Tuesday, August 2, 2011

CRACKER? "The Beast"


      “The Beast” (also known as “The Beast of War”) is a war movie set in Afghanistan in 1981 in the second year of the Soviet invasion. It was directed by Kevin Reynolds. It is based on an off Broadway play. William Mastrosimone adapted his play entitled “Nanawatai”. The movie opens with a poem by Rudyard Kipling; “When you’re wounded an’left on Afghanistan’s plains / An’ the women come out to cut up your remains. /  Just roll to your rifle an’ blow out your brains. / An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier”.

     Soviet tanks assault a Pashtun village. The scene is intense with lots of explosions and violence. Besides using HE on the buildings, the Soviets employ flame throwers and satchel charges. Innocent civilians get targeted including a captured Afghani who is executed by being squashed by the tank. The movie shows just enough to convince you to never get run over by a tank. The tank driver, Koverchenko (Jason Patric) reluctantly obeys the orders of his hard-ass commander Daskal (George Dzundza). The women of the village witness this atrocity and vow revenge. One is killed by poison gas while banging on the turret with a rock.
    Next thing we know, the tank is by itself and lost. Meanwhile, the local mujahadeen return to the village to find the destruction. Taj (Steven Bauer) is now the village Khan (leader). His cousin insists they get revenge on the tank. Akbar (Kabir Bedi) is a guerrilla leader akin to the early Bin Laden (back when he was our boy). He wears sun glasses which symbolizes he has been corrupted by modernity. Taj does not like him, but agrees to the chase. The vengeance-minded women, led by Sherina (Shoshi Marciano), are forbidden to come along.

     The tank crew is your typical Hollywood heterogeneous small unit. Daskal is hardened by his war experiences which go back to Stalingrad where he was called “Tank Boy” for his teenage tank destroying exploits. Korvachenko is the conscience of the group. He is Elias to Dansel’s Barnes. Also onboard is Kominsky (Don Mooney) playing the psycho Bunny role. He drinks the brake fluid to get high. Golikov (Stephen Baldwin) is the sniveling coward ala Junior (to stick with our “Platoon” analogies). They are accompanied by an Afghani collaborator named Samad. The tank is the real star of course and hopefully was paid more than Baldwin. It is appropriately grimy, claustrophobic, and mechanically challenged. Technical adviser Dale Dye made sure the workings are realistic. The movie also gets the noises right.

     Samad plays a crucial role in explaining the code of Afghani honor. There are three key concepts: 1. hospitality 2. revenge 3. sanctuary (“nanawatai”) – which must be given if requested. Samad has turned his coat because he wants Afghanistan to move into the modern world (like the Spaniards who collaborated in the Peninsular War). Daskal distrusts him as a traitor, plus he just plain hates Afghanis. His attempts to put Samad in harm’s way fail so he murders him.

     Because Korvalenko threatens to turn Dansel in, Daskal has him chained to a rock with a grenade behind his head as a booby trap. He is discovered by the women (who being Hollywood’s version of Afghani women) have disobeyed orders and joined the pursuit. They start stoning Korvalenko who vainly yells “nanawatai”. Taj arrives and rescues him. He ingratiates himself to his captors by repairing the RPG-7 that they will use to “ kaboom tank”. Taj and Korvalenko bond as Korvalenko does not take long to experience Stockholm syndrome. He joins in the chase.

     The tank’s problems are seemingly solved when they flag down a helicopter, but instead of abandoning the tank and flying to safety, Daskal insists on refueling and returning to base by reversing their route through a “please ambush me” ravine. Guess what happens? Although wheezing and leaking oil, the Beast is home free after the RPG round fails to disable it. Suddenly an explosion-induced avalanche wrecks the tank. It’s the women! Watch the movie to find out what happens next.

     It is hard to explain why this movie is almost unheard of. On Rotten Tomatoes, it has only one review. It made less than $1 million at the box office. It certainly looks like Columbia Pictures dropped the ball. It deserved better. Part of the problem may have been the stupid title. Although the tank does resemble a beast, the title must have thrown viewers off. The film is not great, but it is a good effort. It is well acted, especially by Dzundsa as the despicable commander. He has the best line when he summarizes Russian tank doctrine: “out of commission, become a pillbox; out of ammo, become a bunker; out of time, become heroes.”

     Any movie that is not sunk by Stephen Baldwin is noteworthy. The main characters tend to be stock, but they are well-played and appropriate to the tale. It has an interesting female character in Sherina. How often do you see a woman in a war movie who vows to get revenge? The Afghanis are sympathetically portrayed which is probably because the movie was made during the Cold War and not after 9/11.

    Although not based on a true story, Dale Dye saw to it that the military aspects of it are authentic. He personally purchased two old Soviet tanks from the Israeli army to stand in for the T-62 called for in the story. Dye insisted the tank have realistic recoil which was accomplished through the use of shells where water replaced high explosives. The weaponry is real.

     There are good action sequences that are placed efficiently throughout the film. The setting looks like the bleak mountainous terrain of Afghanistan. (The movie was filmed in Israel.) Actually, it looks like it was filmed in Monument Valley. In fact, in some ways it resembles a western. There’s even a watering hole and a thirsty trek across a desert. The electronic music veers from eerie to weird, but sets the mood fairly well.

     In conclusion, this movie could crack the 100 Best list. It is undoubtedly better than most of #60-100 on Military History magazine’s list.


  1. There are always so many reasons why one movie is acknowledged while another one isn't. The title doesn't make this a winner, that's for sure. It doesn't sound too bad but then again, who in the 80s, in the US wanted to see a movie on Russia in Afghanistan? Plus a US movie, meaning, it isn't a movie for US viewers and certainly not one for Russians.
    All played by Americans? Hmm I'm suspicious but wouldn't mind watching it. I didn't know there was also a Stephen Baldwin. How many are there?

  2. the war movie buffAugust 3, 2011 at 12:48 PM

    Your comments make sense.

    I think you will have problems with the accents (or lack of). Accents are not a big deal to me.

    That's a pretty cool poster, don't you think?

    Alec, Daniel, Stephen, and Billy.

  3. I thought the poster was cool, yes. I think I have seen three of the Baldwins.

  4. the war movie buffAugust 5, 2011 at 6:52 PM

    Try to avoid seeing all four, it's a sign you watch way too many movies (and many bad movies).


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