Pudovkin’s Storm over Asia, on Mongolia

This video is from the movie Storm over Asia by Pudovkin.

From daily The Morning Star in Britain:

Pioneering Pudovkin

Wednesday 25 May 2011

Warren Davies

The current Russian Film Pioneers season at the British Film Institute (BFI) in London includes Vsevolod Pudovkin‘s 1928 film Storm over Asia, considered an overlooked masterpiece by some. If like me you don’t live in the capital you can buy the film for less than the price of a pint in a cheap DVD release which is readily available and which even has a surprisingly atmospheric original soundtrack.

It’s one to save up for the next time Labour let us down and fail to effectively oppose the Con-Dem’s latest assault on public services because it’s a movie which reaffirms trust in the values of common people, whatever their leaders and rulers may do and it’s captured by Pudovkin in one joyous moment of filmmaking.

Liberate a friend or relative’s “big-screen-multi-whatever-home cinema system for the screening – it’ll do them good to share it and you’ll be better able to join with hero Bair and his thousand Mongolian riders against the occupiers of their land. And this is why the film is special. Pudovkin wants you to be thrilled and his vision is fabulous, epic and action-packed. Bair’s is a frontier adventure story wrapped up in a storm-wracked fable.

As the first film to be shot in Mongolia, Pudovkin and screenwriter Osip Brik produced a study of colonialism and national liberation which stands as a corrective to a Eurocentric view of the Russian revolution.

Set during the Civil War, Pudovkin and Brik took the decision to recast the occupation of Mongolia as a British rather than the historically accurate White Russian invasion under Baron von Ungern-Sternberg. The film’s screening, incidentally, coincides with the 90th anniversary of his terror regime’s defeat by Red Army and Mongol forces. Is this typecasting or a salutary reminder that it is the British ruling class who are, even in those regions untouched by the Union flag, still most closely identified in folk memory with Imperialism?

It is a dramatic device fully exploited by Pudovkin in 1928. Frontier capitalism arrives on the end of a British bayonet and it is Bair the herdsman’s relationship to this that provides the central narrative.

Unsurprisingly, the British Board Of Film Censors banned and sought to stop the movie being shown outside the USSR. Storm… was an insurrectionary challenge to Western imperial bourgeois culture, a celebration of Bolshevism and revolution amongst racially inferior Asiatic hordes insolently depicted as agents of their own destiny who expel Westerners. Ilya Ehrenburg is quoted as having summed up the official response to the film in the West as: “Mongols chasing white men? Where’s the justice in that?”

Through Bair, Pudovkin and Brik tell a story for all people resisting colonisation and oppression. Valeri Inkishnov, magnetic in the lead role, uses the silence of the medium to intensify the quiet stoicism of his character. He is victim of chance and circumstance until the point at which he is resurrected by the science of his enemies.

Bair’s silence is transformed as his captors nurse him back to health with the intention of setting him up a puppet ruler. Inkishov captures Bair’s frustration and seeming impotence to oppose his enemies – alone he lifts himself from his throne, staggers and falls into a fish tank, where he lies amongst the asphyxiated fish. He continues to silently observe, watching to discover the nature of his enemies, caged in his tailor’s measurements, a novelty oriental, dressed for dinner, fascinating and exciting the imperialist’s daughters. When local chiefs are presented to the new Khan, swearing the allegiance of 40,000 riders, it takes one more brutal murder for Bair, who came only seeking a fair price for his pelts, to lead the revolution as the heir of the great Khan.

For contemporary audiences this was an exotic movie. The restored version to be shown at the BFI allows a modern audience to appreciate its quality as travelogue. Shot in a land steeped in the mythology of the “Golden Horde”, Pudovkin’s masterpiece is also a semi-documentary record of the Moscow film crew’s own expedition.

For Valeri Inkishinov making the film was an opportunity to discover his own family’s heritage and the actor had his own father cast as Bair’s for the opening scene and learnt to ride “Mongolian” style for the critical final montage.

The footage of the film crew’s convoy crossing the tundra is transformed into the British delegation travelling to the Grand Lama. Commissar Ashirov, who acted as guide, was heavily responsible for this dimension of the film. He dealt with the customs and folktales, explained them to Pudovkin and Brik and took them to where landscape could best be exploited for the action scenes or to establish mood. It would be fair to deduce that it was Ashirov who negotiated the Grand Lama’s concession of allowing the team to film in Lamasery of Tomchinsk and so captured for posterity the annual ceremonial dance there.

Pudovkin’s editing faithfully records this custom while simultaneously generating a montage juxtaposing the ritual dance, the negotiations between the British and the Lamasery and the partisan ambush of the British stealing the herdsmen’s cattle.

Pudovkin’s equally studied approach of British imperial ritual encourages speculation that he had studied newsreels produced for British audiences bringing their Empire into the high street. Pudovkin’s point is well made – elite imperial culture is as strange, alien and separated from the everyday lives of the audience who’d watch the film in 1928 or the new 2011 version as the ceremonies of Tomchinsk Lamasery.

But this is not a simple propaganda film. It has a political and ethnographic core contained within a genuine action-adventure movie and it is also a study in emotion.

The energy and visual audacity of Pudovkin’s final montage is overwhelming as he juxtaposes the realism of his documentary style with the fabled “storm over Asia”. As it breaks the occupiers, their flags, drums and bayonets are caught up in the visual maelstrom which carries the revolutionary “red horde” to victory.

This isn’t the dominant moment in Pudovkin’s masterpiece. What remains in the mind is the memory of a British Tommy, desolate and sickened by the prison of his uniform hanging off him as it drags through the mud, who has no pride left as he returns from the crime he has committed in its name.

Moments as richly suggestive as this run through the film and that’s why the BFI are to be congratulated on bringing its merits back to public attention.

1 thought on “Pudovkin’s Storm over Asia, on Mongolia

  1. Pingback: Mongolian dinosaurs’ eggs discovery | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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