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Posts Tagged ‘Ooh those Russians!’

As part of my general idea to catch up on all the films I’ve got lying around on various formats waiting to be watched, I thought I would have a look at some of the Soviet science fiction movies I downloaded last summer. As I’ve noted, once you get past Solaris and Stalker you really are into obscure territory here, and the same issues come up again and again: you do get a much stronger sense of the debt the western special effects industry owes to George Lucas and ILM, because – certainly once we reach the 1980s – the gulf in technical quality in this area really becomes apparent. Also, Russian film-makers seem to have been even more aware of the potential of using SF to make social and political points, and were very careful to be extra-oblique and even downright disingenuous in order to avoid even giving the impression they were criticising the Soviet establishment.

Both of these things have a bearing on Georgiy Daneliya’s 1986 film Kin-dza-dza!, which on the one hand is an unmistakably Russian film, but on the other appears to owe such a debt to western SF literature and cinema that you can’t help wondering just how much it was influenced by them.

The opening credits roll over a weird, arid alien landscape, but then we abruptly find ourselves in 1980s Moscow, in the company of Vladimir (Stanislav Lyubshin), a slightly cynical but other ideologically sound building site foreman. His wife sends him off to the shops, and on the way he meets a stranger named Gedevan (Levan Gabriadze) who asks for his help in dealing with an unhinged vagrant (Anatoli Serenko). The homeless man claims to be a traveller from outer space and just needs the identification number of their planet in order to get his teleportation device to work. Humouring the man, Vladimir and Gedevan look at the gadget –

– and are startled to find themselves in a desert. The stranger, the other shoppers, and indeed the whole of Moscow has vanished. Based on no evidence whatsoever, Vladimir concludes they have been transported to the Karakum desert in Turkmenistan (he refuses to even consider that they might be in a non-Communist desert) and it’s just a matter of walking to the nearest town. Gedevan is doubtful of his logic but accompanies him anyway.

However, on their journey they encounter a bizarre flying machine resembling an upturned bucket. Upon landing, the craft turns out to be under the nominal control of two of the locals, Be (Yury Yakovlev) and Uef (Yevgeny Leonov). The local language mainly consists of people shouting ‘Koo!’ at each other, but luckily Be and Uef are telepathic and considerate enough to speak to the visitors in Russian and Georgian. It turns out that Vladimir and Gedevan have managed to transport themselves to the planet Pluk in the galaxy of Kin-dza-dza. Luckily, their ship could take them back to Earth (provided they can work out where it is), but in order to do so they will need an expensive and rare widget known as a gravitsapa – and how do they expect to pay for this?

Life on Pluk proves to be unexpectedly complicated, with many subtle details for the new arrival to grasp: the population is divided into two castes, the Chatlans and the Patzaks, with the Patzaks required to show deference by curtseying a lot and wearing a bell on the end of their nose. Social status is further delineated by the colour of someone’s trousers. All of this is enforced by a feared group known as the Ecilops, with the power to tranklukate (whatever that is) offenders or send them to the dreaded Etsikhe (where one is locked inside a metal bathtub for the duration of one’s sentence). Luckily, amongst the most valuable commodities on Pluk are volatile chemicals like the ones in match-heads – so the travellers could be okay, provided they can persuade Vladimir to lay off smoking for a while…

Kin-dza-dza! is one of those films which you watch while going ‘Yes, recognise this bit… yes, this bit is quite familiar too…’: the list of (apparent) influences is a long one. The post-apocalyptic junk aesthetic of Pluk is reminiscent of the later Mad Max films, while the use of a peculiar constructed language or slang (to be honest, the argot of Pluk is so limited it hardly qualifies as a conlang – the whole point of the joke is that the vast majority of words translate as ‘Koo!’) to establish a society also has a distinguished pedigree in SF and fantasy. For me the most obvious reference point, considering this is about everyday Earthmen who find themselves unwilling travellers through absurd alien societies, is Douglas Adams’ The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Stylistically, on the other hand, the film resembles something by Terry Gilliam (working on a very low budget), with perhaps additional help by a well-behaved Luc Besson.

As is often the case, all these disparate influences come together and produce something with a distinctive identity of its own. The film may have been made relatively cheaply, but Daneliya works intelligently within this and the result is a film which is not troubled by obvious over-ambition (there are hardly any special effects shots, but the ones there are – for example, the first appearance and landing of Be and Uef’s ship – are impressively achieved). There is still perhaps something distinctively Russian about the slightly stately pace of the thing (at around two and a quarter hours long, it could easily stand to lose fifteen minutes or half an hour).

Then again, maybe I’m only saying this because western SF-comedy films tend to be light and zippy and not overstay their welcome. Daneliya’s intention is clearly to do more than just raise a few laughs – most of the humour is deadpan and derives from the Earthmen’s responses to what they encounter on Pluk – but to make some satirical points. It would be an overstatement to suggest that this is subtly achieved, but this is part of what Daneliya is trying to say: life on Pluk, and possibly in the wider galaxy, is ridiculous, wildly unfair, and completely arbitrary.

The question is what this satire is aimed at – is Pluk meant to be an analogue of the west, of the Soviet Union, or something else entirely? There are certainly jokes about capitalism in the script – Be and Uef go into a bizarre performance upon first meeting the duo, and Vladimir instantly concludes they are in a capitalist country and will shortly be asked for money – but Vladimir’s own unshakable faith in the Communist system is also the source of some humour. My own feeling is that Daneliya is trying to make a wider point about how all societies must seem ridiculous and arbitrary to outsiders – it is, in a way, the nature of the beast – and perhaps they, and people, really are ridiculous when you consider them objectively. It’s a cynical, philosophical perspective that seems to fit well with the rest of the film’s outlook.

The director makes his points through a solid script that hits all the right beats in the right places, and the leads all provide good performances. As noted, it does go on a bit, and it also displays that tendency of many SF-comedy films to get a bit unravelled in the final act (they introduce time-travel as a plot device, which is never an entirely comforting sign). Nevertheless, you can imagine that this is the kind of film which might have travelled well outside the Soviet Union, but for slightly obscure political reasons (it was suggested that the ubiquitous use of ‘Koo’ was a reference to K. U. Chernenko, the Soviet premier of the day) it was never subtitled in English until many years after the fall of the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, Kin-dza-dza! still feels quite fresh and funny today, suggesting its concerns are more grounded in philosophy than politics.

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Sticking with our theme of watching the next best thing, one of the films I was considering seeing before everything shut down was The Hunt, a satirical horror movie which managed the considerable feat of annoying the famously temperate and unflappable Donald Trump. The movie apparently concerns right-wing Americans being hunted for sport by liberals. This reminds me a bit of The Last Supper, a Cameron Diaz movie from the mid-90s which I remember as being pretty decent, but to be honest on this occasion I am going to look a bit further back, to 1932 and Irving Pichel and Ernest B Schoedsack’s The Most Dangerous Game.

