It was a certain sense of historical irony which drew my interest towards the movie "The Beast of War". For the past several decades - how the time has flashed by so quickly, for somebody who has lived the vast majority of his life under the aegis of what is termed the "War on Terror" - the land of Afghanistan has been visited by a war, where the United States, and its numerous allies, have attempted to destroy the Taliban. Naturally, the Taliban has representations in all sorts of ways - violent butchers, maniacs, slavers, oppressors of women, drug smuggers and growers, and simply put, terrorists. Many of these are undoubtedly true - just because we have a representation of something does not mean that representation is false. It would all be so wonderfully simple and clear cut as far as how the world sees this land and its woes, if it was not for the fact that just a few decades before, in that distant time of the 1980s, the United States was itself effectively allied with the predecessors of the current Taliban (to put such a simplistic and clear cut lineage on such a complex and lengthy complex reeks of the normal American comprehension of the world, but how otherwise would one express the previous rebels and their relationship to the current ones?) who were engaged in a war against the Soviet Union, which had invaded Afghanistan to set up a puppet state. Then, according to the United States, the Afghans were not villians and terrorists, but rather that elusively similar brother of the terrorist, freedom fighters, fighting for their independence against the Soviet Union. Americans do not cope well with such changes of relationships, coming from a society which has always viewed itself as the city on the hill and which has a certain nearly apocalyptic view of the world, about its ultimate end upon American lines and the moral nature of America's mission in the world, a view which is dramatically different than the old feuds and power games played by lords and kings.
So it would be a delicious irony to watch the movie. And to an extent, it was. The list of role reversals and contradictions in contrast to the present time runs to incredible length. In the Beast of War, set during the opening years of the Afghan War, a Soviet attack brutally, and without reason, destroys an Afghan village. Following this a tank of the unit, commanded by its commanding officer Daskal, is separated from its units and has to attempt to return to its lines, pursued by Afghan rebels who desperately desire revenge. This film is one which is, looking at it at first glance, simply one of propaganda - of the United States castigating the USSR (this film being from 1988) for its actions in Afghanistan, while of course, ignoring its own crimes and the imperfections of its allies. But it is actually a film which can be surprisingly deep, and this very aspect of propaganda makes for a fascinating mirror of our perception of the world throughout the ages, of what we believe constitutes good and evil and how it relates to us.
Brave hill fighters engage an army which is mechanically superior, and win through their courage and determination, as well as the effective defection and treason of a Soviet soldier - all of which, would be critiqued today, for obvious reasons. The authoritarian and hierarchical structure of leadership in the Afghan tribes is celebrated. There is intense and graphic display of the killing of innocent civilians by the Soviets - the United States meanwhile, does unfortunately, and I am sure that the United States certainly does not intend to, but regardless does - kill innocent civilians in its own attacks and bombing raids. When Soviet tanks roll into the village after the bombing assault on it, the women of the village then proceed to throw stones at the tanks - in a scene that resembles the most famous contemporary example of throwing stones at tanks, by the Palestinians against Israel, perhaps the United States closest ally. Those who are cooperating with the Soviets are betrayed, and have to watch horrible and brutal war crimes committed against their countrymen - although Samad, the person in this film in such a role, is certainly no traitor, but genuinely believes that cooperation with the Soviets is the best for his nation.
Perhaps the most amusing part of it was the portrayal of the relationship of women to the Mujahdeen. Today, the protection of Afghan women against the radicals, the United States standing in defense of the fairer sex against terrorists, is a crucial part of the moral legitimization of the United States presence in Afghanistan. Yet in the 1980s, Afghan women are shown as unveiled, fierce, rather secular again, and independent - willing allies with their own agencies and destinies. Of course, times have much changed since the 1980s, and it is a dreadful simplification to declare that the only thing that has been altered for the rebels and their politics between 1982 and 2018 has been that the millenia has turned and the flag of the country (well, countries) they fight been transformed. None of this is to add furthermore, that the US is necessarily a brutal and murderous power and invader - whether that is so is a different point entirely than how representations and our common understanding of Afghanistan and how we should be sympathizing with are turned on their heads.
But the movie did have parts of it that went beyond simply being a piece of delicious irony. It speaks about a story which I find intriguing, that of soldiers existing with the madness and the paranoia of war, displayed by their commanding officer Daskal - a man who first shoots Samad, an Afghan tank man serving with the Soviets, before marooning the main character Konstantin Koverchenko and refusing to evacuate his crew from the war zone when a helicopter appears and finds his lost tank, instead sending them back into the fire of war. The stress of combat, such as when they are convinced they are surrounded by enemies in the middle of the night, and so open fire all around them, only to realize that they had killed a herd of deer surrounding their tank, is shown clearly. Indeed, this is one of my favorite action scenes in the movie - action simply for action is I find, terribly boring, as I can remember well from my attempts to watch "The Raid" when feeling no emotion at all at the magnificent scenes of violence - as it shows the panicked emotional stage of the soldiers and their reaction to the feelings of threats, something which illustrates, builds, and amplifies the themes the film had been trying to portray.
