Friday, November 11, 2005

"War brings out the beast in every man"...

Last night I was introduced to one of those sleeper movies that just pop up in your life from time to time right out of nowhere. The movie was called The Beast, shortened from The Beast of War.

Released in 1988 — when the Cold War was nearly, but not just quite yet, over — the picture is set in 1981 during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It follows two threads that are quickly braided: the story of a Russian tank crew lost in the Afghani desert, and the resistence fighters of the small village the tank crew assaults in their absence. The central figures are the young tank driver, Koverchenko, and the new "Khan" of the tribe, Taj — unwittingly 'elected' by the tank crew when they execute Taj's brother, the previous Khan. Koverchenko is a free-thinker, a trait which has seen him demoted several times, as he is reminded by his overzealous commander, Daskal. As a result of several moral clashes, Koverchenko finds himself increasingly at odds with Daskal, who feels justified in doing whatever occurs to him to further the aims of the war. The scene in which Daskal recounts his role as an eight-year-old tank-killer in the Battle of Stalingrad, earning him the nickname "Tank Boy" from the soldiers, adds a note of needed humanity to the character, who might otherwise be discountable as a cardboard villain. Koverchenko, on the other hand, is a man who thinks highly of his country, but for whom that means expecting his country to do the right thing, and lead by example. When the two men finally clash, Koverchenko is faced with a hard choice, not unlike that, it seems to me, of a surgeon having to excise a cancer from his own body.

I think what impresses me most about the movie is the intellectual risk it takes. The Russians in this movie are played by Americans. But they're not played "as Russians"; no one is strutting around spouting slogans in a rubbery Mr. Chekov-style Russian accent. The actors speak in normal, unaccented (to my ears) North American English. This has the powerful effect of making the Russians "us" for an American or other English-speaking audience. It becomes virtually impossible not to identify with these men: the distance of their foreignness is eliminated, its insulation stripped away. Suddenly the Russians invading Afghanistan cease to be just an evil faceless mob, the stormtroopers of the Evil Empire. We're put in the disquieting psychological space of being "the enemy". Interestingly, the Afghanis (supposedly "our" side at the time) speak an Afghan language (either Dari or Pashtu), subtitled in English. The strangeness of their ways and mode of speech is preserved. We are invited to sympathize with them, but not to be them. In this movie, we are the Russians.

In the context of the time, 1988, this movie must have been about putting smug Westerners in the the place of the average Russian and suggesting that they had the same range of emotional responses and moral conflicts as anyone else. In the context of 2005, though, it takes on a new life, and a highly ironic one at that. No one in 1988 could have imagined that in the opening years of the next century, the voices of tank crews in Afghanistan would be those speaking North American English (among other varieties). Today Americans and, yes, even Canadians are serving in very much the same capacities as the Russians were in that land twenty years ago. Even more imporantly, I think only the thickest or most willfully callous American or Briton could watch the opening scenes of absolute power corrupting absolutely without squirming and knowing that, deep down, "our" side is now behaving the same way on a daily basis in Iraq. Only the most credulous patriot could possibly imagine that "we" would never do the things that others do, or have done before. The Beast is what it always was: a movie about human morality rising above a reptilian sense of duty. In 1988, it was about the Russians. Now, it's about us. Everyone who ever voted Republican or Conservative out of a sense that the West has a moral superiority and thus the right to impose its will on outsiders ought to be forced to watch this movie... again and again, if necessary, till the message sinks in.

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