History has a way of righting itself when it comes to the arts. Sometimes it restores clarity and reminds us of the great things out there we had forgotten and sometimes things are going too well so it’ll regurgitate something we tried to forget. But there’s usually some sort of balance.

Occasionally something falls through the cracks.

The Beast (aka The Beast of War)

When you’re wounded an’ left on Afghanistan’s plains
An’ the women come out to cut up your remains
Jus’ roll to your rifle an’ blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.
                    –    Rudyard Kipling


With this text, so ominously begins Kevin Reynolds’ The Beast (1988), the tale of a Soviet tank crew’s prolonged, dirty, and sanity-devolving skirmish with a small band of mujahideen fighters during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. This was the same messy conflict that spawned Rambo III, but The Beast proved a much harder sell to moviegoers. There was no American hero here blowing up helicopters with exploding arrows. There are no Americans whatsoever. Worse yet, our protagonist is a damn Commie! 

The opening sequence of the movie sees a Soviet tank force laying pitiless waste to a small Afghan village. Poisoning wells, setting fire to people and huts, gunning down any-and-all humans they see. When the village’s Khan (leader) is captured, the commander of one of the tanks, an uncharacteristically svelte George Dzundza, orders the man laid under his tank’s treads, alive. Then he orders our “hero,” the tank’s driver (Jason Patric), to drive over the man, turning him into meaty pulp stain in the dirt (the incredibly brief shot of the man’s feet getting crushed first should haunt your thoughts). After this event, Dzundza’s tank becomes lost in a mountainous valley, pursued by the survivors of the opening assault. These survivors have lucked into finding a RPG, and are obsessed with destroying the tank, which they call “the beast.” Animalizing the tank is fitting, as the film has a certain Moby Dick quality to it – a tale of obsessions and destructive pride. Dzundza proves to be an inverted Ahab, consumed with returning his tank back to Soviet lines, no matter the cost. As he becomes increasingly tyrannical and paranoid he butts heads with the intellectual and reasoned Patric. When Patric disobeys an order, Dzundza has him tied to a rock and left for dead. Then, when the mujahideen find Patric, he luckily remembers a word the tank’s translator had taught him, “nanawatai” – which we’re told is a bit like asking to “parley” when being captured by pirates; it provides you with sanctuary (Nanawatai is the name of William Mastrosimone’s play on which the film is based). Despite the language barrier, Patric, fueled by a lust for vengeance, and the mujahideen find a common goal… destroying “the beast.”

The Beast is an awesome movie. Taut, gripping, complex yet not overwrought, not unlike The Hurt Locker, it is a straight-up action movie with arthouse themes. Jason Patric’s struggle is a familiar one – a man disillusioned by a pointless and unjust war. Yet the complexities run deeper than the typical Dances With Wolves template of a man turning native. The tagline on the poster says, “In Afghanistan, one Russian soldier must make a choice. To be true to his country or be true to his heart.” That’s just marketing trying to grease up the film though. Patric doesn’t actually give a shit about the mujahideen’s cause. He just wants revenge on Dzundza. This isn’t a story meant to demonize the Soviets, and the mujahideen aren’t given an Avatar noble savage treatment either. The moral, if there must be one, is just that war is fucked up. “Afghanistan,” Dzundza says as one point with a very weary “Chinatown” tone.

The role of the Afghani women is important in the story too, as the mujahideen men continually deny them their right to vengeance; the film is as much a contemplation on manliness and manly honor as it is on the futility of war. Frankly, The Beast is the best John Milius movie that Milius had nothing to do with. Which is not a slight to Kevin Reynolds, who really shows off his action chops here. Done after his nostalgia-fest Fandango and before Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, The Beast reveals a filmmaker who already knows exactly what the fuck he is doing with his camera and story. Reynolds knows how to use the tank in different contexts. For the Soviets we get a very Das Boot
treatment. For the Afghan side the tank is a creature, lurking in the
distance and bellowing around corners. The performances are great too.
This is why it seemed like Jason Patric was going to be a big star at
one point in time. And Dzundza knocks it out of the park with this rare
chance to play something other than a cop or our hero’s lovable fat
friend, or our hero’s lovable fat cop friend.

The best attribute
of the film is its tone though. Reynolds delivers the events with an
unflinching punch. Nothing is romanticized, no one given a hero
treatment. Yet it never gets cynical. This isn’t a story about how
shitty people can be. It’s just a badass tale of a fucked up situation,
with no manipulation on Reynolds part. Which makes the complete failure and subsequent disappearance of the film a real shame. The Internet tells me that The Beast is a cult hit, but everything is a fucking “cult hit” these days as long as a handful of people say something about it on a message board. I call bullshit. This film deserves to be seen and talked about regularly, by a lot of people. It also deserves a good DVD (the one I rented most recently was 4:3).

The film holds new perspective these days. The 80’s Afghanistan conflict is often referred to as the Soviet Union’s “Vietnam.” Now we find ourselves in a similar situation, fighting essentially the exact same people. Critics at the time thought American audiences would be bothered by hearing the Soviets speak with American accents. Now it seems all too appropriate.