Why the divergent views? It may be that the film was made to please critics, not audiences. It did win a number of awards at film festivals that we nobodies have never heard of. And the cinematography looks as if they were trying to deliberately quote a lot of ancient Soviet black-and-white masterpieces.
Well, you don’t have to be an Einstein to figure out that this director is no Eisenstein.
The story is based on real events doing the Russian war in Afghanistan. On 26 April 1985, a number of Russian and Afghan POWs who miraculously survived being taken prisoner by the Afghan mujahideen managed to initiate a prison revolt, arm themselves, and made a bid for freedom. The camp, a Pakistan Armed Forces garrison that dates to colonial days, was under control of the Pakistani external intelligence agency, the ISI, who handled interrogations, logistics, and external security; the prisoners saw only mujahideen during their quotidian lives. US intelligence officers were occasional visitors to the camp, and participants in interrogations. Officially, of course, Pakistan was not a party to the Soviet war, which has made credible information about the revolt hard to find in open source.
The real-world revolt was unsuccessful. While a myth exists in Russian circles that the prisoners killed vast numbers of Pakistanis, all or almost all the killings seem to have taken place in the original rising. All the prisoners at the camp, a couple dozen Soviets and fewer than 100 of their Afghan allies, were reportedly killed, ostensibly in the mutiny and the fighting to retake the buildings the prisoners held. With no prisoner surviving and the ISI understandably reticent, no one knows exactly what happened.
Prison revolts are not as rare as you might think. Many remember the Taliban and Al-Qaeda revolt against their American and Afghan captors in Qala-i Jangi prison in Afghanistan on 25 November 2001. There was even a concentration camp revolt at the notorious Sobibor camp, that was made into a movie with Rutger Hauer, a man whose appearance suggests he was born to be typecast as a Nazi camp guard, playing the head Jew.
Acting and Production
The acting is stiff, although some of that is probably the stilted language and inexplicable behavior of all that’s written into the script. No single actor stands out as particularly good or believable. If B players hire C players, these are the guys C players hire. The lead, Barry Kushner, has no other listing, literally, on IMDB.
It seems to have been shot on indoor sets replicating the caves of the Himalayan foothills — or, really, what some urbanite who’s never been close to this arid high-altitude area thinks the caves of the Himalayan foothills might look like — if he thinks they might look like Roman catacombs or the sewers of Warsaw as depicted in Andrzej Wajda’s Kanal.
This is where we would write that the brilliant direction saved the day when the acting and sets were deficient — if it had done. It did not. In defense of director Timur Bekmambetov, he’s since made much more engaging and tightly-wrapped films, and seems to have cured himself of any art-house aspirations he might have had 20 years go. Consider the fact that he did make Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, evidence for that proposition. It might not have been any good, but it at least wasn’t arty.
Accuracy and Weapons
Guns are central to the story in many ways, but relatively few of them are appropriate for the place and period the film represents. There are a few Enfields (which were on the way out as Mujahideen weapons at the time), and a number of AKs (which were ascendant). A lot of the weapons are G3s, and one could argue that, as this was the Pakistani Army issue rifle at the time, it does belong here. But there are also a lot of M16s, a weapon that would only make it to Southwest Asia after 9/11. There’s even a brief image of M60 and M16, but it may have been intended as a Vietnam flashback — the movie’s so incoherently cut you can’t be sure.
The production uses, inexplicably, a vintage American jeep, probably because they had one lying around. The story is narrated, loosely, through the conceit of an “observer” character, a reporter (he and his doctor sidekick are different nationalities in the Russian-language and English-language versions, but it doesn’t seem to matter).
There’s little or no CGI and so at least we’re spared dreadful CGI. But there are plenty of gigantic fireballs. Fireballs blow up things that might reasonably burn, but don’t fit the scene (a Saab Viggen?) and things that seem unlikely to blow up in a great gout of petroleum fire (an airport control tower).
The bottom line
Escape from Afghanistan is unfortunately a shallow and confused re-imagination of what could have been a compelling story, a little-known but real Soviet Alamo. All the ingredients of a great story were present in the original Badaber revolt: high stakes, real drama. But on its way to the screen the greatness and the story were bleached out of this, and it comes across like Golan and Globus producing-while-drunk.
It is called Escape from Afghanistan but you need to have SF- or SEAL-level persistence not to be thinking about Escape from This Movie well before the halfway point.
We’re not giving up on Russian films yet, because we’ve seen quite a few good ones. An Afghan friend tells us a 2010 flick called Kandahar, about the hostage ordeal of a Russian airline crew, is worth watching, even though it makes his countrymen look pretty dreadful.
For more information
These sites relate to this particular film (many sites have two pages, one for the Russian and one for the 2002 dub job. Where there are two, the 2002 reissue is first and the 1994 original second).
- Amazon.com DVD page:
- IMDB page:
- IMFDB page (none):
- Rotten Tomatoes review page (there are no official reviews, but it has a rare 0% audience rating):
- Wikipedia page: