Pirates of the 20th Century Review

A huge box-office success on its original release, Pirates of the 20th Century provides yet more proof that 1970s Soviet cinema, despite its relative isolation, nonetheless drew heavily on formulae pioneered by other commercial cinemas - in this case, Hollywood and Hong Kong action thrillers. It's easy to see why it was seen as a breakthrough in the USSR: as director Boris Durov says in one of the supplements, Soviet heroes up to then had been modelled more on Hamlet than Schwarzenegger - a great deal of philosophical procrastination, but not enough action ("At that time, our movie heroes were either physicists or lyricists, a little bit homosexual, I'd say").

But to an early 21st-century Western viewer with no interest in the cultural and historical context, the sad fact is that Pirates of the 20th Century, while reasonably engrossing for the most part, ultimately looks like a heavily watered-down imitation of a Hollywood action blockbuster, and there's very little question that its box-office success was more down to the fact that such blockbusters simply weren't available to the Soviet audiences of the time, so they had nothing to compare it with.

Similarly, while I can easily believe that they would never have seen elaborately choreographed karate-based fight scenes like this, to Western eyes they never rise above the level of a second-rate 1970s Shaw Brothers opus, and often don't even get that far (the opening action scene when the pirates invade has so many obviously pulled punches and unsubtle cutaways that it's hard to watch it with a straight face).

Though Durov was undoubtedly right to insist on keeping things moving (at 79 minutes, the film certainly can't be accused of dawdling), this is at the expense of giving us anything else to latch on to - for instance, the unusually elaborate characterisation (for a disaster movie, at any rate) of its near-contemporary Air Crew.

Here, by contrast, we never get much of a handle on these people beyond their generic roles: the unflappably competent captain (Pyotr Velyaminov), his heroic chief engineer Sergey (Nikolai Yeryomenko Jr), in love with fellow crew member Aina (Maya Eglite), the boatswain (Tadeush Kasyanov) with a sideline in nifty karate moves, the island native Maa (Dilorom Kambarova) who would much prefer the Russians to leave so she can get back to her simple peasant existence, and so on. No-one ever rises above their stereotype: most disappointingly, there aren't even any interesting character flaws to liven things up.

Apparently based on a true story, Pirates of the 20th Century concernes the hijacking of the ship Nezhin, which is in the process of transporting tons of opium to Japan for legitimate medical purposes. Needless to say, the pirates have other uses for the cargo, and once they've moved it over to their ship, they set the Nezhin on fire, believing all the crew to be dead. But a handful manage to make it to a lifeboat, and after floating aimlessly overnight they end up on the very island that the pirates use as their base - and (given that it would be a pretty dull film if they didn't) decide to take revenge.

That's pretty much it in narrative terms, though there are some effective set-pieces along the way, including some well-shot underwater sequences (most notably a real-time rescue sequence where Sergey has to swim into the bowels of the sinking Nezhin in order to rescue the women, who have been locked into one of the cabins - it apparently became an audience convention to hold one's breath in sympathy during the entire scene).

The only two villains who make any impression are Reino Aren's white-suited Mr Big (a Blofeld without the cat) and Talgat Nigmatulin's Saleh, a karate expert who performs most of the physical action and masterminds a surprisingly nasty interrogation scene (Durov explains in the interview that this was toned down when it was pointed out that removing overtones of sexual violence would give the film a child-friendly rating and massively increase its box-office potential) - the rest are mere body-count fodder and easily disposable. The film's vast success (over 100 million tickets in the first year alone, close to an all-time domestic record) showed that Durov and co. were certainly on the right track commercially - but it's impossible to believe the film would have had similar success (or anywhere close) in a freer country.

In many ways, it reminded me of an outwardly totally different film, Vassily Pichul's 1988 opus Little Vera, which caused a scandal in the USSR for its frank sexuality and was picked up by salivating international distributors, but which turned out to be little different from an early 1960s British kitchen sink drama in both style and content. Fascinatingly, Durov claims that the Soviet film authorities were more interested in the film's commercial potential than the usual ideological issues - does the existence of Pirates of the 20th Century and Air Crew (and possibly others of that ilk) suggest that the USSR in the last days of the Brezhnev era was consciously trying to create a Hollywood-style entertainment factory?

The transfer is one of Ruscico's better efforts - the print is virtually flawless (fewer spots and scratches than I'd expect from a film over two decades old) and the transfer is very acceptable: anamorphic 2.35:1, with plenty of fine and shadow detail. The colour shifts occasionally (especially in the underwater scenes), and the picture is occasionally somewhat grainy, especially in interior scenes, but I suspect it's fair to blame this on the original materials - and it's never a major issue. It's safe to say you're unlikely to see this film looking much better.

Sonically, it's also very satisfying - as ever with this label, it's been remixed from mono to 5.1, but the great advantage of the nautical setting is that it's easy to add unobtrusive surround effects (even something as simple as water lapping the rear speakers) without seeming forced, while the subwoofer is used to beef up engine noises, explosions and gunfire. Often, the mono roots of Ruscico's soundtracks are obvious, but they've done a better concealment job here than they have with certain other titles. Recording quality is perfectly acceptable for a film of this vintage, although the shootouts in particular aren't a patch on something like the much more recent Heat in terms of realism (then again, neither are the visuals).

