Stirlitz had a thought. He liked it, so he had another one.
August 16, 2014 12:13 AM   Subscribe

A Soviet take on Rambo (brief clip; Rutube) is "unique in its violence and anti-Americanism." A Russian point of view on James Bond remarks that "so widespread was the interest in Bond that an official Soviet spy serial ... was released." But the spy novel / miniseries Seventeen Moments of Spring (somewhat digestible in 17 highlights with commentary: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17) is for interesting reasons not a Soviet counterpart to James Bond or Rambo. See also Seventeen Moments fanfic, two pages of jokes about its hero, and how he figures in the present.

Bonus links: Both "Comrade Rambo" and the /r/AskHistorians reply about James Bond and Rambo reference the silent film The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in The Land of The Bolsheviks (1924), which is examined further in "Soviet Comedy: The Kuleshov Effect in The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks."

Relevant AskMe threads: 1 2 3 4. Partially via.
posted by Monsieur Caution (9 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
From the James Bond or Rambo reddit link:
As just sort of a correction, some people have been talking about my use of Rambo and they are right to question me on it. I should clarify that when I am talking about Rambo in my post, I am specifically talking about Rambo 2. I often forget that First Blood is actually part of the Rambo series. My apologies!
Yeah, everyone forgets about First Blood, which was nothing like anything else in the series... It's pretty mind-blowing to rewatch if you haven't seen since you were a kid, and a pretty surprising if you've never seen it. My adult rewatch of that movie startled me quite a bit (with it's ideological perspective, that is). I can imagine the Soviets might have loved that movie as-is.
posted by el io at 2:11 AM on August 16, 2014 [8 favorites]

Also, this "It’s worth noting here that the Soviet government had control over the way its military appeared in films that the Americans did not" is not quite entirely candid - the US has silly amounts of control over how its portrayed in film (if the filmmakers want to play with any of the cool toys the military has, that is).
posted by el io at 2:13 AM on August 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

It's not so much a question of IF governments have control over shit but whether or not they choose to exercise their control
posted by notreally at 5:17 AM on August 16, 2014

Yeah, everyone forgets about First Blood, which was nothing like anything else in the series...

Yeah, it is startling. Whenever someone bangs the drum about violence in films and deploys body count as the sole measure, it is fun to observe that the first Rambo movie depicts one death (and that an accidental one) while a typical Pirates of the Caribbean flick tends to hit triple-digit numbers of corpses.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 5:26 AM on August 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

Yeah, everyone forgets about First Blood, which was nothing like anything else in the series...

One of the first things I did when I got a Netflix subscription a few years ago was to have marathon rewatchings of a few classic series, including Rambo, the Alien movies, etc. Almost all were strikingly different than my memory, but First Blood was one of the most divergent.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:07 AM on August 16, 2014

I'd be wary of drawing any equivalences between Soviet and Western political control over film-making. You may be happy to get military co-operation for your Hollywood epic, but you certainly don't need it - and there's no way that the USSR would have (or China could now) make Dr Strangelove, for example. Even a boffo action movie like Crimson Tide got made despite steely Navy disapproval, with the production going to the extent of guerrilla filming a US Navy sub on active duty. You can imagine how such antics would have gone down elsewhere...

I am happy to have made the acquaintance of Stirlitz, though. A truly Russian piece of television, magisterially unconcerned with pace or easy charisma - if you want to see quarter of an hour of the hero pottering around his house in the evening, drawing the curtains, eating his tea, preparing his bath, reading his post and making a single mental observation about happiness and duty, you've got it. (But for god's sake, man, retune your wireless after receiving your coded messages. Don't leave it on frequency when you turn it off. Did they teach you no fieldcraft at all?)
posted by Devonian at 7:03 AM on August 16, 2014 [8 favorites]

Thanks for this post; I'm looking forward to reading Seventeen Moments of Spring and then watching the series. (I already love Stirlitz jokes!)

> I'd be wary of drawing any equivalences between Soviet and Western political control over film-making.

Yeah, me too.
posted by languagehat at 8:08 AM on August 16, 2014

I rather disagree with the reddit link in regard to reasons for there being no Soviet Rambo.

There were a few things at play here.

First of all, imagine for a second that all of the Rambo movie scripts had to be approved by the entire chain of hierarchy in the US State Department, the Army, the White House, and the final product would be seen to some extent an official statement of the US Government. It would be a holy mess. I mean, the director and script writers would probably hang themselves a few weeks into the ordeal.