The movie opens on a steamer in what turns out to be the Pacific Ocean: they are approaching a dangerous passage and the captain is a little perturbed that the navigation lights aren’t quite where he remembers them being. Meanwhile, back in the saloon, the passengers (all rich white dudes) are engaging in a little philosophical chat. Amongst them is celebrated big game hunter Bob Rainsford (Joel McCrea), who is quizzed about the morality of his chosen career: why do we consider humans civilised and animals savage, when we’re the ones who hunt and kill for pleasure? Bob is not swayed by this argument, suggesting that some animals actually enjoy the excitement of the hunt. Ah, says Bob’s interlocutor, but would you choose to swap places with one of the animals you hunt? Bob ducks the question. ‘There are two kinds of people in the world,’ he declares, ‘the hunters and the hunted, and I’m always going to be one of the hunters.’ Really, Bob? Are you absolutely sure about that?

Right on cue, the ship hits some rocks and sinks, with Rainsford the only survivor. He washes up on the shore of a nearby island and makes his way to the imposing fortress he discovers there, which seems to be staffed by Russian Cossacks. This is because it is the home of exiled Russian aristocrat Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks), who is delighted to make Bob’s acquaintance, being a fan of his books. Zaroff is also a hunter, and sees a kindred spirit in Bob.

Apparently ships sink quite a lot near Zaroff’s private island, and also enjoying the Count’s hospitality are Eve and Martin Trowbridge, two other survivors (they are played by Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong, whom you may well recognise from another movie in particular, but we’ll return to this). They arrived here with a couple of sailors, but they are apparently off hunting somewhere and haven’t been seen for days.

Light dinner conversation ensues. Zaroff recounts how he was gored in the head by a buffalo, ever since when he has begun to find hunting less challenging, and thus less satisfying. Even using a Tartar bow instead of a rifle has failed to bring that old thrill back. But on this island he has found the answer! Here he can hunt and kill the most dangerous animals in the world, to his heart’s content…

Well, you’ve probably guessed it: Zaroff is a nutter who gets his kicks from hunting human beings. He thinks this is quite a fair contest, as if his quarry survives until the dawn following the start of the hunt they are allowed to go free (no-one has lasted this long so far). Bob, however, is appalled to learn of all this, and with a heavy heart Zaroff accepts that Bob and he are not going to be BFFs, and that he’ll have to hunt and kill Bob like all the others. Bob and Eve head into the jungle while Zaroff strings his bow and puts on his hunting trousers…

One prominent source suggests that the original short story on which this is based, Richard Connell’s The Hounds of Zaroff, is the most popular short story ever written in the English language. I’m not sure about that, but this is certainly one of the most-copied plots in both film and TV history. There have apparently been a dozen relatively straight adaptations of the story for cinema alone – apart from The Hunt, this year is due to see the release of Tremors 7, which is apparently another riff on the idea – before we even get to films which owe it an obvious debt, like Predator or The Hunger Games. The same is true of TV (I am particularly fond of the Incredible Hulk episode The Snare, in which an insane millionaire who hunts drifters for fun is surprised to find the Hulk in his sights). Given all this, you would expect this to be another case of the originator being outshone by its own successors.

And yet this isn’t quite the case. The Most Dangerous Game still stands up as a classic, if rather pulpy adventure story, and its easy to see it as part of a tradition of timeless genre movies coming out of Hollywood at this time. The 1932 release means it slots in very neatly between 1931’s Dracula (sinister eastern European aristocrat preys upon nice English-speaking folk after they visit his castle) and 1933’s King Kong (trip to a remote Pacific island does not go well). The comparisons with King Kong are particularly significant as this movie was made by the same team, featuring two of the same actors (Fay Wray is assured of screen immortality for her role in Kong, while Robert Armstrong is in another of the lead roles). I always thought King Kong was made as the follow-up to this, but apparently the two films were produced simultaneously on the same jungle sets.

Just as King Kong essentially inaugurated the Hollywood monster movie and special-effects blockbuster genres, so you could argue that The Most Dangerous Game did the same for the high-concept action-adventure movie. It has a solid script, with some unexpectedly thoughtful moments, and concludes with a well-mounted action sequence that’s still surprisingly effective today. The only area in which it shows its age is the pacing, which is probably a consequence of the film only being about an hour long – the situation and characters are introduced with care and intelligence, but the downside of this is that the actual sequence in which Zaroff hunts Rainsford doesn’t get underway until the final third of the movie. It inevitably feels somehow unbalanced as a result. Apart from this, however, the film stands up very well for its age. The basic premise of the story is such a strong and obviously dramatic one that there’s no reason to expect people will stop revisiting it on a regular basis, no matter what Donald Trump says. As it is, few films from quite so long ago have lasted as well as this one.

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I have commented a couple of times in the past on the tendency of Soviet-era SF movies to go out of their way to clarify that they are not set in or particularly about the USSR itself, presumably because they don’t want to appear to be criticising the state, even implicitly. This is not the case with Vasili Zhuravlov’s Cosmic Voyage, for the whole point of the film is to anticipate the coming triumphs of the Soviet people in the realm of space travel. There is a mild irony in the fact that, despite this, the film managed to get itself withdrawn from general release after a very short period of time and went almost totally unseen for decades. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, I guess.

Cosmic Voyage originally appeared under the title Космический рейс (Kosmicheski Reis), in 1936, and the first thing you notice about it is that this is a silent movie, a form which obviously endured longer in the USSR than it did in western cinema. A caption informs us that the events depicted occurred (or will occur) in the year 1946, and you are struck again by the fact that no-one in the mid 30s seems to have had any inkling of the horrors to come in the next decade. Certainly the cityscape depicted in the opening moments of the film, which inevitably feels somewhat indebted to Lang’s Metropolis, shows no signs of the ravages of the Great Patriotic War – it is the stuff of a utopia, its most distinctive feature being what looks like an immense bridge. Or is it a bridge? Well, no, unless you consider it a bridge to the stars: it is the launch track for a rocket-plane. (This method of launching has since been discredited, but it continued to feature in western SF well into the 1950s – see When Worlds Collide and Fireball XL5 – so it’s not as if it was absurd to feature it here.)

The rocket-plane in question is the USSR-1, which has recently been completed. This being the case, it transpires that a senior scientist, Professor Sedych (Sergei Komarov), has decided he’s going to use it to go to the Moon, without bothering to check with his superiors. As a result, dashing young officer Viktor (Nikolai Feoktistov) is ordered to find Sedych and restrain him. Viktor’s sweetheart Marina (Ksenia Moskalenko) doesn’t know what to make of this, mainly because she is Sedych’s assistant. Viktor’s little brother Andrei (Vassili Gaponenko) is also not impressed – Andrei is clearly intended to be loveably boisterous and energetic young lad, but he inevitably comes across as a pain in the neck.

Well, they find Sedych and he is dragged before his boss, Karin (Vasili Kovrigin), who informs him he is mad for wanting to go to the Moon, as he won’t survive the stresses of the journey. Sedych demands to see evidence of this, and so Karin produces various dead rabbits which have been used as guinea pigs (if you see what I mean) in other space test flights. Sedych makes the reasonable point that he is not a rabbit, but Karin is implacable, and insists that they proceed with animal testing – a pussycat is duly rocketed off into the void. Sedych is not impressed by this and proposes to Viktor that they go to the Moon without official permission.

Various scenes ensue of the preparations for the unauthorised launch; Andrei recruits the local chapter of the Young Communist League (not named as such on screen, but it’s obviously something along those lines) to run interference for them, and there are many scenes of the characters packing their suitcases ahead of the flight. Mrs Sedych is worried that the Moon will be cold, and is determined that her husband will have a good supply of warm socks as well as ties and so forth (the Prof would rather take a lot of heavy scientific textbooks). As you can see, there is something more than a little credulity-straining about these moments of broad comedy, but at least they keep the film rattling along.

