Thursday, 28 July 2011

Russia's Full Metal Jacket

If you sat through Beneath Hill 60 and still felt remotely positive, then give 9th Company a look. This is a Russian film about their war in Afghanistan, which ended in 1989, and which played a part in the fall of the Soviet Union.

I remember clearly where I was when I heard the news that Russia had invaded Afghanistan, and also where I was when I heard they were pulling out. The pictures of Soviet armour motoring north on the long highway from Bagram up towards the then Soviet border will always stay with me: it was the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union and the Cold War.

9th Company tells the story of young conscripts who volunteer to fight for Mother Russia in Afghanistan. Interestingly, they are given the choice whether to fight in Afghanistan, or be posted somewhere else in the Soviet empire.

Director Fyodor Bondarchuk has assembled a talented cast for this one, including the likes of Artur Smolyaninov, Aleksey Chadov and Konstantic Kyukov, all of whom seem incredibly young, but then so were the soldiers they are portraying. The evolution of Smolyaninov's character, Lyutyy (which I think must mean 'Angry One' in Russian, if my Serbo-Croatian is anything to go by), from orphanage thug to mature and thoughtful war veteran is particularly good.

The film, like Full Metal Jacket, is split into two halves, with the first half telling the story of the recruits' training at Ferghana, under the tutelage of grizzled war veteran Dygalo (Mikhail Porechenkov). Dygalo's obsession with giving his charges the vital skills they need to survive in Afghanistan stems from the character's own experience in the theatre of operations. Porechenkov is excellent, and plays the character to the hilt. He would also make a great Bond villain if ever given the chance!

Director Bondarchuk is the team's sergeant when they reach Afghanistan. Remember Tom Berenger's character, in Platoon? Meet his Russian alter ego. Bondarchuk literally jumps out of the screen at you. This is where the film begins moving down the road mapped out by Platoon. You can see Bondarchuk leading his troops into battle in this clip:

9th Company is not particularly sympathetic to the Afghans however: apart from one old dude who sells Chadov a box of matches, they are shadowy figures with a reputation for brutally killing their enemies. The Russians make no effort to get to know them, other than hurling obscenities at them from across a valley. They even booby-trap the body of a dead mujahideen with a grenade.

Perestroika is obviously in the air, with some discussion of Gorbachev and his political objectives, but most of the time the troops are just trying to stay alive and somehow make it back to Russia. Because while the Soviet Union may have been bad, Afghanistan, in all its rugged and uncompromising fury, is worse. As one intelligence officer tells the soldiers: "Afghanistan has never been conquered in its entire history. Never." That certainly wipes the smiles off a few faces.

Some of the problems the Russians faced in-country are obvious: a conscript army which rotates in and out of the theatre of operations is going to take heavy casualties. Logistics were an issue: Russian soldiers here have to steal food and ammo from one of their own convoys, and only stop when a tank threatens to shoot at them. The local allies were unreliable, and the resistance able to move at will, undistinguished from the population, and able to draw succour from across the border in Pakistan. Plus, they were heavily armed: at one stage a Russian transport plane is brought down by a Stinger missile while taking off from Bagram airbase.

The climax of the film, with a mujahideen assault on a Soviet outpost, is again reminiscent of the end of Platoon. Just swap NVA for Afghans, and the jungle of Vietnam for a hill in Central Asia, and you're away. The battle is allegedly based on a real engagement that took place in 1988 when a platoon lost its radio due to mortar fire. The leader of the Afghans in this battle looks a lot like Sly Stallone, right down to the mirror shades - perhaps a poke at his role in Rambo III?

It seems to have taken a while for Russians to come to grips fully with the war in Afghanistan, but this is certainly a good effort, despite obvious similarities with Platoon and Full Metal Jacket. Heck, even Vladimir Putin went to see it, and despite the predictable griping from veterans about the film's accuracy, it seems to have sold well in Russia.

Afghanistan was always something of a hidden war - it was hard for the international media to cover it, without going in with the mujahideen, always a risky prospect, and it was certainly not given anything close to objective coverage in Russia. But 9th Company offers a fascinating take on the war through Russian eyes which you will simply not get from Hollywood. I only hope some of the stars get to shine on a wider stage.

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