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The movie is better than the Tolstoy story Film: Sergei Bodrov's Oscar nominee 'Prisoner of the Mountains,' based on Tolstoy's early story 'Prisoner of the Caucasus,' develops characters and plot better and shows war as the tragedy it is.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's infrequent enough that you can say the movie is better than the book, but it's a positive rarity when you can say it of a book not by John Grisham or Michael Crichton, but by Leo Tolstoy.

Yet such feels like an absolute truth: Sergei Bodrov's "Prisoner of the Mountains," which opens Friday at the Charles and has just been nominated for an Academy Award, is in every way superior to the mid-19th-century text on which it is based, "The Prisoner of the Caucasus" by the then young cavalry officer who would later become one of the world's great novelists.

Is this a fair statement? Probably not. "Prisoner of the Caucasus," after all, really isn't a book: It's a short story of less than 20 pages (I read it in the Penguin edition, lamely translated by Ronald Wilks), one of the first things the young count did when he returned from his own military adventures in that land and took up the writer's trade.

It recounts the adventures of one Zhilin, described only as "an officer serving in the Caucasus" and possessing no age, no rank, no memory, no background, no reality -- just "an officer serving in the Caucasus." The Caucasus is that troublesome scut of Muslim-inhabited mountains southeast of Moscow between the Caspian and Black seas, which has been at war with Russia in all its political guises for about 200 years. Tolstoy called these tough, resilient people Tartars; today, just as tough and resilient, they're called Chechens.

Headed home on leave, the otherwise uninteresting Zhilin is captured by them. Held in a mountain village remote from civilization, he commits totally to the survivor's mind-set and resolves, no matter what, to get out alive. He tries anything: befriending his captor's daughter, becoming the village Mr. Fix-It, making goo-goo eyes at his captor's daughter, even trying to become your friendly neighborhood medic. Twice he escapes, once he's recaptured. Eventually, he makes it out. Tolstoy's climactic statement: "He ran to the [friendly] Cossacks who surrounded him and asked him where he had come from. But Zhilin was too excited to answer and could only weep and mutter, 'Comrades, comrades!' "

The story is about as basic as they come, not helped a bit by Wilks' translation into highly cliched English ("That night Zhilin did not sleep a wink.") But it's clear also that in the original Russian, the piece had little subtext. It's an exercise in pure narrative, almost a young writer's finger exercise in which he's merely trying to master the most elemental of storytelling skills, trying to create a believable sequence of events, before moving on to other techniques. It proceeds at a steady -- boring, actually -- pace, neither speeding up for some robust action sequences nor slowing down for deeper moments when the characters might otherwise encounter some elemental realities. None of the relationships has any texture or passion and traces any emotional arc. It's a story written almost without artifice, its very simplicity and matter-of-factness its chief attraction.

"The original story was very pro-Russian," Bodrov says, "and I tried to make it more universal."

Grace notes

But in an odd way, that's not true. It's not a work of propaganda that demonizes the enemy as subhuman. In fact, since the point of view is largely Zhilin's grim professional military mind-set -- unused to random observations or excessive emotion, much less sentimentality -- it's filled with what might be called professional grace notes. He respects the Tartars as military operators, as hardy, tough and cunning. He even goes to a great deal of trouble, in so small a compass, to evoke their culture, some of their language and to see them as individuals, which, after all, is the underlying humanistic theme of the story.

But the story, as a 19th-century Russian document, never questions the right of the larger country to dominate the smaller one. (How could it? The idea that imperialism was unjust wouldn't be invented for another 20 years and wouldn't become widespread for another century.) It simply takes as morally correct the right of the Russians to commandeer the ethnic entity of the Caucasus and remold it to czarist ends. It never occurs to Tolstoy that such a thing should be judged, that another moral interpretation was even possible.

"I read this story first when I was 8," says Bodrov, "and I never forgot it. It's really a child's story, very simple, like a parable. I have always wanted to make a movie of it. When the Chechen war came up, it was a great opportunity."

