Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Film Review: The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924)

“The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks” is, well, extraordinary. In some ways, this film is like an early Soviet Red Dawn. It’s not nearly as negative or scary as Red Dawn. But both movies reveal the total lack of knowledge about the other nation. This 1924 film by Lev Kuleshov is a key work of Soviet silent cinema and beautiful piece of comedic propaganda.

Severe spoilers ahead. If you can’t stand knowing what happens next, you shouldn’t read my film reviews. This reminds me of Lyrad’s story about a woman getting mad at him when he told her that Titanic ended with the boat sinking. He’ll have to confirm that though.

Mr. West works for the YMCA in the United States. He seems to be a sort of upper class dandy reformer, but it’s not totally clear from the movie because the Soviets don’t have a very good idea about what the YMCA did, or for that matter the United States in general. He also has some of the largest glasses I have ever seen. Anyway, Mr. West wants to go check out this new Soviet Union, which he knows nothing about. His friends worry about him and some send him a book with pictures of Bolshevik monsters. They are men with large mustaches and funny things on their face. The movie shows Mr. West imagining the savage commies roasting a live woman over a fire and preparing to eat her. He goes anyway, but takes his servant. According to this Soviet film, every rich American has a servant. And those servants: all cowboys! Mr. West takes his cowboy, replete with six-gun and full gear, to Moscow with him. Some luggage gets lost and then the cowboy, Jed, can’t find his way back. Mr. West worries. His handbag is stolen by some punk who works for a count/counterrevolutionary rightist who has lost his property and is now a common crook. When the count gets the bag, he decides to rip West off.

The count goes to Mr. West and says that he is being followed by crazy Bolsheviks. West stupidly follows him. The count gives him a “tour” of Moscow, by which he takes him to a crappy part of town where he lives, shows him some ruins and says these are the Bolshoi Theatre and other landmarks. West and his conspirators then try to rip off West in various ways, which I won’t go into in any detail.

Meanwhile Cowboy Jed is going crazy trying to find his master. He is escaping the cops and swings on a rope through a library where he runs across Ellie, who he knows from home. Supposedly he saved Ellie from a violent act once in the United States. In a flashback, Ellie is about to be raped by two guys under a ladder that Jed is working on. After being too oblivious to see this for about 20 seconds he jumps down and kicks the hell out of criminals. Why is Ellie in the USSR? No idea. Totally unexplained. You’d think a propaganda film would play her up as being a communist learning about world revolution to take back to the US or something. But no.

Jed and Ellie go to the police. Those Soviet police sure are nice! Just like in real life!!! They search for Mr. West and rescue him just as the Count is ready to finish stealing his money. While I won’t go into all the details, the Count sets up a “Bolshevik” attack where a bunch of scary looking guys are supposedly going to kill West. How are they scary? Not only do they have big mustaches and wear crazy savage clothes, but they also make funny faces. You can do this yourself. Stand in front of a mirror. Contort your face in weird ways, like you would to a 5 year old that you want to make laugh. That is the attack. Intense.

Mr. West is rescued and then shown the real Moscow, including the real Bolshoi Theatre. He is shown parades and other fine aspects of Soviet life. The movie ends with him sending a letter home to his wife saying in a paraphrase, “Burn the New York magazines. Put up a picture of Lenin. Long live the Bolsheviks!”

It’s pretty damn funny. Seeing what the Soviets thought American life was like was great, as what they thought happened when Americans came to their country. It’s hardly the Cold War yet, but severe tensions already existed between the United States and Soviet Union, in no small part because of U.S. involvement in the Russian Civil War. In a lot of ways, it is like a humorous, 1920s version of Red Dawn. It’s much more benign than that piece of US Cold War propaganda, but cultural misunderstandings abound in both films. Unlike Red Dawn however, Mr. West is actually a good movie. The cinematography is cool and there are some great acrobatic fight scenes. There’s even a good chase scene. Check it out if you get a chance, although I don’t think it’s available on DVD. You’ll be fully entertained while also immersing yourself in a great primary source of US-USSR relations.