Eventually it is time for launch, and Viktor reveals his true colours as stooge for Karin, who is determined to stop the flight. For this lack of moral and intellectual courage, and quite contrary to what you would expect from a western film with a similar theme, the square-jawed young romantic lead is not allowed to go to the Moon, and when the rocket-plane takes off, the crew consists of an old man, a young woman, and a boy. ‘Forward into Space!’ cries Sedych. ‘Long live youth!’ It is genuinely stirring stuff, even eight decades later.

Even sound movies from the 1930s and 40s seem a little weird to the modern viewer, and so it is not really surprising that Cosmic Voyage is no exception to this – this is a silent movie, and the product of a rather different culture than that responsible for most of the films we know today. And yet, in many ways it does feel rather familiar, and certainly part of a tradition of early space films that were able to generate the gosh-wow effect fuelling so much SF cinema simply by trying to predict the future as accurately as possible. It is true that Cosmic Voyage‘s rocket-planes are distinctly reminiscent of Flash Gordon’s spaceship from one of the Universal serials, but this is a film really trying hard to get the science right, as far as it was known at the time: the co-writer on the script was Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, one of the founders of rocketry, although he died before the film was released. The cosmonauts immerse themselves in tanks of liquid to protect them from the stresses of take-off, while there is another sequence which depicts them discovering the delights of life in zero gravity – obviously, 2001 it ain’t, but it’s still surprisingly well done. The same can certainly be said of some of the sequences depicting the visitors bounding across the lunar surface – the film-makers’ ideas of what the Moon would look like are a little wide of the mark, but the animation used is astonishingly good – so good, in fact, that one could almost be forgiven for assuming these are modern interpolations made using 21st century techniques to achieve a somewhat retro effect.

It is a little bemusing, therefore, that these sequences are the reason why the film vanished from sight after only a brief release and was not seen for many decades: apparently the USSR’s censors felt that this kind of special effects sequence was contrary to the principles of ‘socialist realism’ and pulled the movie as a result. If this is true, then I find it a little difficult to get my head round – is it solely because the sequence was animated, as opposed to using live actors like the rest of the film? This seems a very odd distinction to be making, although it’s not as if Soviet society in the 1930s wasn’t noted for its arbitrariness in many respects.

Still, at least the film is available again now, and it is a very watchable one with a definite charm to it. The political and allegorical subtexts of the film are obvious, and occasionally surprising – the emphasis on everyone having something to contribute, even the old and the very young, seems like solid Soviet stuff, but there is an unexpectedly anti-establishment note to the proceedings, as Sedych and his comrades defy the over-cautious powers that be in the name of science and adventure. Oh well- one of the reasons I watch these old and obscure films is to be surprised, and I suppose it’s only natural that some of these surprises should be more surprising than others.

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As I have suggested before, most western viewers’ exposure to Russian SF cinema is limited to the considerable but imposing films of Andrei Tarkovsky, specifically Solaris and Stalker. This is obviously far from ideal, not least because Tarkovsky himself was no fan of genre as a concept, and the fact that Solaris contained so many conventions of the SF genre meant that it was his least favourite of his own films. Stalker, certainly, shuffles backwards into the SF genre, ending up there because it resembles anything else even less. Russian SF movies did not begin and end with Andrei Tarkovsky – so what do some of the others look like?

Marek Piestrak’s The Inquest of Pilot Pirx was released in 1979, the same year as Stalker, and features one of the actors from that film; it also shares a sort of connection with Solaris, as both films are based on stories by the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem (I should mention that while this is a Soviet film, it is technically a Polish-Russian co-production). One should always be wary of speculating based on too little evidence, but one wonders if the late 70s SF boom extended behind the iron curtain?

Certainly much of Inquest suggests that its makers were aware of what was going on in western SF films. It opens in what looks like some kind of laboratory, with technicians in ‘clean’ suits working on what look very much like parts of human-like robots – androids, in other words. We are clearly in the same kind of narrative territory as Westworld, although the film (like many others) seems a bit unclear about the nature of its synthetic humans – on the one hand, we are told that the androids are so similar to people that only detailed medical tests can identify them; on the other, it is suggested that if you cut one of them open bits of wire and plastic fall out.

Perhaps the first big surprise of the film comes when it is revealed that the android construction facility is in the United States (or so it is heavily suggested), although everybody still speaks Russian there (in the same way that Russian characters in Bond films speak English to each other). Given SF often functions as a critical or satiric commentary on the society that produced it, one wonders if the authorities insisted that the USSR not be featured in the film? (Another possible parallel with Stalker, which had dialogue added to it to make it clear the film was not set in Russia.) We see a meeting between the android construction company and people from the UN, discussing a new space mission – the title character, Commander Pirx (Sergei Desnitsky) is chosen, mainly for his good moral character, although the android makers are not very happy about this.

Soon enough Pirx meets up with someone from UNESCO who explains the job they want him to do: androids (‘non-linears’ in the film’s parlance) are on the verge of going into mass production, and could potentially have a major impact on society. However, before this can happen, the authorities are going to have a little test – there will be a mission to Jupiter, with the ship crewed by a mixture of humans and androids, to see which perform better under the stresses of the flight. The twist is that Pirx will not be told which of his men is organic and which is not, and they are under orders not to tell him. Which could prove awkward, if one of the androids should turn out to be mad and decide to try and kill all the human crew…

This is not an especially long film and one of the problems with it is that the first half of it is resolutely earthbound, taking place in a variety of offices, factories, streets – there’s even a glimpse of a branch of McDonalds. This is fairly drab stuff, it must be said, only marginally recognisable as SF, and the pace of it is leisurely, to say the least. Much of it concerns a cack-handed attempt by the android builders to assassinate Pirx so he can be replaced by someone more sympathetic to their agenda: this is pure filler, not informing the second half of the film at all.

The second half of Inquest is at least easily obviously a science fiction film, as Pirx and his crew set off into deep space to carry out their mission. Again, parallels with western SF are almost inescapable – we are in the same kind of territory as Alien and Blade Runner (although, given the rather primitive special effects and model-work, some people may be more reminded of Blake’s 7). It soon becomes apparent that someone on the ship is up to no good and planning the failure of the mission, although who it is remains a mystery (the film achieves this through the somewhat awkward expedient of having the traitor shuffle around with his back to the camera so his face cannot be seen). Pirx, rather in defiance of his orders, sets out to figure out who is who, or more accurately what, amongst his crew – some of whom, such as ship’s doctor Nowak (Alexander Kaidanovsky, the stalker himself), and pilot Calder (Zbigniew Lesien), happily inform him without needing much pressing – but can they be trusted to tell the truth?

Much potential here for tension and paranoia, of course, along with all the jeopardy of a deep-space mission, but unfortunately it mostly goes unrealised. There are many dour discussions about what’s going on, along with some abstract talk about the nature of what it means to be human (or an android) – at one point it seems like Pirx has reached the conclusion that all androids will necessarily be atheists, and starts asking members of the crew what their religious beliefs are. The conclusion, one of the few things recognisably derived from the original Lem story, is that the main difference between man and machine is that man is fallible, but that fallibility itself can be a virtue under some circumstances. It’s an interesting idea, but the problem with Inquest is that it fails to dramatise it in a consistently engaging way. Too much of this film is slow and talky, with a meandering and underpowered story.

