War II-based romantic comedy Zhenya, Zhenechka, and "Katyusha"

Because of this falling out, Motyl executed the film under the Experimental Creative Studio, a relatively autonomous film company established at the height of the Khrushchev Thaw.  Strongly influenced by popular American Westerns like Stagecoach, High Noon, and The Magnificent Seven, Motyl immediately set to work on making further revisions to the Yezhov-Ibragimbekov script, notably adding in the character of Vereshagin, the former Tsarist customs official played by the Russian-Armenian actor Pavel Luspekaev.

In the end, the finished film (as well as its accompanying theme song Your Honor Lady Luck) became a major hit within the USSR and continues to maintain a cult status in Russia and the former Soviet Union to this day.   After its release, the film also became a sign of good fortune for many cosmonauts, who ritually viewed it before launching into space.  In fact, it was so influential that quotes from the film even entered the Russian language as common, everyday phrases!

Anatoli Kuznetsov as Sukhov
Set in the bleak and torrid desert landscape of Turkmenistan, White Sun of the Desert is the story of Red Army soldier Fyodor Sukhov, expertly portrayed by Anatoli Kuznetsov.  He has been involved in the Russian Civil War for some time and his ultimate ambition is to simply return to his home and to his wife Katerina Matveyevna.

However, duty comes first.  Sukhov and a younger soldier Petrukha (Nikolai Godovikov) are instead tasked with guarding the abandoned harem of a notorious Central Asian rebel (Basmachi) leader named Abdullah (played by Georgian actor Kakhi Kavsadze).  The task proves more complicated than Sukhov might have foreseen when Abdullah and his men return.  Fortunately, Sukhov is able to face them with the aid of the former Tsarist customs official Vereshagin (Luspekaev) and the Central Asian Sayid (Spartak Mishulin), who he rescues earlier in the film.

Gyulchatai (Tatyana Kuzmina), the youngest and most independent-minded member of Abdullah's harem,
is seen here reading a sign in Russian indicating the local "Museum of the Red East."

Some of the best scenes in the film involve Sukhov's efforts to modernize and liberalize the nine women of Abdullah's harem.  After removing their burqas and unveiling themselves, their very form immediately reminds Sukhov of his faraway wife.

What makes these scenes so humorous and so charming is their basic human quality.  As scholar Birgit Beumers states, while Sukhov "clumsily tries to instill in [the harem] Soviet values," he also "fails to understand the full meaning of local Muslim traditions, which gives rise to a series of amusing misunderstandings and funny situations."

Sukhov and his "harem."
For instance, though Sukhov declares to the women that "the Revolution has set you free," they continue to regard him as their "master," a scenario that prompts him to daydream about bringing them back to his native Russian village as his wives along with his beloved Katerina Matveyevna.

Perhaps one of the most interesting shots in the film, however, is the final scene showing Sukhov trekking off into the desert, hoping to return home to his wife, a hope that we never know is fulfilled.  This lonely shot immediately called to my mind one of the most iconic images of the American Western: that is, the final scene in John Ford's The Searchers of John Wayne's character Ethan Edwards walking and disappearing into the wilderness all by his lonesome.

The final shot in John Ford's The Searchers.

The very concept of that scene, which no doubt had some influence on Motyl, emphasized the fact that the Western hero is a rugged, untamed individual with one foot in nature and the other in civilization.  Indeed, as a "Western" hero, Sukhov arguably fits the bill here.  Still, one has to wonder: doesn't his lone trek seem to uphold a sort of individualism that one might classify as anti-Soviet?

A human speck in the Karakum.  The final shot of White Sun of the Desert.

Questions of individuality and collectivity aside, however, White Sun of the Desert is an amazing film.  A classic of Soviet cinema, it possesses an intrinsic human quality that makes it enjoyable for audiences of all countries.  Its mix of humor, drama, suspense, and history, all make it a superb watch.

...and thanks to Mosfilm's awesome YouTube channel, you can watch the entire film online here.   You can also purchase the film on DVD (Region 1, NTSC) from the Russian Cinema Council (RUSCICO) via here.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Now entering the Red zone...

Здравствуйте, comrades and welcome to Back in the USSR!

No, this is not a blog about the Beatles nor is it even a blog about music.  It's actually a blog about movies – that is, movies produced in the Soviet Union from 1922 to 1991.  Its scope includes live-action features, documentary films, and animation.  This blog will also occasionally explore cinema produced by Eastern bloc countries like Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany.

So sit back, enjoy and learn!