The empathy one feels for the rebels and for Koverchenko, disgusted with the brutality he has to commit (starting with Daskal making him crush an Afghan man under the treads of his tank, and escalating from there) is a real one, and even if one is obviously supposed to like the Afghan rebels, their struggles, tragedies, and personal failings are enough to make one feel genuine sympathy for them, instead of simply the artificial and forced compassion otherwise assigned. This is helped in that not all of the rebels are perfect - their division is shown as well, and there are some who are simply interested in greed, profit, and looting, although all of them do seem to possess a certain sense of honor and morality, as part of the portrayal of them as simple, noble, mountain warriors. Certainly, the film is one which is predictable enough, and it follows roughly what one will think will happen, and this is a point against it. But given the low standards which military films often can have, it certainly passes the bar.
The sympathy one feels also extends to the Soviet side, where save for Daskal, who ultimately receives what he deserves for his action, one feels the terrible and desperate situation which they too face. Certainly, these men have committed horrible crimes - even Koverchenko, who ultimately defects to the Afghan side, was complicit and carried out the murder of an Afghan man under the treads of the tank, as mentioned - but they are just as lost, as afraid, as unsure of themselves as the Afghans, pushed time and time again into the furnace of war by Daskal. Once their tank is gone, they are free to escape, free to leave, free to be themselves once more. Even the two normal crewmen, other than Koverchenko and Daskal, can easily be perceived for their horror, uncertainty, and fear. They might follow Daskal, to follow their commander, but their panic and indecision is their own, and one which makes one feel something for these people who are more than cut outs. The story of the interpreter Samad is also an intriguing picture into the complexity of the war - Samad is clearly an honorable and good man, one who cares for his people, one who wants to help them, one who is willing to attempt to bridge cultures in the interest of peace and reconciliation. Yet he is also distrusted and ultimately killed by Daskal, a representation of the fate of his type of person in the USSR. To some extent of course, this is simply put, propaganda, for the film is a Cold War film designed to portray the evil of the USSR. But it is also one which shows the war that those with torn loyalties and identities, no matter how loyal their allegiance may be to one side, must wage within themselves, and provides more nuance to the reaction of Afghans to the Soviet invasion than simply the bombarding of their villages by Soviet bombers and tanks.
Furthermore, while hardly an expert on tanks myself (playing World of Tanks and having the passing interest in the various types does not in any sense an expert make), the movie certainly portrays the grittiness of the combat brilliantly, and with beautiful aesthetics, making it into one of the stars of that genre of the "tank film" in my opinion. It also is a good deal more realistic than other films from the 1980s for tanks, such as in Rambo when he both drives the tank and shoots with it at the same time - here, it shows the tank crew as a team, working in their cramped and claustrophobic tank. For a film from the 1980s, the combat effects are very well done, and the tension in the action scenes real and profound - as Daskal struggles to turn around his tank's turret to engage the Afghan rebels, or as they chase each other through the twisting labrynthe of the Afghan mountains, everything focused on the single RPG, seemingly their sole weapon against the hulking machine of metal and death. Little details stand out in retrospect - the misfire of the gun, a petrol leak, the commands for loading, or the smut poster plastered next to the loader's station, the eternal companion of young men in a war zone. The people too, play their roles well, as one feels the stress, panic, madness, building on the Soviet side, alongside the desperation and uncertainty from the Afghans, in a movie which builds, as most war films try but don't always succeed, to a climatic triumph, which is satisfyingly resolved in the end.
The tank is the shelter and the home, seemingly the only home that the soldiers have, and to them it is something which their lives rotates around, unhealthily so for Daskal. But it is also the beast to the Afghans - although what exactly the beast is, be it the tank, be it Daskal, be it the passions which are unleashed in men by violence and death, is something which the watcher is up to decide. Personally, in line of a view of mine which is that this is an anti-war film, it refers to the 3rd - that to let lose the dogs, the beasts, of war, is to unleash madness, devastation, violence, and that the tank in this case, is simply the actor of this insanity, rather than being the object itself.
Although I had watched this movie above all else for the sense of historical irony, I was surprised to find a war film which investigates madness and stress in war time, morality of following evil orders, which has brilliant action scenes, and a genuine emotion and feeling of tragedy on the part of the characters, which far surpasses simply taking ghoulish amusement in a sense of "East Asia has Always Been at War with Eurasia" commentary upon the way representations change as our enemies change. It is, I am sure, no masterpiece, no deep literary work, but as a well done action film with enough depth to make one feel real sympathy for both the Soviet and Afghans, it is a thoroughly enjoyable film and well worth watching, both from its historical interest and its own merits. Watching it with an idea of the history involved amplifies its experience, but for the film's own story, it can more than pull its own.
© 2018 Ryan Thomas
Liz Westwood from UK on December 28, 2018:
Looking back in time gives an interesting perspective on this film. This also emphasises how long the people of Afghanistan have been living in a state of war and unrest.