Director: Vladimir Motyl
By Roderick Heath
White Sun of the Desert has a stature with Russian moviegoers that can only be likened to the cultural currency The Godfather, Star Wars, or Gone with the Wind hold for western viewers. Lines of dialogue from the film have become everyday catch phrases. Statues have been erected to honour the lead character. Legend has it that to this day, Russian cosmonauts watch it as a ritual before going into space. Craters on Venus have been named after members of the gaggle of Muslim wives who feature in the film. Yet it’s a good bet most movie aficionados outside the limits of the old Soviet Union, even those with a taste for the exotic, haven’t heard of it. There’s nothing terribly unusual about this. Almost every national and regional film industry can boast this kind of big, native hit that, for whatever reason, just couldn’t be exported.
White Sun of the Desert wasn’t adopted as a lofty, arty darling of foreign critics, though some notable filmmakers, including Andrei Tarkovsky and Andrei Konchalovsky, were approached as prospective directors. Konchalovsky later described the screenplay by Valentin Yezhov and Rustam Ibragimbekov as a masterpiece, though it was largely rewritten by Motyl and others during filming. Meanwhile, the breed of movie fan that readily adopted spaghetti westerns and martial arts films around this time would surely have been bewildered if confronted by such an oddity, a work that extends the mood of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly’s (1966) eerie, surrealist-tinged desert sequence into an entire feature. For a work of such renown and popular affection, even on such a localised scale, White Sun of the Desert defies expectations. Less than 90 minutes long, it’s not a grand and swaggering epic, intense action tale, or laugh-a-minute comedy, though it resembles all of these at various points, as well as a kind of chaste sex farce and portrait of existential absurdity essayed with an almost ambient, peculiarly Slavic brand of melancholic romanticism. If you can get onto the film’s specific wavelength, it reveals itself a rare treasure.
White Sun of the Desert is certainly full of familiar motifs of a good pulp yarn. A frontier setting. A charming and robust protagonist. A wicked villain. Damsels in distress. Helpmates to the hero who waver but reappear in time to save the day. And yet the way director Vladimir Motyl lays out his material is highly eccentric and peculiarly fashioned. White Sun of the Desert belongs to a popular but mostly bygone brand of Russian cinema, usually referred to as the “ostern” or sometimes as a “Red western” or “borscht western.” This was a genre readily comparable to the American western, crowd-pleasing, adventurous dramas set on the fringes of civilisation filled with action, horse riding and gunplay, but set in the wilds beyond the Urals and the fringes of the Caspian Sea, or amongst Cossack tribes. Osterns were usually set during the raucous and violent years of the Bolshevik revolution and subsequent civil war, and a consequential similarity of the western and ostern is the depiction of primal dramas unfolding in the context of upheaval and social flux, a shift in modes of life that will soon settle into a new civilisation. The traditions of the folk tale and folk song are also often invoked to describe Motyl’s work, and the tension between the immediacy of genre storytelling and the baleful meaning of a cultural relic is apparent in the film’s tone, which seems to be both merrily enacted and woozily remembered.
The early scenes of White Sun depict Red Army soldier Fyodor Ivanovich Sukhov (Anatoly Kuznetsov) wandering in the desert sands close to the Caspian seashore. Animated lines appear around him during the opening credits, blocked to trace out the geometry of the sand dunes, as if mocking the hero’s attempts to impose linear intentions on his entirely wayward fate. The lazily picked music on the soundtrack softly builds the mood of isolation, languor, and laconic attitude that defines the film. Sukhov has been away from home several years fighting for the revolution, but now he’s been mustered out, and is trudging his way home across the deserts of Central Asia. Sukhov passes the time by mentally composing letters to his wife, all of which begin with “Dear Katerina Matveyevna.” These mental missives are crammed with a mixture of pedantic and obfuscating detail, statements of po-faced patriotism, and workaday acceptance of the way great events mean a billion petty irritations, interruptions, frustrations, and dangers for him. Sukhov always envisions Katerina (Galina Luchai), in the midst of green and fertile fields for utmost contrast to his current surrounds, as an idyll of Russian homeyness, stout, stern, milky-skinned and rosy-cheeked.
