This week’s pick is the 1988 cult classic from director Kevin Reynolds (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), The Count of Monte Cristo (2002) The Beast a.k.a. The Beast of War, which stars George Dzundza (Commander Daskal), Jason Patric (Konstantin Koverchenko), Don Harvey (Kaminski), Stephen Baldwin (Golikov), Erick Avari (Samad), and Steven Bauer (Taj).
The film is set in 1981 as the Soviet Union has entered its second year of their war with Afghanistan. The film centers around the crew of a Soviet tank platoon whose T-62 tank becomes lost in a valley after an attack on an Afghan village. The first few minutes of the film are brutal as it shows a combined tank assault on a Pashtun village which house some Mujahideen rebels who have been fighting the Soviet occupation of their province.
The Soviets use poison gas, flame throwers, RPGs (rocket propelled grenades) and the famed AK-47 assault rifle as they mop up their attack on the villagers. Taj (Bauer) returns home to find his village destroyed and his brother crushed by the tank commanded by the ruthless Daskal (Dzundza) who deals harshly with the guerrillas. Taj becomes Khan (tribal leader) and vows to destroy the tank and avenge his brother’s death.
Not knowing that the valley that Daskal has led them into eventually becomes a dead end, the Soviet tankers go about their duties and hope to rejoin their column. The crew are made up of four Soviets and one Afghan named Samad (Avari) who is not trusted by Daskal who suspects Samad of being a turncoat. The film is a classic example of cat & mouse as the Soviets are chased by the determined Mujahideen rebels who are armed with rockets to destroy the tank.
Koverchenko (Patric) respects the Mujahideen rebels who have them on the run and builds a relationship with the outcast Samad who teaches Koverchenko the rules of Pashtunwali which is their code of honour and civility. Koverchenko begins to suspect that Daskal is going over the edge due to his increased resentment for Samad and for the safety of the men.
There’s one fantastic scene where the tankers are ambushed at night and are forced to retreat before their tank is taken out with a rocket. Leaving behind their water and rations the men are hungry and unsure of their chances of survival. Daskal tells them that they don’t need any food or water and that they are safe as long as they’re inside the tank.
Daskal recalls an action once in Mongolia where his tank was hit directly with an RPG and that he was the only one left alive to drive the crippled tank back to the Soviet lines. Daskal begins to caress the tank and the 105mm main gun saying that “these tanks are better, stronger”. The men look on with blank expressions of unease on their faces that their commander is beginning to go over the edge.
One other great scene is where Daskal asks Koverchenko how one such as he with his educational background and a history of unit transfers, can only think for themselves. Daskal explains that he has never thought only for himself, and fought for the Soviet motherland during the battle of Stalingrad in World War II where he acquired the name “tank boy” for dropping Molotov cocktails on top of German tanks.
As the film progresses, Konstantin is betrayed by Daskal who fears that Koverchenko’s log may incriminate his actions, and leaves him for dead tied to a rock, booby-trapped until he is discovered by women of the village which was destroyed. Konstantin pleads nanawatai which is Pashtun for giving sanctuary to all who ask, even one’s enemies. Taj and his rebels show up and take Konstantin prisoner and enlist his help to destroy the tank which Koverchenko replies “yeah, I help to kaboom tank” after he helps them repair their damaged RPG launcher.
The Beast is a fantastic war drama and a film worthy of cult status because of its cast, especially Dzundza who lost a considerable amount of weight in order to fit in the tank. Veteran character actor and great bad guy Don Harvey who plays the conniving gun loader Kominski went on to play soldiers in such films as Brian DePalma’s Vietnam epic Casualties of War (1989) and Terrence Malick’s World War II masterpiece The Thin Red Line (1998). Stephen Baldwin also turns out a great performance as the young and inexperienced Golikov who abandons his own judgment to help Koverchenko, and joins Daskal in marooning him in the desert.
Some fun facts about the film was that it was shot entirely in Israel in 1988 using captured Russian equipment that the Israelis had converted over and added to their military arsenal. The tank that was used in the film was actually a Soviet T-55 tank that was modified to look more like a T-62, converting other armaments such as the main 105mm gun and the 50 caliber machine gun on the top turret to look like a Soviet DShK heavy machine gun that was typically mounted on Soviet tanks.
Military advisor to the film and former USMC Captain Dale Dye, who would go on to prominence with such Steven Spielberg productions as Saving Private Ryan (1998) and the acclaimed HBO mini series Band of Brothers (2001) recalls that the purchase of the tank and other props was decided over drinks with the Israeli Defense Minister at a hotel in Tel Aviv.
The Beast is available on DVD through Columbia/Tristar Home Video and can be rented through Netflix.