Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
NoShame has found another gem in 1970s Italian filmmaking. Valerio Zurlini's The Desert of the Tartars is an intelligent adaptation of a famous book about the waste and loneliness of military life. Young men going off to become officers a hundred years ago may have been searching for dreams of glory. But for many of them, terminally boring peacetime soldiering must have been so debilitating as to make the idea of a violent end in battle seem desirable -- one at least might become an honored portrait on a wall.
Zurlini gives this deliberate anti-adventure film the best production he can muster. A long list of Europe's finest actors play the colonial officers of a haunted regiment, and an ancient city in Iran serves as the unbearably isolated outpost where strong men rot and eager officers turn into eccentrics and neurotics.
Assigned to a fort on a distant frontier in Afghanistan, excited young officer Drogo (Jacques Perrin) willingly leaves his European life behind. Instead of adventure he finds a strange outpost run under strict military rules, forever in wait for an invasion of Tartars that never seems a remote possibility. His elder officers are resigned to a life of meaningless vigilance, while the younger men look for reasons to invite hostilities. One older commander, Hortiz (Max von Sydow) claims to have once seen enemies on white horses, but his words are discounted.
The Desert of the Tartars is a military movie with foreign legion-type troops stationed in a hostile, far-flung land, but any sane producer would have turned director Zurlini's proposed movie down cold. There are no battles, no swashbuckling action and no opportunities for conventional bravery or stirring sacrifices. Instead we get a chilling portrait of military society in quasi-peacetime. The remote fortress serves no apparent function and our young hero Drogo arrives to find the command in the hands of a small group of loyal officers who realize that their years of service will yield no rewards. Diplomatic orders from back home maintain the post's vigilance against what appears to be an empty and peaceful border. Cut off from loved ones, the older generation of commanders waits its turn to be retired and sent home, back to lives that no longer exist. Nathanson (Fernando Rey) is a cripple and Filimore (Vittorio Gassman) is the taskmaster. Hortiz (Max Von Sydow) is an aging dreamer hoping that the Tartars will attack so that his life will have meaning.
The younger men are less prepared for a life of frustration. The high-strung Mattis (Giuliano Gemma) adheres to absurd rules of conduct. A flubbed password results in the unnecessary killing of a man whose only crime was to show the initiative of capturing a horse that might belong to the enemy. Lieutenant Simeon (Helmut Griem) is at Drogo's level, and helps him fit in with the functional insanity. The doctor (Jean-Louis Trintignant) acknowledges that he's at the fort to avoid dealing with outside reality. The pompous commander back at headquarters (Philippe Noiret) uses psychological games to shame Drogo into staying, even though the moldy dust on the walls of the ancient fort have made him ill.
The command eventually changes, as arbitrary orders from above decree that the fort is no longer necessary. The officers of the older generation either die or are shipped out en masse. Some exit quietly and at least one commits suicide in frustration. Ironically, this happens as real enemy activity is just beginning to be observed. But the officers deny the signs so as not to contradict their own earlier reports, and spyglasses are confiscated so lookouts cannot see what appears to be road-building activity in enemy territory. When danger finally does come, the once-powerful fort is ridiculously undermanned and lacks a forward observation outpost. Having thrown his life away on this duty, Drogo finds himself incapacitated by sickness and unable to participate in the only meaningful event in his entire career.
Action movie fans drawn by the title will soon grow tired of The Desert of the Tartars' waiting game, but other viewers will find the story an excellent metaphor for life itself. Many dreamers prepare for exceptional lives, only to reach old age wondering why their grand opportunities didn't materialize. Drogo turns away from family, friends and a possibility of love to live an arid existence and fulfill a meaningless and unappreciated duty. An inner fear mounts that the battles he needs to justify his life are never going to happen. Max von Sydow's character is broken by this feeling of a life wasted, and Drogo is cheated completely -- just as war breaks out and history is going to be made, he's evacuated as a redundant hospital case.
Zurlini makes excellent use of a creepy, ancient Iranian fort, and Ennio Morricone's sparse soundtrack adds to the sense of isolation. The ensemble acting is excellent. Jacques Perrin's Drogo is an intelligent young man slowly affected by the absurd lifestyle: He dresses in handsome uniforms and observes the finer points of military etiquette, and joins his fellows on the battlements to face a desert as empty as a moonscape. The passage of time is The Desert of the Tartars' only weak aspect -- there aren't enough hints to tell us whether Drogo has been stationed at the outpost for a few years, or a couple of decades. He doesn't seem to have aged much.
NoShame's 2-Disc Special Edition of The Desert of the Tartars is mastered from excellent elements and gains substantially from its handsome desert exteriors. The Italian audio track is given an excellent mix that makes fortress rooms sound hollow and the outdoors deceptively peaceful.
NoShame provides three interview docus. Two with actor Giuliano Gemma are sharp and to the point, but a third with cameraman Luciano Tovoli follows a NoShame pattern of allowing the subject to ramble through an unfocused memoir. Trailers and still sections are included. In a welcome insert booklet, author and American Cinematheque programmer Chris D. contributes several informative and analytical essays about the film and its makers.
As a special bonus, a second disc in the set is a full CD of Ennio Morricone's score for The Desert of the Tartars. NoShame's DVD is a one-stop resource for Valerio Zurlini's final film.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Desert of the Tartars rates:
Movie: Very Good
Sound: Excellent Italian and English dub
Supplements: Introduction by Director of Photography Luciano Tovoli, Interviews with Director of Photography Luciano Tovoli, Giuliano Gemma, Trailer, Poster and Still Gallery, CD soundtrack by Ennio Moricone
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 9, 2006
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson