Wild, wild east

Soviet-era cowboy films have inspired politicians, writers and cosmonauts alike

When I first moved to Moscow in the early 1990s, my friend Dasha gave me a gift-wrapped video. "Watch this," she said. "It was made years ago but it will help you understand our country." I assumed it was a melancholy epic by Andrei Tarkovsky, with lingering shots through rain-splattered windows, or perhaps a revolutionary classic such as Battleship Potemkin.

When I unwrapped the paper and looked at the cover, I found a man in a grubby white uniform surrounded by sand dunes. "White Sun of the Desert," said Dasha. "It's a Soviet-style cowboy film. The best one ever made."

While Pravda editorials attacked decadent Hollywood, Soviet leaders couldn't resist a good western. Stalin was both fascinated and infuriated by John Wayne; the American actor's anti-communism so disturbed Uncle Joe that, accor ding to Orson Welles, he once sent the KGB to California to assassinate him. Leonid Brezhnev, meanwhile, had a crush on Chuck Connors, a B-movie actor who starred in a 1960s TV series, The Rifleman.

At a party hosted by President Nixon, Connors presented a delighted Brezhnev with a pair of Colt .45 revolvers. The general secretary returned the favour by allowing the American series to be shown on Soviet TV.

What Brezhnev and the rest of the Politburo really wanted, however, was a home-grown product. So the Committee of Cinematography ordered screenwriters to create Soviet supermen who would gallop faster and pull the trigger quicker than the hero of any western. White Sun (1969) was the first big hit, paving the way for a genre of "easterns". In some films, the backdrop is the steppes or Siberia. The Ural Mountains stand in for Monument Valley, the Volga replaces the Rio Grande and the heroes sport civil war-style budyonovka hats or fur-lined shapkas instead of Stetsons.

James Meek, whose novel The People's Act of Love begins with the arrival of an escaped prisoner in a small Siberian village, was partly inspired by watching dozens of "easterns" on television in hotel rooms when he was a foreign correspondent in the former Soviet Union.

"The whole idea of the stranger riding in to town is central to the western, but it is also central to this Siberian world of scattered, remote communities," he says. "Siberia becomes what the old West was in the American western: a place of harsh elements, where Europeans come into contact with the Russian equivalent of Indians, the native people of Siberia. A hard man is alone against the wilderness or alone against criminals and bandits. It is a place where you really make your own law, or there is no law at all."

White Sun, like many later gun-slinging action movies from the Brezhnev era, is set in Russian central Asia during the civil war. The hero, Fyodor Sukhov, is a Red Army soldier who has just been demobbed and is desperate to go home, but gets caught up in a showdown between a Bolshevik cavalry unit and some Basmachis (the Russian name for armed counter-revolutionaries) in the deep south of the USSR.

These Islamic Turkic rebels are the bad guys, the equivalent of the Indians in an American western. The arch-villain is Abdulla, a Basmachi warlord fleeing the Reds. He kills a handful of his wives and abandons the remaining eight in the desert, and so the gallant Soviet hero is forced to come to their rescue. The film was originally called Save the Harem.

Surprisingly, perhaps, Hamid Ismailov, an Uzbek writer based in London, is a fan of the film. "It does caricature central Asians, but not in a really offensive way," he says. "Anyway, that's missing the point. White Sun is really about a deep longing and love for the Russian motherland. I see it as a nationalist film ahead of its time, because in those days Russia was just a mixing pot for other Soviet peoples."

Above all, White Sun celebrates Russian men. Perhaps that is the secret of the film's enduring success and why it is still one of the top five bestselling DVDs in Russia. Ravaged by alcoholism and cursed with plunging life expectancy, Russian men today need reasons to feel good about themselves. Blue-eyed Comrade Sukhov fits the bill. He is the embodiment of Russian macho cool, the sort of guy who serenely lights his cigarette with a smouldering bunch of dynamite. Even in the dramatic final shoot-out on the beach, he remains laconic and unruffled.

This sangfroid appealed to Soviet cosmonauts. Bizarrely, White Sun has become a lucky talisman, ritually watched to this day before each and every launch. Even the recent space tourist Charles Simonyi had to sit through it. "Not bad for a Soviet movie," concluded the Hungarian-born Microsoft billionaire when I called him on his yacht in the Mediterranean. Georgiy Grechko, who made three Soyuz flights and trained with Yuri Gagarin, compares the film to a "tuning fork".

Now a big-bellied pensioner living in a flat north of Moscow, he says: "It put me in the right frame of mind for a space flight. It had lots of jokes but it was also serious. It made me feel like a real Russian hero." Customs officers, border guards and other Russians in dangerous professions are also diehard fans. Members of the KGB so loved White Sun that they let its director, Vladimir Motyl, accompany them on a tour of the nuclear fleet in Russia's Far East. He gave after-dinner talks about the film and answered their questions. It has even spared Motyl from parking fines.

Paradoxically, Motyl was perceived early on as a troublemaker. He had grown up in exile in the northern Urals after his father was sent to Stalin's camps. He had already fallen into disfavour for making a romantic comedy set in 1944 that officials felt was a "disrespectful" treatment of the Great Patriotic War. Motyl was lukewarm about working on White Sun because he found the screenplay wooden and melodramatic. The boss of a Leningrad studio practically forced him to direct it, saying it was his last chance.

As a result, he rewrote most of the script and shot the film on a frantically tight schedule - but it was banned straight after completion. Censors felt the role of the party wasn't clear enough. Above all, they objected to the reluctant hero, who is more interested in getting back to his plump Russian wife than in Soviet ideology.

Convinced he would never work in cinema again, Motyl went home to visit his mother, but then he had an extraordinary stroke of luck when the film was sent by accident to Brezhnev's dacha. It went down very well with the general secretary and his vodka-soaked party guests. On the following Monday, the film minister received a call from the great man himself saying, "You make good film, thank you."

Lucy Ash's documentary "Russia's Lone Rangers" is broadcast on Tuesday 4 December at 11.30am on BBC Radio 4

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s fragile future

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.