In the Soviet Union, there was this thing called Ministry of Culture that kept the tabs on what movies are made, what books get published, and so on. Things that went outside of the norms would have to be approved by committees at several different levels and anyone having a cushy job at one of said committees would be mindful of giving a green light to something that might be seen as unacceptable at the higher level.

Quite naturally, a system of this kind leads to increasing conservatism. Put yourself in the shoes of the director - you have to make the movie, get paid for it, make sure your staff and actors and so on get paid and avoid reshooting scenes and changing the script. Why take a risk? Even if your script is initially approved it may get shot down at any stage, in the worst case the whole project may be shelved after it was shot and edited.

This makes it especially hard to deal with anything that can be affected by current political climate and changes in the official (or unofficial!) party line. You have to remember that the Soviet Union wasn't consistently up in arms against the West, there would be times of relative relaxation, then hardening of the line, then back to some relaxation. Soviet Union, for one thing, was much poorer than the West and starting in mid 60s was buying hundreds of thousands / millions of tons of grain, so there was economic dependency as well.

On top of that, the West's economic superiority was hardly a secret, yet not something that could be confronted or explained in an official channel. Modern life in the West was simply not shown, it would be too burdensome to walk the line between showing material abundance, hiding it, explaining it away, ignoring it.

There were two topics that were always dependable and predictable, as far as action movies went: WWII and revolution. Those were bread and butter for many a middling Soviet director and script writer. As you can imagine, piles upon piles, literal shit tons of such were made, over and over again, and many hundreds of them are still gathering dust in the archives of Mosfilm and Lenfilm.

But here's the rub: the studios still had to make money occasionally. The financial pressure wasn't nearly as pervasive as in the West but it was still there, and if you could make a blockbuster (or a few!), you could get away with being more risque and skirting the rules somewhat. In addition, if you had fans and/or connections in high places, you could be more daring.

There's a few examples I could recall. -SPOILERS-:

In the 'Diamond Arm' the hero goes to a foreign, eastern country, comes back with an arm cast full of diamonds; Soviet police officer gives him a handgun for self-protection against a gang; his wife finds it and initially thinks he might have been recruited as an agent by the West. When they confront each other, he exclaims, "How could you think that!!?", she counters, "What was I to think?", he exclaims, "Anything but that!!".

Now, to a western viewer that might not seem like much, but in a soviet movie of the time, it was a really unusual and risky bit of dialogue, especially in a comedy. A good soviet man turning a traitor would be unthinkable. Treating it lightly in a comedic setting is even more unthinkable - some things should not be joked about.

In the 'Sluzhebny Roman' (Workplace Romance), the hero hands in a production planning report to his boss, who is also a lady with whom he will be romantically involved at a later point. She tells him off for the report being poorly done and adds that it's the kind of shoddy work on planning that leads to goods shortages and people having to stand in lines in the shops.

Again, doesn't seem like a big deal, does it? And yet, lines and shortages were a daily fact of life for the soviet people and yet the causes and reasons were not officially addressed. It's something that a movie would normally not show and not talk about, or at least show in passing as an annoying but intermittent / random event of modern life, perhaps someone's regrettable mistake.

What's interesting here is that this poor schmoe, a bumbling but sympathetic loser, gets absurdly blamed for what most people suspect is a systemic failure of the soviet economy. At the same time, the one who does the blaming is a rather highly placed functionary, so at best this can be seen as a high official being silly and blaming the little guy.

One last example is from a comedy "Garage", where a bunch of hapless strangers get locked up in a meeting room where they have to decide who will lose the spot in a cooperative Garage they were collectively building. At one point, a character proclaims, "I sold my motherland for that spot!" People slowly back away from him. He continues with his argument and it becomes apparent he was referring to a parcel of land or a small house in a village where he grew up.

Again, sounds like a bit of silly wordplay but it's one more example of something soviet cinema would never joke about -- after all, a few decades earlier you could end up getting a "25" for such levity (that's 25 years, by the way - not a small chunk of life!)
posted by rainy at 9:35 PM on August 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

it is fun to observe that the first Rambo movie depicts one death (and that an accidental one)

Well.. I forget, do any of the searchers die, or are the just hurt ? (I recall some booby traps, but not if the folks die).. But I would not call the sheriff's death at the end accidental.
posted by k5.user at 9:47 AM on August 18, 2014

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