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Wednesday, 8 June 2011

International/Classic Review: The White Sun Of The Desert - 1970

To take a break from reviewing poor Hollywood action films, I've decided to review a very different kind of action film.
The White Sun of The Desert, a Soviet film made in 1970 by Vladimir Motyl.
This film went on to become one of the most popular films in the Soviet Union at the time, and over the years has become a part of popular culture and remains so even today, many years after the end of the Soviet Union.

My experience with Soviet films of this period was entirely limited to the work of a certain Andrei Tarkovsky, one of my favourite directors yet also a very intellectual one whose films are far from being populist.
However I had explored Silent Soviet Cinema to some extent but with the exception of the Battleship Potemkin, I had come away rather disappointed.
My hopes were high for this film though, after all it was voted the best Russian film in 1995 and is even watched ceremoniously by all Russian astronauts before they set out on their spacial missions. It's a classic, there are no other words to put it really. As much as The Godfather is an American Classic, The White Sun Of The Desert is a Russian one. But the similarities between the two films end there...

Still, I can't help but wonder why this film is not more well known outside of Russia. Surely such a celebrated film would at least be recognised by other cultures even if it is not really watched.But strangely enough, I have not read a single review for this film nor have I ever heard it mentioned before. I literally just stumbled across it, acquired it and was then surprised to read that it was the most popular Russian film.

This film is best described as an adventure film. It is not at all like it would have been had it been made in Hollywood though. It is strongly and unapologetically Russian, thus it felt slightly hard to grasp. I kind of felt like I was missing something all the way through, I saw it was great and ended up loving it, but I couldn't help but feel there was something about it eluding me all the while. I couldn't for the life of me say what though.

The White Sun of the Desert unsurprisingly takes place entirely in a desert. The particularly desert is never really mentioned clearly but apparently it's in what is now known as Turkmenistan.
This setting makes for one of the films most interesting aspects and gives the film a unique visual style. I really marvelled at the crisp shot of the white sand and the clear blue sky.

Much of the film takes place in some kind of settlement, it is hard to say whether it's a village or town or larger but it is impressive, the architecture of the desert is fascinating, making the buildings seem as if they rose from the sands themselves. It is delightfully foreign, coming at a time when Western culture (specifically Americaun culture) had not yet infiltratred the whole world. The fact that everything about the film, the setting, landscapes, clothes, weapons, attitudes etc... was completely unrecognisable to me was not as one might expect alienating for me as a viewer but was actually very intriguing and refreshing.

The film tells the tale of a Red Army soldier who has been bringing Communism to the region and has obviously gained the respect of the Army through various brave deeds. But now he has been discharged after many years away from home. He yearns to see his wife again but has been constantly diverted on his journey home to her. Suhkov (for that is his name) is now readying himself to finally put this desert behind him and make his way to his home, but he soon finds himself made the guardian of the 9 wives of an infamous bandit named Abdullah. He must escort them to a village and await assistance there, however he is soon to find that this will be his biggest and most dangerous diversion yet.
He meets other colourful characters along the way, such as Sayid a bandit sworn to revenge his father, Petrukha a young soldier with a soft heart, Vereschagin the customs official in the village he arrives in and more.
But he is ultimately out numbered by the villainous bandits and has little hope of completign his task, will he make it out alive to see his wife again? Will be abandon the mission and leave the 9 wives to their fate? Will he die defending them? I'd recommend watching it to find out!

Dream sequence
As I'm sure you can tell from the description, this is an action/adventure type of film. Perhaps not as action packed as you might expect if you are too used to Hollywood films, but I thought that it struck an interesting balance in between action, comedy, drama and politics.
The action is pretty poorly done by today's standards, but holds up relatively well if you don't mind unrealistic and occasionally laughable action scenes. It really wasn't that bad, some of it was choppy, all of it was rapid and little of it was realistic. Such as the wild way they wave there guns while shooting them yet still hit their enemies.
Despite the fact that the film does indeed contain much action, it still remains very Russian, in fact I noticed several similarities to the work of Tarkovsky for example, such as the deliberate pacing, which while nowhere near as slow as Tarkovsky film would probably seem rather slow indeed to a modern action fan.Also the further compare it to T.'s work, I should mention the dream sequences filled with lush vegetation in which he sees his wife standing staring at him. If you think about it you'd notice that typical Hollywood dream sequences would never portray it in that way, but it was strongly reminiscent of a classic T dream sequence, from the Mirror perhaps.
I'll end the comparisons with T's work here as I do want to judge the film on it's own merits.

