Leo Tolstoy wrote a short story, “The Prisoner of the Caucasus,” from which director and screenwriter Sergey Bodrov, Arif Aliyev, and Boris Giller based the film, “Prisoner of the Mountains.” Set in war-torn Russia, the film chronicles events during the Caucasian War and revolves around the unfortunate experiences and capture of two Russian soldiers, Sasha and Vanya, by an enemy Chechen force. While individuals could analyze and interpret the film in many ways and through various perspectives, one prevailing theme in the narrative relates to culture. Primarily, the film portrays Russian culture against the backdrop of war and chaos. However, the involvement of the Chechen army also highlights another culture. In bringing the two themes together, film analysis could focus on the identification of cultural elements embedded in the film. Moreover, film analysis could focus on specific approaches and techniques applied by the director and screenwriters to structure the cultural elements. Overall, the objective in analyzing the film, “Prisoner of the Mountains,” is to explore the cultural approaches applied in the sequence, and identify and discuss the remaining cultural undercurrents inherent in the film. By discussing the history of the Caucasian war and identifying the motives and intentions of the filmmakers in basing a film on a story set in this war, readers and viewers alike would understand the cultural undercurrents in “Prisoner of the Mountains.” Although the filmmakers portrayed both Chechen and Russian culture, the film seeks to highlight how culture relates to imperialism, maybe even ethnocentrism and nationalism and suggest that despite cultural differences, everyone equally suffers and loses when they are involved in a massive conflict.
“Prisoner of the Mountains”: History and Intention
One could not effectively analyze the film, “Prisoner of the Mountains,” without reviewing actual historical events that served as the inspiration for Tolstoy’s short story. The Caucasian War started in 1817 when Russia invaded the region of Caucasus. Russia has been quite successful in expanding its empire before then. However, the Caucasian conquest served to be a challenge when Russia encountered strong resistance from North Caucasus. Various tribes in Caucasus like Chechnya, Daghestan, Karachay, and the Circassians, with the help of Ottomans, stood their ground against Russian forces, which made it difficult for the Russian Empire to capture the region entirely apart from territories like Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. Shamil led the revolutionary forces against Russia and relied primarily on the Chechen army for the cause. In 1843, the revolutionaries succeeded by driving away Russian forces from North Caucasus, but the conflict continued. The war ended in 1864 when the Russian army captured Shamil and continued to conquer the remaining regions in Caucasus (Mikaberidze, 236).
Aside from the history of the Caucasian War, understanding the director and screenwriters’ motives and intentions in creating “Prisoner of the Mountains” is essential in identifying their approaches and strategies in establishing the cultural elements in the film. Although the primary intention is to recreate some events during the Caucasian War within a film with dramatic elements, part of the director and screenwriters’ goals in filming “Prisoner of the Mountains” is to show the struggles of the Chechen force. The film is somewhat an acknowledgment of how the Russian Empire wreaked havoc among the communities in the Caucasus region. Some critics argue, “the film Prisoner of the Mountains challenged the prevailing characterization of Russia’s relations with the Caucasus in its sympathetic portrayal of the Chechens” (Evangelista, 171). The Russian director and screenwriters sought to challenge the Russian imperialistic view of war by showing how the Empire’s history greatly affected the lives of its conquests. In doing so, the filmmakers found it important to portray the Chechen culture in order to increase awareness about them not only as a community but also as a group of people caught in a war against a large empire. Moreover, the filmmakers sought to establish a perspective from which viewers could learn to understand and empathize with the plight of Chechens as well as the Russian soldiers forced to serve their country. The goal involves the portrayal of two cultures and that despite their differences, people from two opposing suffered because of the war. Therefore, by showing cultural differences, the film also underscores the sameness among the Chechens and Russians as human beings. “Bodrov does not discriminate against any culture,” and thus, the director attempted to show that, “the Muslims are both victims and aggressors, and so are the Russians” (Beumers, 83).
