Friday, February 11, 2011

The Wild East: White Sun of the Desert

One wonders why the Soviets were so successful cultivating the “non-aligned” Middle Eastern nations during the Cold War. The American ambassadors should have simply showed the local potentates a few choice Soviet “Easterns”. Often featuring Red Army soldiers battling bloodthirsty Muslim hordes in the outer Central Asian Republics, Easterns were a popular staple of Soviet cinema. In fact, watching Vladimir Motyl’s White Sun of the Desert, perhaps the quintessential Eastern, became a pre-launch tradition for the nation’s cosmonauts. Holding up rather well, Sun screens tomorrow as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Wild East retrospective of vintage Soviet Easterns, which kicks off today in New York.

Fyodor Sukhov has good news for his wife. He has more-or-less won the class war while serving in the Caspian detachment. Unfortunately, it may take some time for the honorably discharged officer to make his way home through the desert. He keeps stumbling across men buried up to their necks in the sand, like Sayid. Though not exactly overjoyed at his rescue, the sullen local and the indomitable veteran become casual allies. Sukhov will need the help. Despite his protestations, he finds himself charged with protecting the former harem of a Basmachi warlord, nearly single-handedly.

Desert features a strange mash-up of tragedy and broad comedy, but it always looks great. From the Byzantine architecture, to the white sands and blue waters, the film perfectly captures the feel of its Near Eastern locale. Frankly, it indulges in an Eastern exoticism that was already politically incorrect in Hollywood, but that is part of its retro appeal.

Without question, Desert was conceived as propaganda, but Motyl never lets the proceedings get too heavy or didactic. Anatoly Kuznetsov also anchors the film quite effectively as Sukhov. Though undeniably a hero of fine Soviet rectitude, he adds a sense of world weary whimsy that gives the film its charm.

As with most Easterns, Desert's kinship with the American western is obvious. However, it also shares elements with good old-fashioned imperialistic historical dramas like Gunga Din and The Lives of a Bengal Lancer that Hollywood quit making decades before the 1969 Soviet favorite. Indeed, it is good nostalgic fun, perfectly suited to FSLC’s Wild East series, when it screens tomorrow (2/12), Wednesday (2/16), and Thursday (2/17) at the Walter Reade Theater.