Wednesday 8 February 2017

On YouTube - Mikhail Romm's THE THIRTEEN - Supecinephile Barrie Pattison tracks down a Soviet classic

Mikhail Romm
Mikhail Romm has always been on the fringe of English language movie awareness. Odd pieces of his work bubbled to the surface at decades long intervals - a tattered 16mm copy of his 1937 Lenin v oktyabre/Lenin in October, Sam Wanamaker introducing his  1962 9 dney odnogo goda/Nine Days of One Year at the Royal Festival Hall and getting Aleksey Batalov’s name wrong,  a handsome, still silent 1934 Boule de Suif  and his dreadful Obyknovennyy fashizm/Ordinary Fascism (1965) turning up at a Russian cultural manifestation. Try and draw a straight line through that lot! I keep on confusing him with Abram Room.

Now a pretty good transfer of his first sound film Trinadtsat/The Thirteen (1937) is on YouTube with excellent English subtitles - no fair swap for 35mm on a theatre screen but small mercies.

Trinadtsat is pretty good viewing, handsomely filmed, unfamiliar setting and significant participants. Mixed in with its considerable entertainment value is a large wad of nostalgia. It’s the Soviet entry in the Beau Geste desert adventure cycle. It has the ethnic opponents viewed distant - the Basmachi (?) - swarming over sand hills as they do in the American Wren adaptations. It even has a roll call of the dead to match La Bandera and Ford’s The Lost Patrol. Who stole what is largely immaterial as they all conformed to the same aesthetic.

Romm’s film does have a thirties Russian triumphalist quality which separates it from the rest, with Red Army discipline rallying the released troops, on what they considered a vacation, into a unit able to withstand overwhelming odds. Even the officer’s wife participates, heaving the stick grenade falling from her husband’s hands at the attackers. It is less kiddie oriented with the negotiators offering a bucket of the water they control in the desert spring for the head of their opponent’s chief, a right bad hat who massacres villages and blows up wells. His negotiator warns them not to be taken alive.

The participants are Romm’s long running technician associates and a selection of notable Soviet era performers. Andrey Fayt in this Sub Colonel’s white fur hat, that he doffs for the charge, has a particularly luminous list of credits running from Battleship Potemkin to the 1968 knockabout Brilliantovaya ruka/The Diamond Arm and the 1971 Russian Ostrov sokrovishch/Treasure Island. Yelena Kuzmina had the iconic role in New Babylon and registers in Boris Barnet’s 1936 U samogo sinego morya/Blue of the Sea. Ivan Novoseltsev was Jimmy Valentine in Kuleshov’s splendid 1933 Velikiy uteshitel/The Great Consoler. Fayt was in that one too.

The qualities of The Thirteen were not ignored. It scored two Hollywood re-makes, Vincent Korda’s 1943 Sahara and the Andre de Toth 1953 Saber and the Arrow/Last of the Comanches both excellent films which draw from the Russian original. I recall Bruce Bennett clawing his way up the sliding sandhill the way Novoseltsev’s messenger does and Broderick Crawford faking washing his hands with the precious fluid in the presence of the Comanche negotiator. No reason to chose among them but I would pick the climax of the 1943 movie with a vengeful Bogie mowing down the gaunt faced Huns calling “Wasser” as the high point of the cycle.

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