The Beast. Directed by Kevin Reynolds (who directed Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Waterworld, both with Kevin (!) Costner ...annnnnnd who wrote Red Dawn along with John Milius, from whom he doubtless soaked up the obsession with Satellite ordnance, Rooshan nastiness, and guyness). Starring George Dzundza (whose family was doubtless happy to see him playing a Rooshan), Jason Patric (now where’d I put that -k?), Stephen (the other one) Baldwin, and (unbelievably) Steven Bauer as the Afghan. Based on a play, Nanawatai, allegedly the Afghan word for the “guest-friend” hospitality obligation to which even the barbarous must cede.
The star of this thing is, of course, the T-62 tank, 5447, “terror of the Occident,” honchoed by the brutal veteran of Stalingrad, Daskal (a still-slim George Dzundza, who bulked up nicely to become an affable but doomed second-banana in films like Fatal Instinct and City By the Sea), and crewed by a trio of sulky Rooshan conscripts, among whom Koverchenko, the sensitive one (by which I mean given to howling moralities in the face of his superior officer after the dreary fashion of Vietnam War flicks), and an Afghan asset, soon to become (or not) a liability. It sure looks to this old soldier as if the uniforms and equipment are authentic, no small triumph for the time (the film came out in 1988, while the Rooshans still clung precariously to their toehold in those intractable mountains and arid washes), as if the tank battle drill is faithful, as if the terrain is appropriately forbidding. Evidently filmed in Israel with, to judge from the names credited as “tank crew,” Israeli connivance since the Israelis are the only civilized group from whom a T-62 could be bummed (and I guess we all know where they fetched up with those, don’t we?). I spy in the credits the name of omnipresent authenticator Dale Dye, who went from wire-brushing jungle boots for Platoon to lecturing on the battle of Gaugamela for A and E and with a straight face …and in an Orvis sweater (in the Marine Corps if you get caught with the Orvis Catalogue, they’ll come around after lights out, whack the bejeezus outten you with a sock fulla soap cakes).
The tale: 5447 bursts out of the desert into a small Afghan village, scatters yellow rain and cyanide among the villagers, machine-guns the survivors, including the goats. When a prisoner won’t talk, they crush him under the tracks as, so the story goes, the Rooshans actually did. Following the armored column out of the village, though, 5447 takes a wrong turn to find herself lost in a wasteland of beetling cliffs and endless sand as internal rifts open among the crewmen: Daskal, the track commander, suspects the Afghan, Samad (Erik Avari, a Mediterranean face you’ll recognize from the background of lots of other films), of collaborating with the ever-present “Mujas”; Kaminski (Stephen Baldwin) and Golikov disdain Koverchenko, the “thinker”; they all live under the shadow of the brooding and haunted Daskal, increasingly alienated from both humanity and geography. Meanwhile, back at Gzgrkzkzxc (or whatever they call the used-to-was village) Taj, heir to the murdered Khan, and Moustafa, the renegade, enter into an uneasy alliance for the purpose of vengeance, marja (or something). They set off on foot and motorcycle after the luckless 5447 with an equalizer, an RPG-7 tank buster recovered by one of the Afghan women (memo to self: do not mess with Afghan women... ever!). And the chase is on!
The tankers rumble across the trackless waste, poison wells, hold the pursuing Mujas off with their dwindling stock of machine gun ammo and rounds for the main gun as water, oil, petrol (a lot like gas but Middle Easterner), and even brake fluid (drunk by Kaminski) run out. Patience runs out, too. We sacrifice Samad (providently, it is Samad’s last gift to the affable Koverchenko that will ultimately save his life, nanawatai, the Afghan custom of protecting those who claim asylum) and abandon Koverchenko (to the tender mercy of the Afghan women, be it noted), who nevertheless manages to ingratiate himself with the Mujas by invoking their operative tradition, nanawatai, and by mending their inoperative RPG. Now it’s Mujas and Koverchenko after the T-62 and marja, each for his own reasons: Taj for his village, Moustafa because it’s what he does, Koverchenko for the sake of... I dunno, people who need people. In the end, we run down the tank when she slips a track, flush out the crew, and line them up for the slaughter when Koverchenko, seized by his innate humanity (again), calls nanawatai on these guys, too. Reluctantly the Afghans, the men anyhow, accord their protection to the rousted crewmen. Who’ll protect them from the rage of the fee-males, though? Anybody who’s ever dated a cheerleader knows how this is gonna end. Still, as with Job and Moby Dick and the Bridge on the River Kwai (tank = whale? beast = fish? dissertation topic for fee-male graduate student at UPenn) there remains a survivor to tell the tale, to warn us of the dire outcome when, despite Kipling’s warning, we “try to hustle the East.” Which is in the end the true beast? The monster of iron or the one of flesh?