From the Video Shop: Two Sober Tales of Russian Soldiers

Neil Turner

The Beast of War (aka: The Beast)
  • 1998 - United States - 111 minutes
  • Writer - William Mastrosimone
  • Director - Kevin Reynolds
  • My Rating - 4 of 5 Stars

Kavkazskiy Plennik (Prisoner of the Mountains)
  • 1996- Soviet Union - 98 minutes
  • Writer - Arif Aliyev, Sergei Bodrov, and Boris Giller from a story by Leo Tolstoy
  • Director - Sergei Bodrov
  • My Rating - 5 of 5 Stars

Here we have two films probably seen by a tiny minority of people in the United States that should be seen by the majority. Even though they were made two years apart in countries professing two opposing political philosophies, their messages are basically the same - using the military in the quest of solutions of social and historical conflicts can only lead to death and injustice. Perhaps President Bush should take a look at these two films.

The Beast of War tells the story of a Russian tank crew in Afghanistan that destroys a village and then pulls in to torture the leader of the village to a grisly death. The tank leaves the village, makes a wrong turn, and heads down a dead end trail through the Afghan desert. Pursuing the tank is a small group of rebels who were outside the village at the time of the attack.

The commander of the tank is a cruel man - veteran of the siege of Stalingrad during WWII. Part of the crew is a soldier of Afghan heritage and a young man who is more of a philosopher than a soldier. The prejudiced hatred of the commander of these two men leads to some horrifying developments amongst the crew.

The rebels relentlessly trail the beast as it blindly surges forward toward nothingness while it boils inside with the conflicts of the crew. All this is played out within some of the most astonishing desert scenery I have ever seen in a film.

In Prisoner of the Mountains, the Russian army is running roughshod over the Islamic residents of Kazakhstan in a conflict that has existed for hundreds of years. Keep in mind that this film is based upon a story some 150 years old. Prisoner gives us two Russian soldiers who are held prisoner by a man hoping to exchange them for his son who is confined by the Russian army.

One of the soldiers is a relatively innocent young man who forms a friendship with the younger sister of the man being held by the army. These two are not as filled with hate as those who surround them, and because of that hate, there is no happy ending here.

An extraordinary feature of this film is the view of the everyday life in the mountain village separated in time and custom from the modern world.

Both of these films show us a tiny, tiny bit of humanity amongst bloody horror and prejudice. I suppose it's that bit of humanity that appears every so often in the world that encourages us all to quest for a world in which humanity is not so rare.

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Harvard Square Commentary, January 29, 2007