Cultural Elements: Imperialism, Ethnocentrism, and Nationalism
Since we have already established the historical backdrop of the film and the director and screenwriters’ intentions in putting it together, we will move on to the identification of cultural elements inherent in “Prisoner in the Mountains.” The beginning of the film shows the recruitment of Russian men to join the army. The army conducts thorough examinations of men who will be joining the army. During the physical examinations, one of the men asks the commanding officer about their assignments and locations. The commanding officer tells the men, “Wherever your country sends you.” The scenes effectively illustrate cultural imperialism in Russia. Essentially, cultural imperialism is the attempt to dominate other cultures (Hamm & Smandych, 1). The Russian Empire exhibits imperialism because of its previous efforts in conquering smaller states in its quest to expand its populace. Consequently, “Prisoner of the Mountains” portrays how imperialism is inherent in Russian culture by the way that the army carries out its plans to conquer smaller nations like Caucasus. The thorough examination of men who join the army, as portrayed in the film, shows that the Russian Empire planned its attack of smaller states with the objective of expanding its territories. Moreover, the dialogue between the commanding officer and the man joining the army portrays how socialism influences Russian culture. The Soviet cultural policy involved the aims of the government to seize not only political and economic, but also cultural control (Phillips, 55). The commanding officer’s statement, “Wherever your country sends you,” illustrates the idea.
Towards the end of the film, viewers could observe cultural change in Russia. The film subtly hints at Russia’s realization of the detrimental impact of war. Thus, the film is also about Russia’s “search for identity in its post-imperial world, its attempts at self-definition through perception of an alien culture” (Beumers, 123). The filmmakers sought to create a means to approach Russian imperialism fairly by showing how the nation made efforts to change. However, a nation that adopts imperialism for the longest time would experience problems transitioning, and the film shows Russia’s struggles. The contrast between Vanya and Sacha shows, however, the importance of change and adopting a more diplomatic culture. Sacha’s stubbornness shows Russia’s old imperialistic ways as well as ethnocentrism, in his belief that he is better than the Chechen. His death shows how a nation’s refusal to change would lead to its demise. Vanya, on the other hand, chose to adapt and understand the unfamiliar culture in a foreign community and seeing them as equals instead of valuing his culture above others. In the end, Vanya survived. The differences between Vanya and Sacha also illustrate how a socialist nation affects its people. “The film investigates the response of men who are reduced to objects of the state and deprived of political ideals. When man is reduced to an object, he is either subdued, and nonaggressive, or crippled by the system” (Beumers, 84).
The Chechen army captured two Russian soldiers, Vanya and Sacha, after a violent encounter in the mountains. From this point on, the film focuses on illustrating the Chechen culture. A prevailing cultural theme in the film relates to religion. The Chechen are followers of the Islam faith and it is portrayed in the film through various references. In one of the scenes, Abdul, wearing white and a prayer cap, kneels on the floor and bends down in prayer. The prevalence of religion and Islam in the film shows the contrast between Russian and Chechen culture. While the Muslims value peace, the film shows how the Russian soldiers are raucous and violent. The film’s focus on religion underscores how military culture inherent in Russian imperialism nurtures violence and carelessness. The film illustrates how “the large but lackadaisical Russian force engages in massive drinking and random weapon firing, a combination that arouses the contempt of the devoutly Muslim local people who have bitterness, feuds, and long memories of their own to contend with” (Turan, 219).
Strong nationalism of Chechen culture
A recurring theme in the film that relates to culture is nationalism among the Chechen. The film portrays the life of Chechen people in the mountains. Like any other community, adults work in the day while children go to school. The scenes in the film that show normal life in the mountains illustrate the peaceful life of the people. Men, women, and children work together as a community – they share their food and they distribute tasks and responsibilities among themselves. The latter parts of the film show how the Chechen people entertain themselves, especially the women and children, through dance. The film illustrates strong nationalism through the solid screenplay. In one scene, a child sings, “We’re the children of the mountains… We have been here for years, The wind frightens the heart of any stranger here, Nobody understands us, The mountains will protect us, The wind frightens the heart of any stranger here.” The song illustrates strong nationalism as part of the Chechen culture because it shows the attachment of the people to their community. The Chechen are born in the mountains and that the people “have been for years,” which illustrates that the land belongs to them. The line, “The wind frightens the heart of any stranger here,” illustrates how the community stands against intruders.
