The game of buzkashi reputedly dates back to the time of Genghis Khan. Played on horseback, it is often likened to polo, though that doesn’t really capture its violent nature. The aim is to gather the headless carcass of a goat and keep hold of it during a circuit of the sizeable playing field whilst fellow riders attempt to, quite literally, beat it away from you. All of this takes place at a tremendous pace, with horsewhips being used just as much on the steeds as it is the rivals, and was utilised by Genghis Khan as a means of toughening up his armies. The games, incidentally, last until there is a winner, which means they may last for hours or even days.
If you’ve seen Rambo III then you may remember Sylvester Stallone playing a spot of buzkashi with his Mujahideen pals. The sport also popped up in High Road to China (Tom Selleck’s Indiana Jones-alike adventure movie from the early eighties) and was the subject of Buzkashi Boys, one of last year’s Oscar nominees for Best Live Action Short. Prior to any of these films, the French novelist Joseph Kessel had centred Les Cavaliers on the game in 1967. Coincidentally this was at a time when his works were beginning to attract the attention of filmmakers, with Luis Buñuel bringing Belle de jour to the big screen that same year and Jean-Pierre Melville adapting L’Armée des ombres two years later. Inevitably, Les Cavaliers would soon be in line for a cinematic makeover resulting in The Horsemen in 1971.
Produced by Columbia Pictures, Kessel’s novel was the recipient of a suitably lavish treatment. The tale’s Afghanistan setting was maintained (and mostly authentic save for some of the location work in Spain) and Claude Renoir was installed as director of photography. He also had 65mm film stock at his disposal – or at least until the budget demanded a switch to the more conventional 35mm – which means the country’s expansive plains are always given their due. Indeed, it often seems like the next swooping helicopter shot is only seconds away. Georges Delerue adds to the epic qualities with his brassy score, plus we have a veteran of this style of cinema, Omar Sharif, in the lead role.
The star of Doctor Zhivago and Genghis Khan (and many more) plays Uraz, who will be competing in the upcoming royal buzkashi on the outskirts of Kabul. An aeroplane alerts us to the present day setting, though without such indicators it’s likely we’d assume some historical past. Uraz lives in a poor northern province of Afghanistan where the ancient game still holds huge importance. His father Tursen, played by Jack Palance, is considered “the greatest chapendaz who ever lived and the noblest” (chapendaz being the name given to competitors) and takes great pride in having a son who could take that crown. Should he win royal buzkashi Tursen will gift Uraz a white stallion, one that is coveted by seemingly everyone in their village.
Except Uraz doesn’t win. Brutally targeted by the other riders, he falls from his horse (the very same white stallion) only for it to be mounted by the eventual winner. Left with a broken leg and a wounded pride, he decides to prove his manhood in another way: by making the perilous journey from Kabul to his village and enduring the extremities of both its landscape and its climate, made all the worse thanks to his own injuries. The game itself, which occurs early on, makes for a powerful piece of cinema, all hooves and horsewhips and a thundering soundtrack. It provides quite the contrast to the scenes which follow (excepting a flashback to Tursen’s own buzkashi), which tend to become more character focused. For all its epic qualities, The Horsemen is essentially a portrait of two incredibly proud men and the relationships that breeds.
Adapting Kessel is Dalton Trumbo, the famed screenwriter and novelist who had been blacklisted by the HUAC (House on Un-American Activities Committee) in 1947 thus becoming a member of the ‘Hollywood Ten’. Though he continued to work without credit or under pseudonyms – and twice on Oscar-winning screenplays, no less – it wasn’t until the end of 1960, with the release of Exodus and Spartacus that his name appeared onscreen once more. Epics with a strong human angle, I suspect it was these two pictures Columbia had in mind when Trumbo was brought onto the project. He was, after all, a man who could balance the grandiose and the intimate without losing sight of either.
And so, while its fascinating to be able to witness a widescreen Afghanistan before war changed it forever, The Horsemen also stands out for its two central performances. To be honest, Palance is something of a supporting player here, with most of the running time spent in the company of Sharif as he treks northwards with his servant and stallion in tow (and, latterly, Leigh Taylor-Young’s “nomadic whore”). Yet he also commands his handful of scenes entirely – though there was less than 13 years between the pair, the father-son bond and the intensity of their relationship is strongly etched into the picture. Interestingly, the film was released at a time when American cinema was concerning itself with anti-heroes and it’s hard not to view it through that lens whether Kessel and Trumbo intended it or not. The Horsemen is very much about the masculinity of these two men and their determined to be seen as victors who never show any signs of weakness. But we’ve become trained by the movies of this era (Five Easy Pieces and Husbands, for example, were released the previous year) to focus on exactly that and so it’s the flaws which fascinate and occupy our attention. Where they see heroism, we see bloody-mindedness.
Of course, the other sign of the times is the somewhat wayward casting wherein a bit of eye shadow can make former soap star Taylor-Young an Afghan woman or actors born in such disparate places as Egypt (Sharif), Pennsylvania (Palance), Bristol (Peter Jeffrey) or India (Milton Reid). Some stick out like a sore thumb, others less so, though such distractions are at least tempered by the authentic settings. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if many take an interest in The Horsemen solely for the Afghanistan angle. But there’s also much else to be taken by – the central performances, the work of Renoir and Trumbo, and director John Frankenheimer who I’ve somehow managed to neglect throughout the entirety of this review.
The Horsemen comes to the UK courtesy of Sony Pictures and is available exclusively through MovieMail. It’s a something of a slim package, with just the theatrical trailer and English subtitles for the hard of hearing to accompany the main feature, but does come with a solid presentation. The film comes in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio with original mono soundtrack and both are in a decent shape. The image is almost entirely free of damage and demonstrates excellent clarity. The more hectic moments – such as the key buzkashi scene – provide no problems and Claude Renoir’s cinematography is able served. The soundtrack occasionally struggles with a couple of excessive scenes, but the dialogue and Georges Delerue’s score have nothing to worry about.