Sunday, January 25, 2015

White Sun of the Desert (USSR, 1970)


I'm not sure how many American movies were shown in the USSR in the '60s and '70s. I do know that the big budget western, McKenna's Gold, with Gregory Peck and Omar Sharif, was big hit in the Soviet Union. It was made in '69.

The Soviet action film, White Sun of the Desert was made in 1970. I watched it on DVD and watched the interviews with its two writers.

The movie is an "Eastern", one of the Soviet films inspired by American or Italian westerns. Like others in this genre, it was set in Soviet Central Asia in the 1920s. Seemed to be more like a spaghetti western than an American western. The hero was more of an ubermensch and was a much better shot than you see in most American westerns.

At the end of the Russian Civil War, a Red Army soldier, Sukhov, is on his way home, walking through the desert. He encounters some Red Army soldiers who are in pursuit of a brigand who left his harem behind as he fled. The soldiers coax Sukhov into taking charge of and protecting the harem and taking them to safety.

The interview with the writers was interesting. The studio wanted to produce a western, and they wanted it as good as or better than an American western, which was a tall order since they had never made one before. Two writers set out to write the script. They decided on the time period and region, but they knew little about it, so they interviewed an old soldier who had fought there in the '20s.

They understood what they wanted the movie to look like, who they wanted the character to be and the setting for the story, but they still needed a plot. Which they got when the old soldier told them about the time they found a harem of women, abandoned by their husband in the desert, gathered at a well. They assigned a soldier to take them to town and make sure they were taken care of.

The interesting thing is that once the script was done, it was the writers who had the job of finding a director.

One director like the humor in the story, wanted to cut out the violence and make a nice comedy. A Lithuanian director wanted to cut out the jokes and make it even more violent. There's a scene where Sukhov finds a man in the desert, tied up and buried up to his neck in the sand. The Lithuanian wanted MORE people buried up to their necks, then he wanted people to ride over them on horses.

They finally got Vladimir Motyl to direct. He didn't really want to do it, but, like Sokhov, he got roped into it.

The movie was a huge hit in the Soviet Union and is still very popular. Critics didn't entirely understand it at the time. They weren't sure what genre it was. And people in the movie industry didn't care for it in part because almost all of the action was done through montage---sort of the poor man's CGI. Something low budget filmmakers might want to look at.

One thing I've noticed with Soviet action films is that the deaths are more disturbing than in American films. They aren't more violent or more emotional. They just come as more of a shock. I suspect it's because killings in American movies are telegraphed. It's become a joke in action movies---you see an old cop talk about all the things he and his wife will finally have time to do once he retires, and you know he's going to die. 

People in the United States tend to have a terribly confused idea of how the Soviet movie industry worked. For the most part, it had the same problems the American movie industry has. They had to compete with television; for the action movie Pirates of the 20th Century, they had to tone down a rape threat so they could get the equivalent of a PG rating. Soviet movie studios were self-sustaining. The government wasn't going to subsidize them. Ticket sales were their only source of revenue. And unlike Hollywood, they had to compete with foreign films.

In the '80s, there was a Soviet director visiting the U.S. It may have been Tarkovsky after he defected---I didn't know who he was at the time so I don't remember. But I saw this guy interviewed more than once, and each time, the idiot reporters asked him the same questions. They said that they couldn't imagine living in a country where you had to go to the government for permission to make a movie. And each time the director said, "You don't go to the government. You go to the movie studio."

The reporters thought that all Soviet movies were "propaganda". I doubt any of them had ever seen a Soviet movie other than Battleship Potemkin, and they didn't seem to realize that they were producing propaganda themselves, spreading ignorant assumptions about the Soviet Union.

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