Much of The Inquest of Pilot Pirx is heavy-going, unengaging stuff. It makes an interesting contrast to the more lightweight SF action-adventure films being made in Europe and America at around the same time, and it curious to see the parallels in how it handles the same kind of material and ideas. But as a film in its own right, it’s hard to get particularly excited about: it has a certain novelty value, obviously, but not much more.

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My good friend and occasional presence on the blog, Olinka, is keen to hang onto her Russian identity as far as possible, trying to speak the language and enjoy her culture whenever she can. Although Russian is one of my languages (just about), I haven’t seen that many films made in it, which she seemed vaguely disappointed by when I mentioned that Mirror was one of the few Soviet-era movies I’d watched.

Perhaps as a result, a few weeks later she dropped me a line telling me about a new website she’d found hosting a large number of Russian-language films for streaming. ‘You should watch сталкер,’ she said.

‘You what?’

‘They have сталкер on the site. We were talking about it the other week.’

‘I don’t even know how you’re pronouncing that. Stop talking in Cyrillic, please.’

‘Oh, all right. They have Stalker. You know, the Tarkovsky film.’

This was of some interest to me, because I have been aware for some time of the fact that the USSR produced a number of noteworthy science fiction films. SF is, as you will be aware if you come here regularly, one of my few genuine passions, and this did feel like a real gap in my experience. I’ve seen Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, of course, but then that’s not a particular achievement as it’s one of the very few Soviet SF films to have any kind of profile in the west. One of the others, as you may have gathered, is Stalker, likewise made by Tarkovsky a few years later (1979, to be exact). I remember the first time it was shown on British TV, nearly ten years later – in the middle of the night, pretty much, with a somewhat ambivalent write-up in the TV listings – ‘Either a cryptic SF parable or three men mucking about on some waste ground for two and a half hours, you decide,’ was about the gist of it.

Certainly, Stalker does not resemble the kind of SF film routinely being made in the west at the tail end of the 1970s. Freely adapted by the Strugatsky brothers from their own novel Roadside Picnic, the film is set at some point in the future, in an unspecified nation – probably not Russia, given one of the characters refers to it as a ‘small nation’. This kind of detail is not really important anyway. Soon we meet the protagonist, the stalker of the title (Alexander Kaidanovsky), who lives in fairly primitive circumstances, and not especially happily, with his wife (Alisa Friendlich) and child. He is about to embark on a dangerous and illegal undertaking, not for the first time, and she is not exactly happy. But he is insistent, for reasons which are not immediately apparent.

His clients are likewise left nameless: they are a writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and a scientist (Nikolai Grinko). The stalker is to lead them into the Zone, a quarantined area kept under military guard. Years earlier, a meteorite (or something else from deep space…) fell in this region, ever since which it has been sealed off and uninhabited. The story goes that somewhere in the Zone is a room containing some agency which grants the deepest desires of anyone entering it, and the stalker has been paid to take the writer and the scientist to this place…

The early sequences of Stalker are (perhaps intentionally) misleading – long, slow scenes of the stalker getting out of bed and quarrelling with his wife, before talking to the others. Tarkovsky reportedly said he wanted the opening of the film to be even slower and duller so that ‘people who walked into the wrong theatre’ had plenty of time to leave before the film properly got going (inasmuch as Stalker ever gets going, as it is traditionally understood). That said, these scenes are followed by the trio penetrating the security around the Zone, dodging armed guards and other security measures, and for a moment it almost seems like the film is going to be conventional.

But of course it isn’t. Entry into the Zone provides one moment of profound cinematic shock, as the toxic sepia of the opening scenes is replaced by beautiful, natural colour, and also marks the film adopting the mode it will maintain for most of the rest of its duration: the three men travelling through the Zone towards the room, looking at the landscape around them while discussing where they are and their reasons for being there.

As you can probably tell, this is another of those SF films which doesn’t really resemble SF for the vast majority of its length: particularly to a viewer who has come to primarily associate SF with films in the action-adventure idiom. There is not much action-adventure here, no laser guns, no spaceships, no robots or aliens – the alien influences of the Zone are left unseen, perceived only by the stalker. Until the closing moments of the film, I was half-expecting this to function wholly as a kind of psychological study of the stalker’s fractured mind, with the curious properties of the Zone a figment of his imagination. But it seems not: there is something strange at the heart of the Zone, the question being what this anomaly is.

As has been said so often that it has practically become a truism, SF films do not exist to predict the future, but more to comment on the present. Nevertheless, films do occasionally come along which feel almost eerie in their prescience: for instance, there’s Starship Troopers, which is one of the best commentaries of the aftermath of September 11th 2001 ever made, even though it was produced in 1996. And there’s a sense in which Stalker feels inextricably connected to the Chernobyl disaster, even though it preceded those events by six or seven years. The Zone of the film has the feeling of a post-industrial, post-apocalyptic waste, for all that its colours are more natural than those of the wider world. Detritus of modern society is everywhere – syringes are particularly prominent – although there are signs of nature reclaiming the area. It is perhaps worth mentioning that many people have suggested that Stalker was in fact filmed on a dumping ground for chemical waste, and that this was a contributing factor in Tarkovsky’s own premature death; worth mentioning, too, that guides who lead visitors into the real-life exclusion zone around the Chernobyl reactor refer to themselves as stalkers.

There is something profoundly bleak and dismal about the Zone in the film, although quite what it represents is left as ambiguous as much of the rest of Stalker. That the film is intended to be symbolic is established early on, with the switch from sepia to full colour and the fact that none of the characters are named. The writer is hoping the room will give him inspiration, while the scientist is hoping that understanding the room and the Zone will bring him acclaim and respect from his peers (or so he initially claims, anyway). Or, as some have suggested, the two characters represent the artistic and the scientific perspectives on life, neither of which proves fully compatible with the reality of the Zone. What, then of the stalker himself?

It seems to me that this is ultimately a film about spirituality and faith, which is a very audacious choice of theme for a Soviet film and may explain why Stalker is quite as oblique as it is. The others have to place their faith in the stalker, who himself seems to have an almost religious devotion to the room and what it represents: hope, perhaps, an escape from the material squalor of the world. Only those who have suffered can truly appreciate the room, he suggests, while those approaching it with impure motives will be punished. It’s not even as if this interpretation of the film is buried particularly deeply: one poster for the film features a moment where one of the characters affects to wear a crown of thorns.

In the end, though, for all that not very much happens compared to more conventional films, Stalker is so dense in terms of its dialogue, themes and philosophy that it’s entirely possible there are other interpretations with greater validity. It is not the kind of film you can watch once and then move on from – ‘remember, when you watch Stalker, Stalker also watches you,’ was Olinka’s final word on the film, indicating a Tarkovsky-ish talent for suggestive obliqueness. Possibly the clues are all there in the closing scenes of the film, which are strikingly different in style – one character makes a lengthy, casual speech to the camera, there is a sudden display of superhuman faculties from a relatively minor character described as a  ‘Zone mutant’. This is a film to be absorbed and reflected upon rather than watched in the conventional sense. Like the Zone, it resolutely keeps its secrets and demands a leap of faith from those who would approach it. Whether Stalker sufficiently rewards the experience of attempting to decipher it is probably up to the individual viewer, but it is a striking, unforgettable experience nevertheless.

