Monday, April 4, 2016

The Elusive Avengers, aka Neulovimye Mstiteli (USSR, 1967)

While many film enthusiasts would be content, upon seeing a passing reference to a genre of Soviet westerns made during the height of the Cold War, to think "huh, interesting" and then move on with their lives, I am the guy who has to immediately find and watch one of those movies. Of course, given the cornucopia of obscure foreign films that YouTube has become in recent years, this is a far less laborious task than it once was--which is why I'm hanging upside down in a gimp costume as I write the. You gotta suffer, people.

Loosely based on Little Red Devils, a novel by Pavel Blyakhin, The Elusive Avengers spawned two sequels, making it one of the more popular examples of the uniquely Russian riff on the Western genre known as the Ostern, or “Eastern.” Like most Osterns, it is set in Ukraine during the chaotic period of civil war that followed the Russian Revolution. This conflict saw a variety of anti-Bolshevik factions take arms against the Lenin regime, making uneasy provisional allies of everything from monarchists to capitalists to more democratically-minded socialists. Despite this smorgasbord of potential alliances, it should come as little surprise that the actions of the film’s titular heroes, while motivated by vengeance, are entirely in keeping with the interests of the Red Army.

In the film’s opening, Danka, a young village boy, watches in horror as his father, a spy for the Russian government, is summarily executed by the vicious warlord Lyuti (played with dissolute menace by Vladimir Treshchalov.) We immediately skip forward a few years to find that Danka and three of his teenage friends have since banded together to defend their home against the gangs of bandits, rebels, and rogue Cossacks that are preying upon the peasantry. In addition to Danka (who is now played by 16 year old Viktor Kosykh), we have Yashka, a gypsy (Vasily Vasilev), Valerka, an intense student-type (Mikhail Metyolkin, in Trotsky-like glasses to drive the point home), and Danka’s sister, Ksanka, a nun (Valentina Kurdyukova.)

At first the group focuses their efforts on the bandit gang led by Ataman Burmash (Yefim Kopelyan), interfering with the transport of his supplies and ill-gotten gains in a series of exciting horseback raids. When it later becomes clear that Burmash is taking orders from Lyuti, the offensive takes on a more personal—and violent—cast. The result is a series of increasingly risky, late night guerilla operations in which the young Avengers, true to their name, elude capture only by the skin of their teeth.

It is worth noting that The Elusive Avengers, in making nods to the Western genre, takes little influence from the American Westerns of Ford and Hawks, and rather more influence from the then-contemporary Euro-Westerns of Leone and Corbucci. This circumstance, as unsurprising as it is, is a happy one, as it means that we get lots of dramatic widescreen composition and sweeping vistas, moody nighttime action, and an expert ramping up of tension. Director Edmond Keosayan layers onto this an element of “Boys’ Own” adventure, building up excitement as we watch our teenage heroes pull off one daring caper after another. You almost expect the action to stop so they can give a thumb up to the camera and tell all the kids out there how “awesome” it is to fight the enemies of communism (there is indeed a fourth-wall-breaking wink at one point. )

The Elusive Avengers is served well by its energetic young cast, among whom I think Vasily Vasilev, who in the same year played a small part in Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, is the standout. As Yashka, the group’s token “ethnic” (a Chinese in the book, an American black man in an earlier film version), he is not positioned as the film’s lead, but nonetheless steals that position by virtue of his sheer charisma and physicality. With Danka providing the vengeful fire that motivates the group, and the studious Valerka planning all of its operations, Yashka is the warrior of the group, left to be at the center of all of the film’s most exciting action set pieces. Among these is a scene depicting the Avengers’ defense of a military cargo train from a gang of bandits on horseback that is so similar to the iconic train sequence in Sholay that it is hard not to imagine it being an influence.

And this is all not to mention Vasilev’s singing and dancing, which are displayed in a scene that takes place after Yashka and Ksanka take jobs as entertainers at a tavern frequented by Burmash’s gang. Indeed, The Elusive Avengers is also something of a musical, with several diegetic scenes of characters breaking into song. This adds considerably to the picaresque sense of fun that intermingles intriguingly with the dark Spaghetti Western dynamic seen elsewhere in the film. Of course, I watched an untranslated version of this movie, so, if they were singing about burning the fat American capitalists in their beds, I might view it otherwise. I doubt that’s the case, though; Given the film seems largely directed at those young men most likely to be seduced by its romanticized depiction of Russian youth defending the homeland, I don’t think it would resort to such buzz-killing cold war proselytizing.

That is, until the end, when the Avengers receive an audience with Joseph Stalin himself, who thanks them for their exploits and makes them members of the Red Army on the spot. I assume this means that, in the film’s sequels (The New Adventures of the Elusive Avengers, in 1968, and The Crown of the Russian Empire/Once Again the Elusive Avengers, in 1971), the kids fight as soldiers of the Russian military, rather than as a ragtag band of teenage rebels. If that’s the case, it’s hard to imagine those sequels being as fun or exciting as The Elusive Avengers--although I do intend to find out.


Anna said...

Firstly - thanks for your blog, I found a lot of interesting movies here, and for the book also!
I'm from Russia so I would like to tell something about the movie of my childhood:) Eastern was called EASTern in USSR because usual scene for it was just soviet Middle Asia (Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and other eastern respublics) and this movie is one from very few exeptions.
Songs in the film are not political at all:) For example gypsy song is about a hero who plan to whisk away a girl.
And in the end they met not Joseph Stalin, but Kliment Voroshilov, the soviet cavalry' commander.
I am not sure that you should see the sequels, because they are very similar with the first part, but the jokes are a bit more smelling of the lamp.

Todd said...

Thanks for your kind words, Anna--and for the information on this film. It's enough to make me want to learn Russian!