Sukhov’s nature, as an easy-going, helpful-minded guy, and his reputation as a terrific soldier prove his own undoing, because life keeps throwing people who need or seek his aid in his path. In the middle of nowhere, Sukhov encounters a man buried up to his neck in the desert sand, as per local traditions in harsh punishment. Sukhov digs him out whilst noting that he’s already dug out two more like him, and the last one attacked and robbed him. His latest charity case, Sayid (Spartak Mishulin), was seeking revenge on his father’s murderer, the bandit Dzhavdet, but was instead caught by him and left to die. “I’ll have no peace as long as Dzhavdet is alive,” Sayid grumbles, and then, “Why did you dig me up?” “Sure, a dead man has no worries,” Sukhov retorts, “but it’s so boring.” The two men separate, but Sayid continues to shadow Sukhov, torn between resuming the hunt for his enemy and repaying Sukhov for his helpfulness. Soon, Sukhov is stopped by a unit of Soviet troops led by an officer named Rakhimov. The commander is eager to divest himself of a strange burden: nine wives of “Black” Abdullah (Kakhi Kavsadze), another, more formidable and active local bandit who also has pretences to being a guerilla warrior in the rebellion of the Basmachi. As the Soviets chased him, Abdullah was forced to abandon his harem because they were slowing him down: intending to execute them all to save them becoming other men’s wives, Abdullah shot two before the soldiers forced him to flee.
Sukhov is determined not to get caught up in any more adventures and won’t join the hunt for Abdullah. Rakhimov instead convinces him to take charge of the women and get them to a nearby coastal village, and assigns the very young soldier Petrukha (Nikolai Godovikov) to help. Sukhov leads the women, dressed in their utterly depersonalising, full-body burqas and only identifiable by height, across the sands to the coast. There they enter a tiny village distinguished by some oil tanks, a thatch of houses, and proximity to some ancient ruins that have been made into a museum (actually the old Silk Road city of Merv, a fascinating real-life location). Sukhov and Petrukha set up camp in the museum, but don’t know some of Abdullah’s men have remained behind. The bandits knock Petrukha out when he’s left behind with the women and ambush Sukhov whilst he’s bathing in the sea. Sukhov gives a display of why he’s famous and lasted so long: he snatches a gun from the hand of a bandit and shoots down two, whilst a third is lassoed by Sayid, who’s trailed his saviour. Sukhov realises that Abdullah is planning to return to the village, because a ship beached on the coast near the oil tanks is the only form of transport on hand that can get himself, his men, and his plunder away. The closest thing to authority in the town is the former Tsarist customs officer Pavel Vereschagin (Pavel Luspekaev), who used to battle the area’s copious bandits and smugglers, but now is an aging drunkard, mourning the son he lost in World War I with his wife Nastasia (Raisa Kurkina) and sitting on an arsenal of weapons that makes his house a matter of interest to both sides of the local conflict. When Sukhov sends Petrukha to find out if Vereschagin is still living in his house, Vereschagin literally drags the young soldier inside via an open window. Charmed by Petrukha, who reminds him of his own dead boy, Vereschagin sings songs for him until Sukhov turns up. Sukhov passes Vereschagin’s odd test of nerve when the old man responds to Sukhov’s request for a light for his cigar by throwing out a burning stick of dynamite; Sukhov lights his smoke and tosses the bomb further along without demur. Vereschagin is initially happy to join Sukhov in defending the ship and the women from Abdullah, but his wife begs him not to risk his life.
Like most seemingly simple, but vital things, White Sun of the Desert’s great popularity is surely bound up with the slippery and surprising density of its layering. The film swings between poles of drama and comedy with a spacey, sunstruck (or perhaps a vodka-glazed) head. The quiet, indolently catchy song Vereschagin sings to himself while plucking at a guitar and laying on his back with a bellyful of liquor, offers a fatalistic paean to the whims of “Your Honour Lady Luck.” The song by composer Isaak Schwarz and Bulat Okudzhava, which became a huge hit, is the only scoring, pervading many scenes like the crash of waves on the shoreline and the desert winds. When it was released in the United States, a critic dismissed the film as an escapist tale, and it is that. White Sun of the Desert is as light as a summer breeze, though dark and tragic moments punctuate the story, sustaining a truly unique blend of dogging nostalgia and idyllic optimism. Within its airy frame, White Sun of the Desert describes a sense of life as broad as a John Ford film; indeed Ford was one of Moytl’s singular influences, through the contrast of vast space and enclosed interpersonal drama in films like Stagecoach (1939) and 7 Women (1966), and perhaps the desolate situation of The Lost Patrol (1934), though that film’s feeling of nightmarish, assailed existential crisis is transmuted into blithe absurdity. Here, drama is elemental, the tone dreamlike, albeit mostly a daydream, the strange and jagged sense of locale and behaviour touched with just the faintest edge of surrealism as Motyl depicts as an array of boxes jutting out of the otherwise barren earth, a tiny space of civilisation wedged between zones of inhospitable elements, fought over by perverse emissaries of clashing societies. A light dusting of the otherworldly is apparent in the way Motyl films the actors treading the desert sand as if dissolving in and out of the earth, the way the nine faceless women strut in the sands, and the sight of Sukhov climbing the crest of a dune and being confronted with the endless blue of the sea.
