9th Company. Directed by Fyodor Bondarchuk (son, you’ll be happy to learn, of “renowned director” Sergei Bondarchuk… yeah, sure: name two of his films …ready, go!). Starring: Bunch of Rooshans, apparently drawn from whole spectrum of Asian racial palette much like the World War II squad of undying fame: Zingari, Sacco, Vanzetti, Prinzip, Van Der Lube, Barrow, Parker, Gacy, Dahmer, Berkowitz, Dillinger, Sheen.
We’ve grown weary—some of us, at least—of the appeal by blow-dried journalists on the teevee comparing our morass (they actually found another word for “quagmire”) in Afghanistan, Cesspool of to our morass in Vietnam, Republic of. Seems among the lessons we did not learn is that other people watch our teevee, too. The Pentagon, meanwhile, has resurrected the French morass (“merdier,” in the original) in Algeria as the model for counterinsurgency, COIN in Pentagonspeak, though COIT(us) might be better acro, and taken to showing Gillo Pontecorvo’s Bataille d’Alger (frequently mistranslated as “The Battle of Algiers”) to deploying officers… or thinkers …sometimes both (urf! urf!). Anyhow. Whether the morass in Vietnam or the morass in Algeria turn out to be the most appropriate paradigm (kinda like an example but next-level cooler) remains a question for the over-the-horizon guys. Still, this unregenerate SP/4 wonders if maybe the morass in Afghanistan might not be a more plausible metaphor for the morass in Afghanistan. Just a thought.
9th Company is one of a couple of quite watchable films (this unregenerate SP/4 does not trust documentaries, oddly enough: seen too many about Vietnam, Republic of) about the Russian war in Afghanistan currently available from Amazon: The Beast (of slightly older vintage and Gringo-ified, see review) and Prisoner of the Mountains (pirated from that old pirate Tolstoy’s Prisoner of the Caucasus, see also review). I say “watchable” because they’re movies, entertainment and not ham-fisted political statements; though you may draw political inferences from them, you can also watch them to profit with a bottle of beer in one hand and t’other up to the elbow in bowl of Cheetos ™. In 9th, we follow a heteroclite squad of Rooshan “volunteeers,” Chugun, Volodya, Lyuty, Stas, Ryaba, Vorobei, and “Giaconda” (Mona Lisa in Rooshan), the sensitive one, from their teary departure at the rain-droozled train station in Zbszxskzvc through their basic training (right in the battle zone, a novel concept) and on into convoy duty (ouch!) and ultimately to an outpost in Indian (woo-woo Indian, not Gandhi Indian) country in danger of being overrun by what even then they call the “Muj.” My DVD is dubbed into pretty passable G.I. English, but you can opt for Rooshan with subs.
Presiding over the integration of these kids into the Russian Army (the Russian Airborne Army it turns out, and though there’s no parachuting, there is that airborne sense of superiority over “regular” troops and that airborne rigor in the training) is crusty and horribly scarred veteran, the drill instructor Dygalo, whose dark dreams and brutal expediency “war” (yeah, yeah… just like Barnes in Platoon) within him and translate into a persona incomprehensible (for now, at least) to the recruits. Grumpy, violent, unpredictable, he nonetheless seems to have the welfare of his charges to heart, delivering them through ages-old military regimen the immense satisfaction of overcoming their own inertia and adolescent fear. Slowly, they coalesce into a unit. We’ve seen all this before, yet the art of this flick is to deliver a fresh take on the old trope and even the occasional untoward twist. In a (perhaps predictable) Walpurgisnacht, they have the drill sergeant’s demons out into the open; in a (perhaps predictable) moment, they pass from youth to manhood under the careful (and naked) ministrations of the fulsome “Snow White,” anything but virginal stewardess of the threshold.
If the guys have any doubts about the nature of their war, they must be dispelled when one of them gets issued an AK with a bent barrel. It’s all going to be skewed, wrung, wrenched, torqued, misalligned in this incomprehensible war, authentically retrieved (to the eyes of this old SP/ who had like his buddies to memorize the endless parade of silhouettes of Rooshan ordnance: PT-76, BTR-60, T-72, BMP and on and on) with genuine Soviet equipment, weapons, gear, the panoply of the trooper of 1989. In the ‘Stan, our guys come to roost in a mountaintop aerie, sandbagged enclave of the kind we still see on the six o’clock news full of Marines or the 173rd or the 4th Infantry, tattoos, baggy britches, Kalashnikovas and all. It appears that the holding of ground (whatever your take on that strategic principle) hasn’t changed much since when. Nor have the Muj, who prowl the night and only occasionally muster for an ambush or assault, leaving the soldiers to boredom and intestine strife. What’s a crisis? We’re out of matches to ignite the unbroken chain of cigarettes (Rooshan, we must assume) by which these troopers beguile their idleness. No matches? Go down into the village and score us some. The gingerly track of a lone trooper among this mysterious people offers a moment of genuine and appropriately dramatic suspense I shan’t ruin for you.
In the end, it’s man against man as communications fail, air support evaporates, and the small garrison takes on a full-scale Muj attack in complete isolation: Shades of Rourke’s Drift, Custer’s Big Horn, the insect attack in Starship Troopers. Does industrial light and magic from the civilized world (giving us the benefit of the doubt on that epithet) in the end overwhelm the passion (misplaced, misconstrued, misbegotten or not) of the natives? And what the hell are we doing here? In the end, as in all wars, what we’re doing here is looking out for Ivan and Pavel and Sergei, our buddies, and let the pukes back home do the heavy thinking. Uh… the pukes back home, that’s us, by the way.