It’s based on a stage play, but it has a bunch of explosions. When adapting his play Nanawatai for the big screen, William Mastrosimone could fully explore the horrors of war, while still focusing on the Pashto principles of sanctuary (nanawatai) and revenge (badal). Yet, the 1980s were such a rich movie decade, the resulting film was unfairly overlooked during its initial release. Fortunately, Mill Creek Entertainment just rereleased the Kevin Reynolds’ Afghanistan war drama The Beast (trailer here) on DVD today.
It really is a vintage Soviet tank Commander Daskal’s crew drives, thanks to the Israelis, who liberated it from their belligerent neighbors. Daskal, a.k.a. Tank Boy, would definitely not approve of the tankers who abandoned their ride, but he couldn’t fault the film’s authenticity. The grizzled tank commander has only one speed, charging full speed ahead. We see the brutality he brings to bear on a village suspected of harboring mujahedeen. However, his wanton savagery, including one prisoner crushed under the tank’s track, will drive the village’s new khan, Taj, as he tracks Daskal’s tank in hopes of badal. More ominously, the village’s freshly minted widows follow behind Taj’s men, looking for an opportunity to vent their fury.
Daskal might just give them the opportunity. Thanks to the damage done to their radio and charts, the commander takes a wrong turn into a canyon cul-de-sac. He will blame their local translator Samad, a Party member in good standing, but he and Konstantin Koverchenko, the highly-educated tank driver, know better. With their fuel and provisions running low and the mujahedeen remaining in hot pursuit, Daskal starts to exhibit Captain Queeg symptoms, except he is never indecisive. However, his greatest mistake will be leaving the almost insubordinate Koverchenko to die in the desert, after learning from Samad the proper meaning and pronunciation of nanawatai and badal.
Frankly, Koverchenko’s “hey tank boy” taunts, referring to Daskal’s childhood Stalingrad exploits should have been an 80s catch-phrase up there with “I’ll be back” and “there can be only one.” Although it shares some surface similarities with the Dolph Lungren guilty pleasure, Red Scorpion, The Beast is much deeper and classically archetypal. It also has the superior warfighting sequences, hands down. Frankly, it was probably the best film at depicting armored warfare tactics and maneuvering until Fury came along.
Jason Patric was and still is the film’s biggest star, but instead of a Hollywood star turn, he plays Koverchenko with quiet, slow-burning intensity. His work is excellent, but the instantly recognizable character actor George Dzundza is the one who really deserved award attention. He is harrowingly intense to watch as Daskal, the martinet who is starting to lose his grip, along with cherished Soviet world view. Israeli Erick Avari also gives the film tragic resonance as the bullied Samad.
To be fair, Cuban-born Steven Bauer has the commanding bearing and presence for Taj. Granted, there are fewer Afghan cast-members in The Beast than there are now Asians on Hawaii Five-O, but we should remember the country was still under Soviet occupation while the film was in production, making it difficult to recruit local talent. Instead, Reynolds largely relied on Israeli and Indian thesps, the former of whom surely enjoyed sticking it to the Russian bear.
Perhaps it was just bad timing. By the time The Beast opened in theaters, the Soviets had begun to withdraw from Afghanistan with their tails between their legs. Nevertheless, it remains a powerful portrayal of the horrors of Communist aggression and the clash of two radically dissimilar belief systems. Very highly recommended, The Beast is now available on DVD from Mill Creek Entertainment.