Moments of slapstick comedy occasionally punctuate the more wry comedic texture, from a trio of aged Arabs having their caps blown off by an explosion to young Petrukha being told by an unseen voice to raise his hands and then being promptly grabbed by Vereschagin from out of the frame and hauled into a window above. Later, one of Abdullah’s villainous compadres, a White faction exile, is hurled bodily out of another of Vereschagin’s windows when he comes looking to steal some weapons: “His grenades are the wrong calibre,” the soldier tells a comrade after picking himself up by way of face-saving explanation. The Arabs have been sitting against a wall for so long that none of them can remember why, and one of them can’t be awakened by even the loudest blast. Far from the overpowering postures of Soviet Realism, Motyl surely found his audience’s heart with both the fondness and the lightly satiric attitude he turns on Sukhov and his sense of cause, as well as appealing through a story that evokes generations of Orientalist adventures.
Sukhov is undoubtedly an ideal Soviet hero, happily proletarian but blessed with good manners, down to earth, pure of heart, resourceful, and indefatigable. He has many of the qualities of a mythic hero in spite of his personal modesty, including a weapon with a suggestive backstory—his revolver is a personal gift from his commander—and his status as eternal wanderer, Odysseus with a Red Army badge. Sukhov also wields a terse sense of humour even at the most awkward moments: when a villain asks him if he wants to die or be tortured first and then die, Sukhov, ever a pragmatist, replies ever so coolly, “I’d like to be tortured.” Time is time, and even the slight delay Sukhov buys by annoying his captors through such glib gambits gives him a chance. When he springs into action, he blends speed and guile as well as innate survival skill, as when he guns down the bandits who bail him up with a show of agility and gunplay that would make a John Woo hero proud.
But Sukhov still needs help to win, because he is also a faintly hapless, occasionally flummoxed, very human figure who makes some costly mistakes. It’s hard to find a likeness for Sukhov in western cinema. He’s reminiscent of the heroes of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), as a protagonist who’d like to take things easy but finds life keeps pushing him into dangerous and demanding situations. He’s laconic and quick with a dry quip and people instantly sense his potential to dominate a situation, like Casablanca‘s (1942) Rick Blaine, but he lacks wounded mystique. A breed of hero he resembles lay more in future Hollywood films than in the past, in dudes like Indiana Jones and John McClane — rugged, exceptionally competent swashbucklers who nonetheless definitely feel pain and often look at the dangers facing them with a bedraggled, self-aware sense of incredulity before the ridiculous. But he’s far more laid-back than any of these guys, instead approaching people and problems forthrightly and with decent good-humour, as if Andy Griffith had decided to become an action star. Surely much of the film’s appeal to the home-town crowd lies in the crucial dialectic it offers, one of the generations and the concepts of Russia. Sukhov appeals to Vereschagin for aid, a touch that echoes another of Motyl’s models, High Noon (1952). The old Tsarist officer reclines detached from the world in his house, with its walls clad in mementos of his youth and the world of the Belle Époque. Vereschagin wants to go out like a man, but he’s stopped at first by his wife’s desperate appeals. Vereschagin’s immobilised distraction and Sukhov’s forthright ethic seem directly opposed but are obviously two sides of the same coin. The two men are united by the cool, stoical attitude they wield, casually batting aside the irritations of life and getting on with their own business. Both can also sink a shot of vodka with aplomb. The spirits represented by Vereschagin and Sukhov permeate the very fabric of the film – the tensions of old and new, the haunted being and the hopeful, commitment and carelessness. As Sukhov contends with the problem of his nine female charges, Motyl makes a joke with more depth than it seems to have at first, contemplating the problem of bringing new ideas to people who don’t necessarily see what’s so great about them, and very lightly basting the officious creeds spreading them.