But, the director confesses, not all the Russian critics particularly cared for it; they saw it exploiting a situation that caused much grief in both countries. Even more shocking, it was one of, if not the first, major Russian film to treat Chechens as human beings, rather than as the thieves, bandits, chronic malcontents and mischief-makers they usually are portrayed as in Russian popular media. Somewhat immodestly, Bodrov has even claimed part of the credit for making a peace between the two countries. He told the New York Times that Yeltsin demanded to see the film on a Sunday and that on Monday he began the peace process.

While conforming to the general thrust of the Tolstoy treatment, Bodrov has made his telling much more narratively sophisticated, much more ironic and, more importantly, much more humanistic. His ending -- one of the most chilling sequences in many years -- carries with it a great message all but forgotten by the big, old world movie industry of late: War is hell, and it's particularly unkind to children and other living things.

Father and son

In the original story, although two Russians are captured, one is hardly a character. Bodrov reconfigures Zhilin into two Russian soldiers, an experienced sergeant (Oleg Menshikov) and an inexperienced conscriptee (his son, Sergei Bodrov Jr.). So instantly there's conflict and drama between the two over the course of their ordeal; moreover, it's the young man who's the point-of-view character, and we feel him change and learn throughout the film, a kind of growth that utterly evades Tolstoy. It's the young man who carries the meaning of the film: He's the one character who is not locked into unalterable ways of thinking and who has the capacity to draw lessons from his ordeal. He's also got a great teacher.

It just so happens, also, that Menshikov is widely recognized as Russia's best film actor and his infectious, domineering personality really leaps off the screen, in a way that Tolstoy's stolid, doughy Zhilin never does. He's a little like Errol Flynn and a lot more like Kevin Kline, performance being something a director can marshal that a writer never can. His dash and panache really fill and drive the film; particularly, they show off brilliantly the personalities of the other characters.

Bodrov also develops the plot more dramatically and fleshes out anecdotes and characters that Tolstoy merely evokes. For one thing, the film turns on a complicated double-exchange (which itself establishes moral equivalency between Chechen and Russian cultures) whereby the two Russians are held by village elder Abdoul-Mourat (Jemal Sikharulidze) in exchange for his own son, who is in a Russian prison -- a dangerous, tricky affair that is difficult to make happen and which gives the film an over-arching sense of tension.

Tolstoy mentions another villager, who has lost seven sons fighting the Russians; when his eighth son becomes a policeman collaborating with the Russians, he searches him out and kills him. Bodrov seizes on this, fleshes it out, dramatizes it and integrates it very skillfully into the plot to give a real sense of logic and force.

And Bodrov, unlike Tolstoy, isn't squeamish about the meaning of war. The action in the story is all vague and poetic: galloping horses, swirling dust. It's like a 19th-century battle painting, glorious yet obscure and undetailed. By contrast, Bodrov rubs our noses in the squalor of an ugly guerrilla war in a remote Third World country, and understands exactly how it hammers its soldiers and victims into insensitivity. Unlike Zhilin, Sacha (Menshikov's older soldier) will kill, because that's how he perceives the solutions to his problems. He's courageous in battle, bodacious in captivity, resourceful in escape, but not beyond murder and not beyond the retribution of murder. In other words, he's pretty much professional military as the 20th century, with its profusion of violent little scrapes in far-off nowheres, has configured him.

And by no means is "Prisoner of the Caucasus" even anti-war; it accepts war as a necessary condition of empire and merely suggests that the figures caught up in it are human, not demons and saints. That is probably fairly radical an insight for a 19th-century Russian aristocrat; but Bodrov takes it much further. He sees the utter brutality and stupidity of it, and his ending -- the survival of one soldier accompanied by an act of atrocity infinitely depressing -- makes the larger point: Not that empires are evil, but that the use of force as political coercion is evil, if largely unstoppable. It closes on a chilling image -- one man racing down an empty valley, trying to reach the gunships as they peel off to do their job. At that chilling moment, we see the tragedy of the race, and that's something Tolstoy never got around to showing.

Pub Date: 2/16/97

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