Another prevailing cultural theme in the film is the Chechen people’s sense of close familial ties. In one scene, the elder who headed the capture of the Vanya and Sacha talks about his intentions. While one of the Chechen men questions his decision of bringing Russians to their community, the elder explains that he needs the men so he can trade them in exchange for his son. The other elders insist on killing the two Russian soldiers but he insists because he wants to bring his son back. The elder’s intentions illustrate how the Chechen people value familial relationships more than their own safety and wellbeing. The film also highlights Chechen culture on family and marriage. In one of the scenes, a Chechen boy tells another girl that he has a good friend and asks her if she would marry him. The girl agrees so the boy asks if she has a dowry. The girl owns a silver necklace and two Russian slaves, Vanya and Sacha. The scene illustrates the prevalence of arranged marriages, even among children, and the need for women to give their future husbands dowry.
The Russian culture represented in the film illustrates imperialism and ethnocentrism, while the previous discussions about Chechen culture highlight nationalism, religion, close family ties, and marriage practices. Another aspect of culture represented in the film involves gender. The Russians and Chechens follow patriarchal traditions. In Russia, the army only allows men to enlist, and thus, they are left out of the conflict. In a scene towards the end of the film, a Chechen elder shoots a Russian soldier, witnessed by a woman. While the men ran after one another, they left the woman alone. The woman’s dialogue with a commanding officer also shows how Russian society treats women. The woman asks the commanding officer to help with bringing back her son from the Chechen community but the commanding officer refuses to help. The Chechen is also a patriarchal society. In one of the scenes, the male elders talk about the Russian soldiers and the war while the women and children attend to domestic concerns such as preparing food.
“Prisoner in the Mountains” also illustrates the difference between modern culture in Russia and traditional culture in Chechnya. The setting and characterization highlight the difference between Russian and Chechen culture. While Russian society illustrates modern culture with their structures and machinery, the Chechen culture lags behind with people doing manual labor and using traditional means to do their tasks and responsibilities. The film represents modern culture in Russia by the people’s exposure to Western ideas. In the film, Russian soldiers entertain themselves with alcohol and drugs. On the other hand, the Chechen adhere to conventional practices and traditions – early marriages among women, women giving dowry to their future husbands, traditional burial ceremonies, and group dancing and merry-making, among others. The difference between modern and traditional culture represented by Russian and Chechen culture illustrates how modernism also affects culture. In modern Russia, people live in structured buildings where there is electricity and have guns and ammunition for their army. In this case, the film proves that modernism could fuel imperialism and ethnocentrism, such that a nation having the means to conquer smaller states with guns would seize the opportunity. Chechnya, on the other hand, remains a peaceful community because they cling to their old traditions and religion.
“Prisoner of the Mountains” tackles various subjects and themes including the impact of war on people regardless of their culture. However, one prevailing theme in the film relates to culture. The filmmakers took advantage of setting to differentiate the culture between Russia and Chechnya. Russia is set in a place with modern buildings and structures powered with electricity and the soldiers carrying guns and riding tanks and helicopters. On the other hand, the filmmakers set Chechnya in the mountains where the Chechen’s source of livelihood is agriculture. The Chechens also cling to traditional culture and religion. The differences between the two cultures prove the impact of modern and traditional cultures, where modern culture nurtures imperialism and ethnocentrism while traditional culture restrains people from being openly aggressive and violent. Overall, the film emphasizes how war affects everyone, whether the people belong to superior or inferior nations. During a war, all nations lose because they all see and experience suffering around them.
The film highlights cultural elements with various scenes that represent cultural ideas, practices, and traditions. The aggressive and violent nature of Russian soldiers as well as the planned actions of Russian soldiers in the war proves that imperialism relates to Russian culture. The behavior of Sacha in the film also represents Russian ethnocentrism. However, Vanya’s thoughts and points of view show the chance for Russia to change its ways. The cultural practices represented in the film shows Chechen traditionalism, such that the people in the community follow their culture closely. Traditionalism, in this case, also equates to nationalism because the Chechens close adoption of their culture shows how they love their community. Overall, the filmmakers utilized the narrative based on Tolstoy’s short story not only to recount events during the Caucasian War and to illustrate the detrimental impacts of war, but also to show the contrast between Russian and Chechen culture.