White Sun of the Desert is indeed partly a film about clashing cultures and values, though the avatars of these systems tend to collide rather more often than interact. Early in the film Sukhov notes that “The East is a delicate matter” (one of the film’s most consequential and oft-quoted lines), and Sukhov is still as fallible as any in this context. Ignorant of any other lifestyle, the wives immediately decide that, having been abandoned by Abdullah, Sukhov is their new husband. Sukhov is a good Soviet soldier and tells the ladies they are now free according to the gospel of Bolshevik liberation. “These nine liberated women of the East are precious things, too!” he tells the museum curator, who doesn’t want anyone upsetting the exhibits. Sukhov is fazed when he walks in on the ladies whilst washing, and they all impulsively grab their skirts and lift them over their faces, preferring to bare their lovely midriffs to him rather than their visages before deciding that as their new husband, he has the right. Their faces do indeed have more power than their bodies (even one who has a thicker moustache than Clark Gable), sending Sukhov’s mind reeling, all hot coals in comparison to Katerina’s stolid creaminess. Sukhov houses them in a room of the museum and hangs a banner from the ceiling that reads, “Down with prejudice — Women are human beings. too!” The notion that the male hero is more of a feminist than the women he’s aiding is grand wit, but Motyl also disassembles this precept as Sukhov chooses the youngest of the women, 15-year-old Gyulchatai (Tamara Fedotova), who is also the most animated and easily distracted member of the harem, to be his official interlocutor with the other wives.
Gyulchatai interprets this as being appointed favourite, which gives her status over the others, but also make her the target of blame when Sukhov shows no interest in them. They suggest Gyulchatai dance before him and inflame his passions, but she succeeds only in bewildering the warrior. Sukhov tries to explain that the women can now cast aside their veils and each take a husband. Gyulchatai, working through this proposition, retorts that this means she would have to do all the work for one man that the wives currently share between them. “That’s the way things are,” Sukhov replies, breezily confirming the limits of his own revolutionary outlook. Contrasting both Sukhov and Vereschagin is the adolescent romanticism of Petrukha, the boy soldier, who notices Gyulchatai’s unruly side in spite of her correctness. He finds opportunities to talk to her, urging her to “Show your sweet face!” in a certain amount of hope, as he’s fascinated initially by a walking bag. The influence of the dreaded Eastern decadence insinuates its way into Sukhov’s thoughts, and he eventually indulges a daydream whilst lazing in the heat of the sun on guard duty imagining Katerina Matveyevna joining him and his new bevy of females as he lounges in a potentate’s costume. He immediately pays the price for this lapse, as a small army sneaks under his nose.
Motyl uses the setting as an organic stage, as enclosed and acausal as the settings of Beckett’s dramas, the plains of Dali’s paintings, the Zone of Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), and the people wandering through it as hardboiled avatars of their mutual, intensely insular, cultural sensibilities. Motyl expertly mines this situation for its simultaneous openness and treacherousness: the vistas are vast and seem wide open, and yet the smallest sand dune can hide something nasty lying in wait, a curve in the shape of reality that can swallow you. Something of Sergei Paradjanov’s anthropological and folkloric sensibility, which also often called back to the blank, two-dimensional display of early cinema and photography, permeates Motyl’s palette, whilst the way Motyl uses the natural elements even recalls the theatrical machinery of Georges Méliès. Although the necessary sparseness of Motyl’s shots couldn’t be more different to the baroquely crammed images of filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein and Josef von Sternberg, he does nonetheless evoke them in the way his frames, even as they’re depicting moments of urgent action, retain a fragmented, pictographic quality, flowing by in momentary islets of vivid, oblique strangeness, from Sayid’s head suddenly revealed jutting from the sand like some lost Easter Island statue, to the frieze-like depictions of Katerina in her natural habitat. Motyl mimics Vereschagin’s collection of postcards, photographs, the squared-off display of such vintage keepsakes pinned to the walls of his house to evoke the cultural memory of a lost era. The viewer is forced to assume the same attitude as Sukhov, knowing something utterly odd might be just around the corner, and forced to take it as it comes.
