Monday, 9 April 2012

The best Russian western

I don't think many people truly dislike westerns. There's something incredibly appealing about the independence of the people in them, and who hasn't dreamed of (literally) riding off into the sunset? I even took horse riding lessons so that if I ever get the chance to do so, I will be able to take it (although I'm not actually very good, so if the horse starts galloping I will probably be too worried about hanging on for dear life to notice that I am fulfilling a life-long dream). Of course, there aren't many (any?) British westerns, and you might think that there wouldn't be any Russian ones either, but this would be WRONG.

What many people think of as the best Russian western (sometimes called an eastern, ho ho ho) was made way back in 1969, and is called Белое Солнце Пустыни (Bieloe Solntze Pusteeni - White Sun of the Desert). It tells the story of a Red Army soldier Comrade Sukhov who, having been discharged from fighting the Whites in the civil war, is making his way home from the deserts of Central Asia to the green fields of Russia. Or trying to, at least, because he keeps having to stop to dig up people who have been buried to their necks in the sand and left to die. He befriends the fourth person he digs up, Sayeed, and together they get roped into helping out a Red Army cavalry unit...

The film is considered a classic of Soviet cinema, and is often watched by cosmonauts before they blast into space, which isn't something you can say about most films. I really liked it, especially the character of the customs officer, who was played by a famous Ukrainian-Russian-Armenian actor called Pavel Luspekayev, in his final role before he died of peripheral vascular disease. Apparently he's everyone's favourite character in the movie, so at least I'm in good company (although technically, I suppose, also bad company). A lot of the best lines, however, go to Sukhov, and some of these have become so famous they have entered everyday speech, including what to say when you don't want to hear any objections ("Вопросы есть? Вопросов нет!" - are there any questions? No there aren't), a pathetic catch-all excuse ("Да гранаты у него не той системы" - his grenades are the wrong type - although Sukhov doesn't say this himself - pathetic excuses are not his style), and what to say when you are given the choice between death and torture ("лучше, конечно, помучиться" - torture is better, of course). You never know when such phrases will come in handy.

Obviously being set in a different culture at a different time means there are some major differences between US westerns and this film. For a start, whereas in westerns you often get the girl who from the outset is condemned to die because she once dated the main baddie, here you get the harem of the main baddie, all of whom wear burqas (actually apparently yashmaks, but it's still a full-body cloak), which does put a slightly different spin on things.

This link is to the entire film, complete with English subtitles for non-Russian speakers. Or if you can't be bothered with all that, here is a "trailer" that covers the whole plot without using any words.

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