White Sun of the Desert

English Title: White Sun of the Desert

Original Title: Beloe solntse pustyni

Country of Origin: Soviet Union

Studio: Mosfilm

Director: Vladimir Motyl

Screenplay: Valentin Ezhov, Rustam Ibragimbekov, Mark Zakhrov

Cinematographer: Eduard Rozovskii

Art Director: Valerii Kostrin, Bella Manevich-Kaplan

Runtime: 85 minutes

Genre: Action/Adventure

Language: Russian

Starring/Cast: Tatiana Denisova, Tatiana Fedotova, Nikolai Godovikov, Kakhi Kavsadze, Raisa Kurkina, Anatolii Kuznetsov, Pavel Luspekaev, Spartak Mishuiln

Year: 1969

Volume: Russian

At the close of the Russian Civil War, Red Army officer Fedor Ivanovich Sukhov is finally making his way home after years of fighting in the deserts of Central Asia. As he strides the shifting sands, he dreams of his verdant homeland and beautiful wife. His journey is interrupted, however, when he finds himself first called upon to protect a harem from their husband – the notorious bandit Black Abdullah. Sukhov leads the wives to a town on the edge of the Caspian Sea where they set up a dormitory and he attempts to teach them to be liberated Soviet women. With the help of a young Russian soldier, an embittered local man (Sayid) a Tsarist excise man, and a priest (Sukhov), he mounts a desperate defence against the bandits. In the ensuing bloody action, the bandits are killed to a man, and Sukhov emerges from the final standoff with Abdullah wounded but victorious. However, victory has come at a price: one of the wives has been murdered, and all of his allies, except for Sayid, are dead. At the film’s conclusion, Sukhov and Sayid part ways amicably, and Sukhov continues his journey home.

White Sun of the Desert was to be the Soviet answer to the popular Western. Yet, while clearly drawing on Western cinematic tropes, the film undoubtedly spoke to Soviet audiences regarding issues of nation and empire, since it promulgates nationalist ideals of a Russian-dominated Central Asia. Since the film’s release, however, screenwriter Rustam Ibragimbekov has vehemently denied such intentions. Indeed, looking closely at how Motyl’ visually constructs the film, it becomes clear that he emphasizes the incompatibility of Soviet and Central Asian cultures, plus the failure of the Soviet project in the East. This was an interesting cinematic stand to take at a time when the idea of the ‘brotherhood of nations’ was still very much alive in Soviet rhetoric.

The core narrative revolves around a love triangle, so to speak. Sukhov is torn between a love for his wife, Katerina, and his attraction to the harem. Within this structure, Sukhov is a model of Soviet strength, ingenuity and virtue. Sukhov’s wife, who becomes the visual embodiment of Russia, represents ‘Home’. Abdullah’s harem is associated with a generic, decaying and unassimilated Central Asia. Thus, perhaps, Motyl’ portrays the Soviet involvement in Central Asia as a betrayal of the homeland.

Sukhov’s uniform clearly identifies him with Soviet military power. He is not the only Red Army soldier in the film, but whereas other soldiers’ uniforms become sweaty and tarnished in the heat and the sand, Sukhov’s uniform is almost always pristine, as if he is a mythic Soviet soldier, unaffected by the weather or general conditions around him. Furthermore, Sukhov is always filmed either in the foreground or silhouetted on top of a dune, standing out sharply against the sky. In this way, Motyl’ establishes both Sukhov’s power and his foreignness. By contrast, the wives are often shown as emerging from behind the sand dunes, or enclosed in ancient decaying buildings. They are further associated with the foreign, unassailable East by their heavy horsehair veils which cover them entirely. All is hidden.

While Sukhov is placed outside the desert, the woods and grasslands of Russia envelop Katerina. Moreover, Katerina strongly resembles Soviet images of Mother Russia. The camera pans slowly up her legs in order to focus on her pelvis; the folds in her red dress underscore both her sexuality and her fertility. By sexualizing Katerina in this way, Motyl’ emphasizes Sukhov’s uncomplicated visual possession of her body and, by extension, the motherland as a whole.

The resulting narrative of betrayal, enacted in the East, is most obviously enunciated in the scene in which Giuchitai attempts to seduce Sukhov. Sitting up late, preparing for battle, Sukhov suddenly hears the tinkling of bells as Giuchitai – unveiled – dances provocatively towards him. As Giuchitai attempts to explain the advantages of polygamy, Sukhov honourably refuses to look at her. An image of lovely Katerina flashes up before him and Sukhov sends Giuchitai away. This scene establishes that the film’s central question, perhaps, is not whether Sukhov, the embodiment of Soviet military power, can possess Giuchitai and Central Asia, but whether he should.  

This moral hazard for Russia is illustrated not only through the theme of infidelity, but also through the real physical danger in which various Russian characters find themselves. By the end of the film, all of Sukhov’s Russian allies in the village have been killed: the priest, the Tsarist excise man and the young soldier. Furthermore, Sukhov’s potential wife Giuchitai is murdered by her husband, the bandit Abdullah. Her death is directly a result of her own ‘betrayal’, a result of living under Sukhov’s protection. Ultimately we are lead to consider the possibility that Russia’s presence in Central Asia not only endangers Russian purity, but also destroys an engaging, exotic, traditional Eastern culture, represented by Giuchitai.

Author of this review: Emily Hillhouse