Thursday, June 1, 2023

Mr. First, Soviets, and the Eastern Western

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Soviet cinema was a strange beast living in a similarly strange environment. It was free from the typical concerns of modern-day filmmakers. Paid for and supervised by the state, it had to bother not with sales, nor marketing. It had to bother with superiors’ tastes and sometimes senseless censorship, instead. But strangely it provided the artists with really great creative freedom.

As long as ideology was sound, any experiment was welcome. Did you know that many practical effects in Star Wars come from a now obscure Soviet sci-fi movie From Moscow to Cassiopeia and from the works of Pavel Klushantsev? Well, now you know.

soviet cinema
One of the Klushantsev’s practical effects.

But brave experiments had their downside. That downside was, sometimes ideologically sound and very unusually shot film was, well, dull. It had no drive, no emotion. No action. Because, you see, action films were, sometimes, considered beneath the soul and mind of true communist viewer.

Eastern Western

The aforementioned situation lead to understandable frustration on the audience’s side. Don’t get me wrong, the amount of good movies made by Soviet cinema was still greater than the amount of dull ones. But the amount of good home-made genre movies, good action movies… that was very low. And in the 1930-50s especially so.

Given that cinema, as any industry, was state-planned, there were two ways of supplying audiences interested in good, thoughtless action. First, make them ourselves. Second, get complete product elsewhere. Most chose the latter option, and thus introduced Soviet viewers to Tarzan, Zorro, pirate films and, of course, the world of cowboys and “Indians”. (I here “Indians” here instead of “Native Americans” because, frankly, stock western characters have nothing to do with real Native Americans.)

And the audience’s reaction was immensly positive. All classes of people loved it; children even started playing “cowboys and Indians” instead of “cossaks and thieves” (both are a variation of hide-and-seek game).

But the state was wary. However you may think, typical western genre ideology has nothing to do with communism. It has nothing to do even with more vague socialist/humanist ideologies that were good enough for foreign films to be shown in USSR. But still, the government couldn’t ignore the audience’s demand (as strange as it may sound).

Again, they had several ways to react. They chose two. On the one hand, the “eastern” genre was born—movies about the Russian Civil War, filled with action and adventures. On the other hand, Eastern Germany provided a supply of ideologically sound western genre movies with good, virtuous and sympathetic Native Americans who struggled against the evils of colonialism. (Those were great, I should say. Better than the ‘originals’ in many aspects.)

soviet cinema
Gojko Mitic, the ultimate face of eastern western films.

Deconstruction of the Western

Such was the construction of western genre mythos for the Soviet people. It was inevitably associated with western (as in American) lifestyles and goods as well as evils of American civilization, mind-blowing action, and—again, inevitably—anestheticised violence.

But once it was constructed, it had to be reflected upon, and then deconstructed.

In a certain way, eastern western films were already a deconstruction of a sort. But while they turned the foundations of the western genre upside down, they also carefully preserved the genre conventions. The field was still ripe. And the reaper came.

In 1987 The Man from the Boulevard des Capucines hit Soviet (and Soviet-allied) screens and instantly became one of the highest-grossing movies of the era. And it was a very strange film, to say the least.

Meet Mr. First

The main character here is Mr. First, and he is the opposite of your typical action movie hero. He is a peaceful man who loves reading and is passionate about bringing cinema to the furthest corners of the universe. Including Santa-Carolina, a stock western town.

Santa-Carolina is made both with great love and great contempt towards the genre. It has everything it should have: shooting, a pianist playing in the midst of a saloon fight, even a melancholic drugstore owner who is the only sane man in town. It is a parody, yes, but it is also filled with compassion towards these fictional people. Men who are stuck in an endless circle of violence and have no fun but fights and sexy dancing girls. Women who are reduced to decorations, eye candy, and occasional jokes.

Mr. First comes and offers them something more than that. He offers them the opportunity to partake in a miracle—the miracle of cinema. A white bedsheet becomes a screen, and the screen becomes a window to the other world. And people change.

Is it just another joke? Of course, it is. But it is also very sincere and serious reflection on how stories matter in our life. And on how the purpose of cinema is not only to fill leisure time and provide entertainment, but also to teach us something good.

Like tolerance for each other.

Meet Mr. Second

That’s why the movie ends on a darker note. When Mr. First has miraculously risen from his deathbed, when he conquered love and gained the respect of all the city, then comes Mr. Second. He brings with him the new miracle of the time, the talking pictures.

These don’t require the insane skills of the pianist, these are far easier to understand, and these are also the very westerns the film is about. Gritty, violent, filled with hatred. And the town’s people turn back to their old ways, because if the cinema tells them it’s all right, why bother?

Mr. First leaves Santa-Carolina lonely and broken. But then he is joined by Black Jack, a stock bandit character who somehow turned from his ways due to secretly watching cinema, and his love Miss Diana. Because some people still believe in his ideals, and the time is not over yet…

But Mr. Second doesn’t deserve revenge, that would not be in line with Mr. First’s teachings.

Is It Worth Watching?

I think it is.

It has its shortcomings, of course. It was made in 1987, so its treatment of female characters is… not the best. And of course it has blackface and Indian-face, because, well, to find black or Native American actors in Soviet Union was not quite possible for a low-budget movie. (A high-budget one could try and find at least an African actor.)

But it is still a very good movie. Thoughtful, funny, sad, and with a great cast of the most established Soviet actors and actresses. Give it a try. Finding access is easy, because Mosfilm lets us all watch it for free, and with subtitles, on Youtube.

Don’t watch it because of western genre as it is, but because of the general discussion of cinema it offers and its value to the audience. Because right now, we need a Mr. First to come and remind us of his dreams.

Images courtesy Mosfilm and Defa Studio


  • Angelina

    Russian. 28. Literary translation student, history undergrad. A happy Star Wars/Tolkien nerd, ASoIaF fan. Found delight in fruitful procrastination.

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