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As I sit down to contemplate Donovan Marsh’s Hunter Killer, I am minded to suggest a new rule of thumb for when it comes to predicting whether a film is any good or not. I already have a few of these: is the director so obscure he doesn’t even have his own Wikipedia entry? This is a bad sign. Does the film star Gerard Butler? This is a worse one. (Needless to say, Hunter Killer fails both of these tests, by which I mean the answer is yes.) To these I would add: does the film have more producers and executive producers than it does cleaning ladies?

This is certainly the case with Hunter Killer, which – thanks to my close examination of the credits, a result of the film putting my lower limbs into a state of temporary torpor and briefly trapping me in the auditorium – I can inform you has over twenty producers and execs (including Gerard Butler, perhaps unsurprisingly), but less than a dozen women who clean. I will have to do further research into this area, but my initial findings are that you should hire cleaners in bulk rather than film producers, should you have the option.

All this is a roundabout way of saying that Hunter Killer is about as good a movie as you would expect, given it is a mid-budget action thriller starring Butler as the ostensible hero. I was something of a cheerleader for Butler and his career up until about fifteen years ago, and was genuinely pleased when 300 catapulted him to a level of real stardom – but since then it seems like he hasn’t really been trying, just recycling the same kinds of movies and performances over and over again. I’m almost at the point of giving up on him entirely, but I do enjoy a slightly duff genre movie, so along I went to a matinee of Hunter Killer (at which I was entirely alone, I might add).

Things kick off with an American and a Russian submarine both going missing in mysterious circumstances, somewhere under the polar ice. The chairman of the joint chiefs, who is a growly cipher expertly phoned in by Gary Oldman, dispatches another sub to investigate, under the command of newly-promoted captain Joe Glass (Butler). Glass manages to be a fierce disciplinarian and an unpredictable loose cannon, whom we first meet displaying his macho chops by (illegally) hunting deer with a longbow in Scotland. He then gets to show his sensitive side by not actually shooting the cute little critters, before being whisked off to take command of his boat. Here he displays yet another aspect of his personality, being much given to making rather cryptic inspirational speeches to his crew – ‘I am you,’ he announces to the assembled company, then ‘Everyone you know is someone on that [missing] sub.’ Needless to say, Butler does not really manage to unite all these bizarrely arbitrary traits in a coherent characterisation.

Well, anyway, as the presumably somewhat-baffled crew sails into the danger zone it transpires that there is sneakiness afoot in the upper echelons of the Russian military establishment, with a coup in progress against the Russian President (Alexander Diachenko), orchestrated by the perfidious Defence Minister (Mikhail Gorevoy), who is looking to start a nuclear war with the USA for no particularly well-explained reason. However, with a US sub in the crisis zone, not to mention a special forces team (led by a somewhat unexpectedly-cast Toby Stephens), it may just be possible to save the day…

Yes, so this is not one of those films with what you could honestly describe as a stranglehold on reality. You almost wonder how long it has been in the works, given just how spectacularly misjudged its presentation of world geopolitics is – the US President is a woman, apparently named ‘Ilene Dover’ (which is a joke name, surely), who ends up ordering a rescue mission to save the Russian President (who has no tendencies to be photographed with his shirt off, in case you were wondering).

In other words it is, not to put too fine a point on it, a deeply silly film, bordering on the actually cartoonish in some places. The problem is that the makers of the film don’t appear to be particularly comfortable with making a silly cartoon of an action movie: they seem to want to make a serious and credible semi-political thriller. This desire mainly takes the form of everyone in Hunter Killer being under orders to play it absolutely straight even when the material demands at least a degree of tongue-in-cheekness. The result is regrettably predictable: when a silly film attempts to become credible by taking itself very seriously, the result is not a serious, credible film – the result is a film which manages to be both silly and rather dull.

I found myself rather missing the barking, sweating, swivel-eyed-maniac Gerard Butler of old: he’s just not that interesting when he tones it down, even if he is playing a weirdly stoical underwater nutcase at the time. On the other hand, hardly anyone makes much of an impression in this film – Gary Oldman expertly phones in his supporting turn, the rapperist Common appears as another nautical cove, and a cast-against-type Toby Stephens pops up as the leader of a US special forces unit (the movie was made in the UK, which explains the presence of a few familiar faces further down the cast list). It is, as you may have noticed, a somewhat blokey movie, with this slightly made up for by a supporting appearance by Linda Cardellini as an NSA analyst. (There are indeed some women serving on Butler’s sub, but none of them get any lines until the last twenty minutes of the film.) The late Michael Nyqvist makes one of his final appearances as a decent Russian sub captain, in a probably optimistic attempt to make it clear that not all Russians are bad guys.

That’s the thing about Hunter Killer – technically, it’s a perfectly competent movie in terms of its production and so on, but it just makes virtually no impact. There is never any real sense of danger or tension or involvement, probably because the film is just so derivative and formulaic and predictable. No doubt the film’s themes of the US military being wonderful and the deep connections felt by the brotherhood of submariners will appeal to some sectors of the intended audience, but I can’t see that translating into particularly wide appeal for anyone else. Even if you’re a really keen fan of films about submarines, Hunter Killer really has nothing new or especially accomplished to offer. But at least the sets are nice and clean.

 

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I have commented in the past on the dangers of giving your movie a punchy, catchy one-word title: other people may have the same idea, which can be terribly confusing. Twilight, Steel, Roadkill: all of these titles have been round the block a few times and have wildly different movies squabbling over possession of them.

Short titles can be equally problematic: just now I noticed that The Black Hole was on TV, but rather than the 1979 Gary Nelson stellar-conflict knock-off, it turned out to be a Ken Badish Z-movie with Kristy Swanson. In a similar vein, I wonder how many people are going to check into their favourite streaming site and decide to watch The Darkest Hour, comfortably settling down to enjoy an Oscar-winning turn from Gary Oldman, oblivious to the fact that they have actually made a fairly significant mistake?

Not that this is likely to long remain the case, for I cannot imagine anyone watching much of Chris Gorak’s 2011 movie The Darkest Hour and long remaining under the impression it is Joe Wright’s 2017 movie Darkest Hour. One of these films has an embattled Winston Churchill trying to keep the cause of liberty and freedom alive. The other features attractive young people being chased around Moscow by invisible monsters. A definite article can make a big difference sometimes.

These days it’s a little hard to imagine a US-Russian co-production quite as brazenly commercial as this one, but there you go, the past is another country. (As is Russia. Presumably the past of Russia is several different countries simultaneously, but I’ve no idea how that would work.) Prime mover behind this enterprise appears to have been Timur Bekmambetov, reigning nutcase behind such family favourites as Wanted, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and the remake of Ben-Hur, and though someone else is left to do the actual directing, followers of the Bekmambetov oeuvre will know more or less what to expect.

Things get underway with aspiring young American entrepreneurs Sean (Emile Hirsch) and Ben (Max Minghella), who arrive in Moscow (everyone uses the American pronunciation, by the way) to try and find investors for their new website-stroke-app. But zounds! It turns out their perfidious Swedish business partner, Skyler – is this a common Swedish name? – has done the dirty on them and ripped off their idea. (The evil Swede is played by Joel Kinnaman, by the way.)

