Saturday, December 17, 2011

SHOULD I READ IT? Prisoner of the Mountains


      “Prisoner of the Mountains” is a Russian film released in 1996. It is based on a short story by Leo Tolstoy entitled “The Prisoner of the Caucasus”. It is set in the First Chechen War and in fact was filmed in the area at the time fighting was still taking place nearby. The movie was critically acclaimed and was nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar.

     Although fictional, the film gives the viewer a feel for the First Chechen War. The war began in 1994 after Chechnya seceded from Russia and declared independence. Boris Yeltsin decided to invade and reacquire control. The war was a foreign policy disaster for Russia. The Russian army of mainly untrained conscripts was marked by poor morale and lack of support from the home front. The Russian military resorted to sledgehammer tactics like carpet bombing and rocket artillery attacks on civilians. Thousands of civilians were killed. The capital of Grozny was destroyed in the taking. Next the Russians attempted to pacify the mountainous areas and were confronted by guerrilla war tactics that included ambushes, IEDs, and hostage taking. Eventually, in 1996, Yeltsin cried uncle and agreed to a cease-fire and pulled out of Chechnya.

     In the movie, a Russian unit is ambushed and two soldiers are taken captive. They are taken to a Chechen village in the mountains. Vanya (Sergei Budrov, Jr.) and Sasha (Oleg Menshikov) are given to an elderly man named Abdul. He plans to exchange them for his son who is being held in a Russian stockade. Abdul has them write home to get their parents to put pressure on the Russians to make the deal. Vanya’s mother (a school teacher) makes the journey to the local Russian occupied town. Meanwhile, Vanya and Sasha are being held under guard by a man named Hassan who lost his tongue to the Russians.

     Vanya and Sasha are polar opposites. Vanya is a young naïve soldier and Sasha is a cynical officer and all-around jerk. He torments Vanya, but gradually they bond and Sasha becomes less of a jerk. Vanya developes a relationship with Abdul’s teenage daughter Gina. Vanya is also interested in the local culture and endears himself to the locals by fixing clocks. Sasha is only interested in escaping.

     Vanya’s mother tries to broker the deal, but the Russian commander doesn’t trust the Chechens. Rebels come and take Vanya and Sasha. They are forced to walk through a mine field at night to clear a path. At the rebel camp, Vanya is forced to fight a rebel, but the Chechen backs down when Vanya yells at him. This bit of bizarreness is followed by them being returned to Abdul. Apparently, they were taken only to clear the mine field.

     They manage to escape with Sasha killing poor Hassan. Later, he kills a shepherd. Unfortunately(?), they are recaptured. Vanya is returned to Abdul, but Sasha is taken away to have his throat cut. Vanya is chained in a hole. At the stockade, a father of a son who turned traitor and joined the Russian army kills him touching off an escape attempt by Abdul’s son. The son is shot and killed.

     Gina wants to help Vanya, but he refuses because he knows she will be punished. Abdul takes him off to be shot, but instead lets him go. As he flees the village, Russian helicopters ominously pass overhead on their way to the village.

     This is an intriguing movie. It forced me to learn a little about the First Chechen War. That was one messed up war. Worse than Afghanistan (which obviously influenced the average Russian’s adverse reaction to it). The movie does not do justice to the atrocities, but you do get the impression that some really bad things have happened on both sides. Abdul, for instance, not only has a son being held captive, but had lost two other sons in the war. The villagers have a strong desire to take revenge against Sasha and Vanya for Russian offenses. Given that it is a Russian production, the film is admirably sympathetic toward the Chechen point of view. This probably reflects the guilt feelings of many Russians toward the conflict.

     The movie is slow-moving and introspective in spots. It is not an action film and does not have a lot of war violence. Maybe this is a good thing because in the ambush scene, the actors look like actors playing soldier. The lead actors are excellent, especially Menshikov. I hated his character at first, but he grows on you. Budrov matches him in what is in some ways a buddy film. The music is effective and includes some traditional Russian songs. The scenery is beautiful. The slice of village life is tasty.

      “Prisoner of the Mountains” is a thought-provoking film. It explores the theme of how distrust in war between enemies can lead to tragedy. Civilized human emotions can be overcome by our more animal instincts, like revenge. When a minority of warriors are empathetic to their enemy’s motivations, it usually leads to more tragedy instead of less.

Overall – 7/10

Sorry about the poster, it's the only one I could find.  It has little to do with the movie.

I could not find a trailer, so here is the first part of the movie on You Tube.


  1. Very interesting review. I'm sufficiently familiar whit the war as it was in all our newpapers and TV, radio programs but I' had never heard of this movie before. I'm very keen on watching it.
    I don't really think you can say it was/is worse than Afghanistan. They are all such awful wars.

  2. I am sure you heard more about the war than what we heard in the states - which was nothing. I am quite sure you will like the movie.


Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.