Motyl, Belarussian by birth, had gotten into trouble with Soviet authorities with his previous film, Zhenya, Zhenechka, and ‘Katyusha’ (1967), for its “disrespectful” take on the Great Patriotic War, clearly identified with the displaced state of Sukhov and his pining for a place in the world. His setting and time frame here, as well as the delicacy of the humour he employed, allowed him to bring just the hint of a scallywag attitude to onerous official creeds whilst also earnestly celebrating his hero as an exemplar, and proved here at least that he understood his audience exactly. The film changes radically in emotional key if not in apparent style once Abdullah turns up, trailing a force including Sayid, who, after shooting down three of Abdullah’s men when they seemed to be attacking him, is convinced by the bandit to join his party for a better chance of avoiding being buried to his chin again. Whilst Sukhov snoozes with dreams of harem comfort, Abdullah and his force enter the museum, and Abdullah first sneaks into the women’s quarters and strangles Gyulchatai, and then uses her veil to surprise Petrukha and kill him with his own rifle’s bayonet. The key image of slaughtered youth, scanned in a high shot by Motyl’s camera affecting a godlike blend of dispassion and awareness, drives Vereschagin to rouse himself and help Sukhov in fighting off Abdullah. Abdullah is an immediately persuasive and eye-catching villain, as Motyl cast Kavsadze, a good-looking hulk of an actor who threatens to outweigh Sukhov not just in size but as a potent screen presence, one whose sadistic violence is just as offhand and unfussy as Sukhov’s heroism. Abdullah’s sense of entitled authority immediately manifests in his ugly killing of Gyulchatai and then asking his remaining wives why they haven’t saved him the trouble of killing them by doing it themselves in obedience to his will.
Fortunately, Sukhov manages to bail up Abdullah before he can kill anymore, holding a gun on him and forcing him to send his men off to prepare the ship for departure. This gives Sukhov time to spirit the women off via a secret, hidden tunnel out of the ruins shown to him by the museum curator. Abdullah avenges himself by shooting the curator dead. Sukhov and the wives are forced to take refuge in the only hiding place available, one of the large empty oil tanks on the shore, but the bandits quickly locate them there. Abdullah has his men pump oil from a rail tanker to pool around the hideout and prepares to casually roast them all alive within, but Sayid intervenes and blows up the tanker and some of Abdullah’s men with it. Meanwhile, Vereschagin enlists his wife to dispose of the arsenal, and then sneaks aboard the bandits’ ship and battles the crew. He kills or throws them all overboard before taking command in a cheer-along display of grit and prowess, one made more affecting by the off-screen story of Luspekaev, a WWII veteran and experienced stage actor who acted in the film in spite of having both feet amputated because of war injuries; he died not long after the film was completed. The bitter kicker here is that Vereschagin is unaware that Sukhov and Petrukha have booby-trapped the boat, and he inadvertently blows himself and the boat sky high in the moment of his triumph, disappearing in a plume of white water.
Inadvertent tragedy gives Sukhov the chance to elude and defeat his besiegers, climaxing in a memorable comeuppance for Abdullah that evokes the finale of White Heat (1949), as Sukhov guns Abdullah down on the oil tanker. The villain slides down the tank’s ladder, gripping onto rails, his death signed with fearsome, mythic display of his grip on life. Motyl winnows his drama down to a succession of finalising images of great power. When Sukhov plugs him, Abdullah’s fingers reflexively tighten on the trigger of his machine pistol, firing off shots one by one, his aggression suddenly impotent, possibly an even more directly phallic joke considering that the entire story has revolved around Abdullah’s sexual domain. Vereschagin’s wife walks the beach alone, approaching a solitary horse in the dusk as “Your Honour Lady Luck” returns to the soundtrack, soulfully underscoring the notion that in violent conflicts, each victory is another’s loss. The note repeats as Sukhov bids farewell to the wives but pauses when he reaches the missing space where Gyulchatai would have stood, the meaningful end to Motyl’s repeated tracking shock along the row, stricken through with a tragicomic awareness that the surface interchangeableness of the women was illusory, and a hole is left in the world precisely by Sukhov’s efforts to call them into individual consciousness. As for Sukhov himself, like many a legendary hero and western gunslinger, he disappears into the wastes he came from, sad but not disheartened. He’s heading for home once more, but of course in spirit, he’s still wandering out in the wilderness, where people will inevitably need his help again.