To drown their sorrows, Sean and Ben retire to a swanky nightclub where they meet feisty backpackers Natalie (Olivia Thirlby) and Anne (Rachael Taylor). You know, I wasn’t aware that Moscow was such a hub on the international backpacking scene, but it just goes to show you. Even Skyler ends up in the same club, where he is as objectionable as earlier.

But then! Following a mysterious power failure, everyone stumbles out into the street to see strange aurorae appearing over Moscow, and swirls of glowing light raining down onto the city. It all looks very pretty, until it becomes apparent that the swirly light things are all people can perceive of vicious alien gits intent on invading the city and disintegrating everyone in their path. There’s only one thing for an appealing young ensemble cast to do at a time like this – hide in the cellar for a day and a night!

Making their rather cautious return to the streets 36 hours later, our heroes discover that Moscow is largely deserted, with everyone either having fled or been eaten by the invisible alien monsters. Everyone decides to go to the US embassy (even the Australian and Swedish characters), but what hope is there, with aliens still on the prowl and no apparent hope of escape…?

Anyway, The Darkest Hour is an example of the kind of middle-of-the-road genre movie which occasionally slips past me at a busy time of the year: I didn’t see it back when it came out, and can’t remember a particular reason why not. Must just have been occupied with other stuff – this is certainly the kind of film I can imagine me going to see, what with it being an alien invasion SF-horror movie and all. I may have been persuaded to knock it down my list of priorities by the notices it drew at the time, which ran a fairly negative gamut from tepid to eviscerating.

This is understandable, as – and perhaps you have been able to glean this from the customary synopsis – The Darkest Hour is unlikely ever to win any awards for its blazing originality, in any department. The capsule description of this movie – ‘the one with the invisible monsters in Moscow’ – also contains every distinctive feature that it possesses, with the possible exception of the fact that it scores unexpectedly high on the ‘on their way to very slightly better things’ department – Olivia Thirlby went on to appear in Dredd (in addition to some TV stuff), Rachael Taylor has carved out a tiny niche for herself sort-of playing Hellcat in the Marvel TV shows, Joel Kinnaman later found work in the Robocop remake and Suicide Squad, and so on.

B-movies are not what they used to be. It used to be the case that in a B-movie you were more or less guaranteed substandard, or (let’s be charitable) overambitious special effects, but you kept your fingers crossed that the film-makers would do their best to make up for this by using their imagination and wits when it came to the script, and the actors would likewise try to compensate for giving interesting performances. These days, however, thanks to the development of cheap high-end computers, the one thing you are pretty much guaranteed in even a low-budget movie is that it will have good-looking special effects. On the other hand, your chances of happening upon a script which does more than hit the minimum benchmarks are much lower nowadays, and the cast often seem to be deliberately trying to be as anonymous as possible.

So it is with The Darkest Hour. It has one slightly curious quirk – the moss-cow setting – and one potentially interesting feature – the invasion of invisible energy beings – and while the scenes in a devastated Moscow are predictably well-staged in visual terms, the film has little else to offer beyond a formulaic runaround. It’s not that difficult to work out who amongst the original five is not going to make it to the closing credits, and in which order they’re going to get zapped, but the thing is that you don’t really care either, so thinly characterised are they. Only Olivia Thirlby demonstrates she has genuine chops as an actress by genuinely making you worry about her survival.

I’m not sure what to make of the fact that The Darkest Hour goes to all the trouble of being a Moscow-set SF movie, without including a single leading Russian character. It kind of reduces the setting to a painted backdrop, which I doubt was the intention of the Russian producers. I suppose you could argue that Gosha Kutsenko and Veronika Vernadskaya both appear in supporting roles and are very Russian indeed, almost to the point of stereotype, and that this makes up for a lot. Maybe.

In the end it doesn’t really make up for just how generic and forgettable The Darkest Hour is. Like a lot of movies at around this point in history, it was originally released in the odious 3D format, something which seems to have become slightly less common, but I doubt yet another gimmick would have helped its cause much. The thing about it is that this is one of those movies which doesn’t have a single element in it which you could genuinely call actively bad, but it’s so totally lacking in anything really distinctive and (apart from the effects and a single performance) actually accomplished that it simply fails to register in your head much. It’s not awful – being awful would actually make it more memorable. It just is, in that it exists – it just does very little more than that.

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I see from the (conspiracy of failing liberal – it says here) media that many people are concerned about the possibility of prominent American figures being unduly swayed by shadowy forces emanating from somewhere east of Europe. I don’t quite see what all the fuss is about, for this sort of thing has surely been going on for decades now. I offer as Exhibit A the 1975 movie Love and Death, in which Woody Allen’s brainspace has clearly been hacked by a number of well-known Russians.

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This even extends to abandoning his usual font and jazz-influenced score in favour of a different style of lettering and a soundtrack almost entirely drawn from the works of Sergei Prokoviev. Once the shock of this subsides we find ourselves in Russia during the Napoleonic Wars. The noted soldier, poet, and abject coward Boris Grushenko (Allen) is awaiting execution, and passes the time by narrating the story of his life. It is a stirring tale of war, self-discovery, and all the other stuff you usually find in this sort of film. Boris’s unrequited love for his cousin Sonia endures despite her marriage to an elderly herring merchant, and the two of them are eventually married. However, with the French on the march, Sonia proposes the two of them engage in a daring exploit to save Russia…

Hmm. The thing about trying to write a synopsis of Love and Death is that simply describing the events of the story really doesn’t communicate the tone of the movie. The unwitting modern viewer, aware of Allen’s latter-day reputation as a cerebral misanthropist, might even be lulled into suspecting the director was genuinely attempting a pastiche of or homage to Tolstoy, Pasternak, Eisenstein, and various other serious artists.

Of course not. This is one of the Early, Funny Woody Allen movies, dating from the period when he was more likely to be parodying Ingmar Bergman than trying to imitate him. This isn’t quite the same kind of movie as his previous film, Sleeper, which is essentially a slapstick comedy – instead, it’s rather more like one of the Monty Python movies in that many of the jokes derive from inserting Allen’s modern sensibility into a period setting. Inevitably, this takes the form of an unstoppable stream of snappy one-liners – ‘Shall we say pistols at dawn?’ asks someone, challenging Boris to a duel. ‘Well, we can say it. I don’t what it means,’ comes the response. ‘You’re a coward!’/’Yes, but I’m a militant coward’, ‘Are you suggesting passive resistance?’/’No, I’m suggesting active fleeing’ – and many, many more.

As well as all this, though, there’s a running gag where virtually any conversation has a tendency to turn into a disquisition on moral philosophy, which arguably is an attempt at a genuine parody of Russian literature. However, the thing about dialogue like ‘judgement of any system or a priori relation of phenomena exists in any rational or metaphysical or at least epistemological contradiction to an abstract and empirical concept such as being or to be or to occur in the thing itself or of the thing itself’ (‘Yes, I’ve said that many times,’ is Allen’s response) is that for it to sound convincing, the writer has to know what he’s talking about – it’s a bit like Les Dawson’s bad piano playing, you have to know your stuff before you can start taking liberties with it. In the same way, there’s a scene in which Boris and his father converse at some length and the dialogue consists almost entirely of references to the works of Dostoyevsky. Sequences incorporate references to classic films like Battleship Potemkin, Alexander Nevsky, and The Seventh Seal. Much of what’s on screen is very silly and broad (and there are still a few of those slightly off-colour jokes which occasionally pop up in early Allen movies and are especially uncomfortable these days), but there’s also an assumption that this movie is being watched by an intelligent, educated audience – so, in some ways, very much like a Monty Python movie.