Technically, there's little to choose between the Russian and English dubs (the lip-sync is better in the Russian, but it's just as obviously post-dubbed) - as the dialogue rarely rises above the thick-ear, which one you go for rather depends on whether you rate linguistic authenticity above your desire to replicate that authentic dubbed 1970s Eurotrash experience. Personally, I can sympathise with both sides of the argument.

Insofar as I can judge these things, the subtitles seem fine, though it's a little jarring to be presented with English dialogue and Russian voice-over (and English subtitles) in the opening scenes, though this is undoubtedly what the film's original audiences would have heard. There are just fourteen chapter stops - less generous than some Ruscico discs, but it's not an especially long film.

This extras make up a standard Ruscico package: stills gallery, filmographies and interviews. The gallery contains ten images from the film and nine production stills, selectable via thumbnails, and the filmographies cover director Boris Durov, writer Stanislav Govorukhin, cameraman Alexander Rybin and actors Reino Aren, Pyotr Velyaminov, Talgat Nigmatulin, Dilorom Kambarova, Natalya Kharakhorina, Nikolai Yeryomenko Jr and Maya Eglite. Most of these also get brief text biographies, some of which are quite tantalising (for instance, Velyaminov "was unlawfully persecuted in 1943-52", but no further details are provided). There's also a buried trailer in Aren's filmography, for Grigori Kozintsev's Hamlet.

All the other extras take the form of interviews with Boris Durov, Stanislav Govorukhin and actors Nikolai Yeryomenko Jr and Tadeush Kasyanov. They all seem to have been shot specifically for the DVD and all take a similar format: to-camera interviews intercut with appropriate clips from the film. All the interviews are in Russian, with subtitles available in English, French, Dutch, Italian and Spanish.

The interview with Boris Durov runs a whisker under twelve minutes, and is more anecdotal than analytical. He tells us how he came to make the film, his approach to it (no procrastination: move as fast as possible) and the logistics of hiring and shooting the ship. A discussion on staging action reveals that Yeryomenko refused to kick Nigmatulin in the groin during the climactic fight, because that's not what a Soviet hero would do. Durov overruled him, because he was determined to break that mould. Finally, he pays tribute to Talgat Nigmatulin, who was murdered a few years later by a gang of criminals that he'd fallen in with.

The two actors' interviews run eight minutes apiece and are broadly similar - Nikolai Yeryomenko gives a delightfully candid interview, getting off to a great start when he admits accepting the part of Sergey because he felt he was approaching middle age and wanted to attempt something flashy ("boyhood complexes, you know") - for which he was showered with furious letters from former fans ("How could you, after elated art, take up such a contemptible genre?"). But he's genuinely proud of the way the film was so popular with teenagers, and gave them a glimpse of a genre that the Soviet authorities had up to then refused to sanction or import. He's very funny about his shortcomings in the fighting department compared with professionals like Kasyanov and Nigmatulin, especially his tendency to have nosebleeds during especially energetic shots (one ended up in the film), and he's honest about his mixed feelings about getting a Best Actor nomination for Pirates but not for what he felt was far superior earlier work. But it's clear that he likes the film and he enjoyed making it - and also feels that for all its artistic shortcomings it has its place in Russian film history.

Tadeush Kasyanov quickly reveals why he was hired both as actor and stunt co-ordinator: his day job was as the chief coach of Moscow's Central School of Karate. Much of his interview is taken up with describing his approach to the stunt work, illustrated with copious clips, and his close personal friendship with Talgat Nigmatulin - but he concludes by describing the poor-to-nonexistent shape of Soviet action films, not merely in terms of home-grown product but also imports. And his overriding reason for making the film? "We wanted to show that you can't just do harm to a Russian man and get away with it!"

The shortest (just over five minutes) but in many ways the most revealing interview is the one with screenwriter Stanislav Govorukhin, who devotes much of it to describing how he and Durov spent their careers being savaged by the critics, before going on to discuss Pirates of the 20th Century in the context of later American action films by Schwarzenegger and Stallone (especially Rambo) - specifically its "purity" and "humanity". This is, needless to say, more than somewhat contentious - compounded by later claims that the critics should have praised Pirates because it was as innovative as any arthouse film (maybe to Soviet audiences, but hardly international ones!) - but it's nice to see a bit of polemic in a Ruscico extra for once.

Though I enjoyed Pirates of the 20th Century as far as it went, I can't recommend it especially highly with a clear conscience - as entertainment in its own right (i.e. divorced from the cultural and historical context) it just doesn't cut the mustard for a Western viewer, and even those interested in it for the Soviet kitsch factor will get slim pickings: its determination to tone down any real sense of time or place (the hammer-and-sickle flag sported by the Nezhin and the picture of Lenin in the captain's cabin are pretty much all the clues you get) reminded me vividly of one of those multinational European 1970s co-productions of no fixed abode that pad out the schedules of cheap cable channels. Indeed, in the English dubbed version, that's exactly how it comes across - with all that that implies.

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