The comedy was rather special I'd have to admit, I really didn't get much of it. Probably due to the subtitles which are never a really great conveyor of comedy. I noticed some amusing scenes here and there but never laughed, it was more in a black comedy kind of way I believe as much of the film is in fact very dramatic and quite tragic indeed.
The dramatic scenes were good, they really made the film great. If they had been any less great the film would have been just a mess of shoot outs with filler in between, thankfully this was not the case. The scenes were touching and well acted by the whole cast. I particularly liked one of the main themes of the culture clash between the Soviets ideology and the Muslim traditions.
Seeing as the film is about these 9 wives of the bandit, much of the culture differences centre around the two cultures differing views on marriage. Most of the bandits wives are given barely any screen time, it would have been to cumbersome to flesh them all out as characters so all but one of them are left in the background. This remaining one though, named Gyulchatai, serves as a spokesperson for all of them and as a representant of this polygamy that Westerns find so appalling. I won't go into any details as this is hardly one of the major aspects of the film, but I certainly found it to be very interesting.  But ultimately it is shown that the Soviet ideals are better, even if the character does dream of taking the whole harem back to his home with him at one point, he still stands by the fact that a man should only have one wife as well as the fact that woman are human beings too and that they should not be treated as anything less by their husbands.
Thus the films main plot line, that of the struggle between the bandit who wants to recover his harem and the Red Army solder who wants to liberate them, is representative of the conflict that took place in that part of the world at that time in a way.

Naturally such scenes remind one of the fact that this is a Soviet film and was obliged to contain a bit of propaganda but surprisingly it did not bother me much. This is due to the fact that instead of preachy Communist ideals at the Muslims, the film provokes discussion between the characters instead, making for some amusing situations and some interesting thoughts.

As I said previously, the film does contain comedic elements however these are mostly black comedy, this is due to the fact that the film is surprisingly tragic. Usually these kind of films are filled with many action scenes including gun fights, but actual deaths are relatively rare especially those of main characters.  However I cannot stand those adventure films that are clearly aimed at younger audiences so feature much fighting but no dying, I find this sadyly misleading. If you want to show a fight, you have to show the consequences.
This film however was surprisingly mature and even slightly shocking in the way it portrayed such things, it was definitely unexpected.

Throughout most of this review I have referred to thsi film as an action/adventure type film. Well this isn't entirely accurate, the film is in fact more of a Western that takes place in Turkmenistan. I assume it was an answer to the openly patriotic and action filled Westerns of the 60's that were wildly successful in the US.
And strange as it may seem, seeing as I'm not really a Communist, I actually prefer this film to it's American counterparts. Of course obviously borrowed many of the most common themes of the Western genre but it put them to a more interesting use in my opinion and furthermore, this film has aged in a far better way than many Westerns.

This curious combination between such an American thing as the Western genre and a Soviet ideology and setting was quite strange at first but I soon grew used to it and ended up greatly enjoying this film. It was better than I ever could have imagined, of course it's not perfect and I doubt I entirely "got" it as I did feel a few thigns went over my head due to my non-Russianness, this combined with some pretty silly gunfights and a rather slow pace that some could call meandering kind as well as some scenes that I thought were unnecessary do hold the film back a bit and I would hesitate to call it one of the absolute greatest films I've ever seen. But I still think it's a great film.

All in all, The White Sun Of The Desert is an excellent film. I was extremely surprised to see it had aged so well and that it carried very reasonable traces of Soviet Propaganda. I was expecting something entirely different and I have to say I'm very pleased that it didn't turn out as I expected.
I would highly recommend it to pretty much everyone as it's a highly enjoyable film that still manages to be thought provoking and successfully avoids being just silly entertainments and becomes a true classic of Cinema.

Have you seen this film? If so please share your thoughts on it below!

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