It’s an interesting movie – not, if you ask me, the funniest of the Early, Funnies but still an entertaining watch anyway. Allen’s next film was Annie Hall, which marked a real milestone in his development as a film-maker – a much more sophisticated and emotionally intelligent movie. There’s not much sign of that here, although Diane Keaton does get more scenes without Allen and more chance to develop a genuine character, and Allen’s willingness to display his erudition so openly does perhaps suggest someone becoming interested in moving beyond simply being a straightforward gag-merchant. Perhaps this is more of a transitional film than it first appears. If nothing else, it suggests that Russian influence on a famous American can also produce rather farcical results – but on the other hand I think most of us have already figured that out for ourselves…

 

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A Silver Screen showing (with, of course, free biscuits) is still probably the best ticket in town when it comes to value for money, but second place is definitely a proper full-scale revival of a mid-period David Lean movie, complete with overture, interval, and entr’acte, all of which usually work together to push the running time to somewhere well over three and a half hours. Lean’s films seem to have been conceived as grand spectacles as much as actual stories, with a level of ambition it’s hard to find amongst serious modern film-makers (one might also suggest that modern movie studies aren’t big fans of providing that much value for money, either).

Latest recipient of the full revival treatment is Lean’s Doctor Zhivago, his famously lengthy epic of love and death in the midst of the Russian revolution and its aftermath. Zhivago is currently enjoying its golden anniversary, which probably explains why it’s being given a run-out – it seems to be that this film has never quite enjoyed the same critical acclaim as Lawrence of Arabia, but it retains a certain reputation, not to mention its place on the list of the top ten most-watched movies in history.

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This being a Lean movie, it’s a fairly long time before we meet Dr Zhivago himself properly, and the film opens with a framing sequence in which Zhivago’s brother (Alec Guinness), a Red Army general, interviews a young female worker from one of the USSR’s engineering projects (this scene is presumably set in the late 1940s or early 1950s), trying to establish if she is in fact his late brother’s daughter. And of course he ends up telling her Zhivago’s life story.

(A bit of a digression here – and it’s not as if Doctor Zhivago doesn’t digress itself – but I am currently engaged in the cultural education of a young person, which has mainly involved our watching the Star Wars movies and various other old classics. I was a bit disappointed, therefore, when we watched Kind Hearts and Coronets and my charge completely failed to recognise Obi-Wan Kenobi even though he plays about eight different characters. So when we went to see Zhivago, I actually made it clear that Guinness would be in this film and I was expecting to have him pointed out to me. It’s not the most demanding challenge ever set: the very first shot after the credits, pretty much, is a very nice portrait of Alec Guinness more or less facing the camera. But was there a little thrill of recognition at the sight of old Obi-Wan? Regrettably not. My work continues.)

Orphaned at a young age somewhere out on the endless Russian steppe, the young Yuri Zhivago is adopted by a wealthy Muscovite family and grows up to become a happy, well-educated, and only vaguely Egyptian young man (he is of course played by Omar Sharif, in a piece of casting that we take for granted now). He is kept busy with his medical studies (duh) and with being a poet, which is why the first act of the film is much more about the beautiful young Lara (Julie Christie), a young woman attracting the unwelcome attention of well-connected but cynical man-about-town Komarovsky (Rod Steiger), while actually having a thing for dedicated young revolutionary Antipov (Tom Courtenay).

Well, apart from someone nearly getting shot, not very much happens in the first act of the film, plot-wise, but eventually the First World War kicks off with the Russian Revolution following close behind. This being a film set in Russia, what follows is mainly a chronicle of people making very long journeys (usually in the snow), losing touch with each other, disappearing, reappearing unexpectedly, snatching moments of happiness, falling foul of the government – you know the sort of thing. In the end… well, I suppose spoilers are still a potential problem, even for a fifty-year-old movie, plus there is the issue of…

Well, here’s the thing: Doctor Zhivago is an example of film-making on a genuinely epic, lavish scale, with some marvellous set pieces and your actual cast of thousands on display. Freddie Young’s cinematography is sumptuous, Maurice Jarre’s score is beautiful, and David Lean marshals the whole proceedings with his usual masterly touch. You are never really doubt that, in some way, you are watching one of the great films of all time. (It’s also hard to shake the suspicion that Lean would have been the first to agree with you – the opening, with an orphan being taken in by relatives, perhaps inevitably recalls that of Citizen Kane, and one could argue that Zhivago’s balalaika serves a similar narrative role as Kane’s sledge, so maybe Lean had set his sights on supplanting Welles.)

It’s not as if there aren’t some lovely performances in the movie, either. Sharif is perhaps a touch too hello-clouds-hello-sky to really be an engaging protagonist, and one does wonder quite why it was Tom Courtenay who snagged an Oscar nomination when he’s not actually in the film that much, but you also have Ralph Richardson working his magic as Zhivago’s adoptive father and a really heavy-duty turn by Rod Steiger, turning a character who could just have been a bully into someone rather more complex and charismatic. Guinness himself only has a handful of scenes, but he also gets the voice-over, and uses them to deliver a typically memorable turn, with the benefit of some of the best lines in the movie.

But, one has to ask, what’s it all actually in aid of? All these characters appear and (more importantly) disappear from the movie, seemingly at random. The story stays fixated on Zhivago and Lara and their various comings together and movings apart, and in the end it all climaxes in… what? Not much of anything. There’s no real big finish, no resolution of the film’s themes or big idea. It doesn’t climax so much as phut.

Then again, this isn’t really a film about big ideas, it’s a film about trying to stay out of their way – Zhivago says as much, that he’s only interested in making the best of the life he has now (his name is derived from the Russian zhivoy, meaning living), and this is what the film is about, not a conflict between ideologies (although this does inevitably comprise much of the backdrop to the film) but a conflict between an ideological world-view and a simpler, more personal one. Which is fine, but it does just mean that Zhivago and Lara just wander through the film while more interesting things seem to be happening to other characters off-camera. It’s an epic movie about a man trying to live a small life, which is an odd proposition from the start.

Perhaps it’s also a problem that this is a film about a famous poet, yet we never hear any of his actual poetry, which strikes me as a bit of a cop-out. Having said that, Lean has a hell of a good go at bringing Zhivago’s poetic sensibility to the screen in a few extraordinary sequences – during the funeral at the start of the film, there’s a sequence intercutting the young boy’s face, leaves swirling in the wind, actual shots of the body inside the buried coffin, and all the time the music swelling to let you know that something significant is happening… and rather than being just a bit too overblown to take seriously, it’s very nearly breathtaking. But too often the film doesn’t achieve this level of intensity, and you’re left with everyone wandering about and a pleasant, if not really gripping, romance.

