Distributed by: Mosfilm
Released: July 1975
Country: Soviet Union
Akira Kurosawa is Japan’s most famous director, and this film, Dersu Uzala, was produced by a Soviet film studio. Filming was done on location in the Russian Far East wilderness, and many scenes depict the terrifyingly harsh winter weather of that area. And yet . . . this movie is, essentially, a Western.
The Western’s most common theme, found in just about every film of that genre, is that of the conflict between opposites: Civilization and Wilderness. This film is the story of a tribesman of the Nanai people, an ethnic group almost Korean and almost Turk, living in the eastern-most recesses of Russia. He is Dersu Uzala, played wonderfully by Maxim Munzuk. He is Wilderness personified, a man who can look at tracks and know how close the animal is and can make a shelter of grass in an hour that can protect a man from a blizzard. And he is living in an age when his way of life is going away fast.
|Captain Arseviev and Dersu Uzala|
Backing up a bit: The film starts with a Russian expedition exploring and surveying the remote area. Captain Arseniev and his men come upon the odd-looking Dersu, who agrees to help them in their job. Dersu has lost his entire family to smallpox and is living a life of a loner, but he is likable and intelligent. He and Arseviev quickly become friends and quickly the rest of the group come to respect him.
Arseviev and Dersu’s paths will cross on a few occasions over the years, with Dersu saving the Russian captain’s life on more than one occasion. In one of the film’s more exciting sequences, the two men have strayed too far from the group when a great bluster of weather hits them. Dersu senses the storm somewhat ahead of time, and knows they will not make it if he does not act quickly. Though the situation seems hopeless, Dersu’s instincts and knowledge of the terrain are what allow them to cheat Death.
|Now that's a knife!|
But Dersu is a superstitious man, a big part of the package of this complex personality. His interactions with a tiger, and the fact that he is aging and with poor eyesight, will lead him to decide to hang up his cleats and retire as a wayfaring loner. Much like Crocodile Dundee did in 1986 when he moved from the Outback of Australia to New York City, Dersu Uzala, having thrived most of his life on his home court, the Wilderness, will now move to perhaps his most difficult challenge, taking on Civilization.
Kurosawa was greatly influenced by, and in turn, was a great influence to, the American Western film. The Seven Samurai (1954) and Yojimbo (1961) were remade into Westerns The Magnificant Seven (1960 and 2016) and A Fistful of Dollars (1967). In his Japanese films, Kurosawa is a master of using climate as a key element of his movie-making—you will be hard pressed to find one of his films that does not have intense rain or wind scene, shaping the mood and often affecting the characters’ actions. Dersu Uzala has those scenes, but more. It is a movie about a man living in and being part of his Wilderness. Dersu is a short, stocky, Asiatic-looking old man living in eastern Russia, but he epitomizes the Cowboy as much as anyone in a John Ford movie.
|The real Dersu Uzala|
The Title: Дерсу Узала, based on a 1923 non-fiction book about this very real man. Believe it or not, there were two movies with this title, the other one made by the Soviets in 1961.
The Culture: Kurosawa considered making this movie early in his career, before he became an internationally famous director with 1950’s Rashomon. He tabled his idea because he knew that this was a film that had to be made on location. Kurosawa captures the cruel climate of this part of Russia in a number of masterfully shot scenes. But he also presents the Wilderness, represented by the tribal uncivilized people of this area, with much respect and dignity. Dersu, a man of wisdom but great superstition, is presented with admiration and even awe.
Agenda danger: An admiration of Man’s rugged individualism pervades the film, without some preachy side message about how Man is ruining his environment, which is what we would undoubtedly see if this movie were remade today.
Best Picture that year: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Rating: A wonderful film. This is not even in the top five Kurosawa movies (I would put it at about 9), but if you’ve enjoyed any of his films, one reason to watch is to see his work away from Japan. I enjoyed the relationship between Dersu and Arseniev, and the last part of the movie, set in a calm town atmosphere, is as gripping as the two men’s grappling with nature.