Six-Guns and Samovars
Miles of Fire/Ognenniye Versti is a ‘50s Western from, of all places, the Soviet Union, the genre apparently being ubiquitous. Trailing science fiction by a year -- the first narrative film ever, Méliès’ 1902 A Trip to the Moon -- Thomas Edison and director Edwin S. Porter’s initial American narrative, the New Jersey-filmed twelve-minute The Great Train Robbery, established it as our most continuous, most beloved form. Through ups and downs and revisionism, for a century the cowboy has been screen staple, once revived by Italians and stretched to fit into the most unexpected foreign cultural contexts. Almost all fans, however, are unfamiliar with the USSR take on our frontier legend, eight 1936-88 examples of which comprise the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “Wild East: The Best of Soviet Action Films.”
Sui generis yet representative, MF was done by Samson Samsonov in 1957, the same year that The Cranes Are Flying took Cannes’ Grand Prize and reopened the door to world appreciation of Russian cinema beyond art-house Eisenstein and Donskoi. (Stalin’s death in 1953 and Khrushchev’s Twentieth Party Congress speech three years later had unlocked that door.) Whereas Mikhail Kalatozov’s famous film of romantic love showed revulsion for the second war and avoided Party theory and tractors, the little-known patriotic MF goes back to the period on the heels of the Bolshevik Revolution, to the steppes (plains) where 1918-20 civil war irregulars and uniformed soldiers skirmished and the outcome remained still in the balance.
After exposition on a night train overflowing with refugee noncombatants, informal revolutionary fighters, spies and saboteurs, the plot settles on five people and their two drivers who cross the vast grasslands in horse-drawn machine-gun carts. This is Stagecoach, even to the participant doctors in each, with Arizona plains and Monument Valley become the heartland of Mother Russia and Geronimo’s warpath Apaches now the anti-Bolshevik Whites and their mounted Cossack henchmen.
Apple-cheeked Katerina “Katya” Gavrilovna (Margarita Volodina, the director’s wife) rides in a crowd atop the railcars, where bland oily Viktor (Vladimir Kenigson) denies any ulterior motives before grabbing a pistol to kill a fleeing reactionary who has shot a venerable revolutionary. Vikor, it is soon revealed, is in reality disguised White Army officer Sergei Beklemichev and has killed the assassin to silence him while establishing his own fake creds. Warned of an enemy aboard, Communist Gregori Fedor Zavrigin (Igor Savkin) refuses to be trapped in a nameless southern city which Whites are besieging, and leaves with the carts and anyone who wants to accompany him.
At first wary of the handsome leader’s filthy fingernails, Katya is one, and will prove both her mettle and, unsurprisingly, the leader’s love interest. Taken under Gregori’s wing and his greatcoat, Milquetoast-looking Dr. Shalenko (Mikhail Troyanovski) is another, joined at the last minute by rotund Oscar Wildean stage actor Konstantin Romanovich Olinsky (Antoni Khodursky). With Viktor, bearded wagon driver Vereka (Yevgeni Burenkov) -- Stagecoach’s Andy Devine -- and corn silk-haired teen driver Proshka (V. Stepanov), the crew is complete.
Too many frames of laboring horses are intended to indicate kilometers traversed. Nervous suspense crossing bridges is flat, and the single confrontation is won when horsemen are driven off like stock American Indians, numerically superior but without the horse sense to overwhelm at close range rather than merely chase. (John Ford quipped that Stagecoach would have ended right there with the first Indian attack “if they had had the sense to shoot the horses.”)
At the ramshackle house of lying farmer Yegor (S. Pryanishnikov), while the square-jawed hero and comely heroine are discovering their love for one another, Viktor runs for it and leaves them horseless. The music is not so stirring as it is intended to be, but in compensation there is thankfully little propaganda speechifying. The journey continues, the meek turn heroic, revenge is sought, and love (and surely the Revolution) emerges triumphant.
More interesting as oddity than excellent, Miles of Fire testifies to the universal appeal, and the adaptability, of the enduring American myth as horse opera. Oaters come in all shapes, sizes, and languages.
(Released by Artkino Pictures; not rated by MPAA.)