I can’t help wondering to what extent the actual details of the Russian Revolution are strictly germane to the plot, either. Inevitably the film ultimately comes out as disapproving towards Communism, but if it had the slightest intention of illuminating this period of history it doesn’t really achieve it – everyone talks about the Red Guards and the White Guards and the Bolsheviks and the Far Eastern Republic, but how it all hangs together in any kind of coherent historical context I’ve no idea. If the turmoil in Russia is just here as a backdrop to a romance, I can’t help but think that’s a missed opportunity, not to mention a bit glib. I don’t know.

I went to see Lawrence of Arabia three years ago, when that got a golden anniversary re-release, and emerged with my understanding and appreciation of the film greatly strengthened – but this time round, I don’t know. This is a film stuffed with great things of all kinds, but somehow they never completely gel together into a totally satisfying whole – the film almost feels not quite finished, or as though key sequences have been accidentally excised at the editing stage. This is still a very fine film of a kind that they simply don’t make any more, and I did enjoy watching it, even if only for its technical virtuosity and the performances. But the story isn’t quite compelling enough for it to be a genuine masterpiece, or the timeless classic it obviously would like to be.

 

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There was something of a vogue, a few years ago, for sticking the boot to the big Hollywood studios for making ‘historical’ films in which the history was, um, laughable bunk, and more often than not skewed wildly in favour of America. Now, neither bad history nor bias is what you’d call a recent invention – the latter has been a mainstay of war movies for as long as they’ve been made, but it is a little surprising to find it in films made about wars which concluded many decades ago. Dubious historicity likewise has a lengthy pedigree, but the reasons for it can be more varied.

Which is a roundabout route to what regular readers may find to be a rather familiar topic: a Christopher Lee-fronted Hammer horror movie. This week’s subject is Rasputin, the Mad Monk, a film from Hammer’s mid-Sixties golden era, directed by Don Sharp. I feel obliged to promise at this point that, despite the fact this is intended to be a semi-humorous film review blog, I will not be going for easy laughs by making endless references to the Boney M song on the same subject. (No, no: thank me later.)

Anyway, our story opens deep in the Russian heartlands, which as usual in a Hammer movie bear a striking resemblence to some woodlands out the back of the studio. You can tell we are in Russia because people wear Lenin-style caps and call each other Vasily despite having Somerset accents. Gloom pervades the local inn, as the landlord’s wife is poorly and the local doctor has given up. However, who should stride through the door but Russia’s greatest love machine ahem, a mysterious stranger (Christopher Lee). He is, of course, Rasputin, but we don’t find out his name just yet.

Preferring a boozer with a livelier atmos, Rasputin takes it upon himself to exercise his mystical powers of healing to perk the landlady up a bit, which is the cue for a party, some boozing, and more ethnic folk dancing than is usual in this kind of film. (The copious hair and beard with which Lee has been issued makes it easy for someone else to double for him during the fight and dancing sequences in this movie – although knowing what a legendary polymath Christopher Lee is, he probably did it all himself anyway). When Rasputin gets a bit frisky with the young lady of the establishment, a fight breaks out, and this being a Russian pub (and a Hammer movie), someone gets maimed with a scythe before the big fella can make an escape.

However, he is tracked down to the local monastery, where he is called upon to explain this rather un-monklike behaviour. Rasputin’s answer has a certain logic – if confession is good for the soul, as the abbot is always insisting, then the more impressive the sins that you have to confess, the better. (Yes, I know: Christopher Lee, folk dancing and theological debate in the same movie – sadly the similarities with The Wicker Man pretty much end there.) The abbot is unconvinced, and – pausing only to fearfully ponder the true origin of Rasputin’s unearthly powers – has him slung out of the monastery.

Someone suggests to Rasputin that a man with his schtick could do well at the court of the Tsar, and he heads off to St Petersburg straightaway. It soon transpires his unusual attributes extend far beyond his healing hands, as in the big city he is very soon displaying hollow legs with which to win drinking contests, mesmeric eyes with which to impose his will on others, and… er…. well, let’s just say he’s popular with the ladies too. Chief amongst his conquests is Sonia (Barbara Shelley), a lady-in-waiting at the court. Rasputin spies a chance to win real power and influence – but his general nuttiness and lack of manners are rubbing the cream of the young Russian gentry (primarily Francis Matthews, Dinsdale Landen, and Richard Pasco) properly up the wrong way, and plans are soon underway to eliminate him…

So, the unusual thing about Rasputin, the Mad Monk is that it’s a movie based on actual historical events which weren’t that long past at the time the film was made (48 years, give or take – bear in mind the film itself is 47 years old now). Christopher Lee himself has described meeting Rasputin’s real-life daughter (who was apparently very complimentary about his performance, which is slightly mind-boggling), and some of the actual conspirators involved in killing Rasputin were still around when the film was made. This explains the ‘No living person is depicted’ disclaimer in the opening credits, and the fact that the film casts loose from anything closely resembling actual history quite enthusiastically. (Despite the fact the real Rasputin’s death occurred in the middle of the First World War, there’s no mention of any such thing going on, for instance.)

With a proper bio-pic apparently not a possibility for legal reasons, you would have thought the sensible option would be to really push the fantasy-horror angle on the story – but Hammer seem to have backed off from this, as well. Initial scythe-maiming aside, there’s no real horror element to this movie until quite close to the end, and what we get instead is a lurid melodrama about Rasputin’s pursuit of power. What’s he going to do with it when he gets it? The film does not elucidate. Why does he want it in the first place? Well, beyond the initial implication that he has been granted strange abilities by the powers of darkness, the film is likewise silent – but it’s pretty clear throughout that Rasputin is a thoroughly bad sort.

Without a proper grounding in fact or fantasy, Rasputin, the Mad Monk constantly threatens to dissolve into vague inconsequentiality, but a few things more than redeem it. First and foremost, this is possibly Christopher Lee’s best bad guy role for Hammer – a heretical assertion, yes, but he gets more to do, with more screentime and more dialogue, than in any of the Dracula movies. Admittedly the harsh shouty voice he opts to deliver all his lines in gets a bit tedious very quickly, but many of the film’s best scenes revolve around Lee remaining silent, letting his body language and  – especially – his eyes do all the work. Much as I admire Christopher Lee, I don’t think he has the same range as a performer as – obvious candidates alert – Peter Cushing or Vincent Price, but in terms of intensity and presence he’s The Man. I don’t think Hammer ever used those qualities quite as well as in this film, as Lee is frequently quite magnetic.

Rasputin, the Mad Monk was shot back to back with Dracula: Prince of Darkness, hence the crossover of sets and personnel between the two films (a frozen moat features prominently in the climax of both, for instance). However, the director is different, and Don Sharp does some interesting things here. There’s not a lot of proper gore in this film, but what there is has a harder edge to it than in other films of this period – the salaciousness is perhaps a touch more explicit, too. Most interesting is a sequence in which a vengeful young man attempts to confront Rasputin in his lair (the Castle Dracula set redressed, of course), which takes place almost completely in darkness, faces and weapons swimming in and out of fragments of light.

This is an interesting and fun movie rather than a really good one – unintended entertainment aplenty can be derived from the film’s total failure to authentically depict the Russian setting and characters, the more satisfying kind from watching Lee do his thing and the very decent performances from everyone else in the cast. Hammer was making all sorts of odd films in the mid Sixties as they tried to extend their brand – this is probably one of the odder ones, but not a bad one and no disgrace to the House.

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