During the future filmmaker’s panel at last’s year Star Wars Celebration London convention, Lucasfilm Executive Pablo Hidalgo asked the Director of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson what films were his inspiration for the next chapter of our saga. That panel was one of the golden moments of the festivities during that week that educated and inspired attendees to think beyond Star Wars and dive into the art of storytelling. Rian responded with six films that he felt were so important for his vision of Star Wars: The Last Jedi that he encouraged the production staff to watch them as well before cameras started rolling. The films, Twelve O’Clock High (1949), 2. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Three Outlaw Samurai (1964), 4. Letter Never Sent (1960), Gunga Din (1939), Sahara (1943) was the challenge laid down by Rian Johnson, and one that we were eager to accept.
The goal of this challenge is to understand storytelling better so that I could be a better viewer and critic. Not only in its business and mechanics but in its different styles of prose and techniques used to elicit feelings from the audience. My aim is to learn and drown myself in the lessons of storytelling to be a better viewer and listener. I want to dive into the deep end of the pool and learn from the masters who craft the stories we love. If Rian Johnson believed these films are important enough for the production crew, then they are equally important for this blogger and his respectable readership.
So last year we embarked on Rian’s Challenge with our first review of “Twelve O’Clock High” (1949), a fantastic film that you can read here. We took a bit of a hiatus for Rian’s Challenge to focus on Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. It’s one of those decisions that had me on edge as I wanted to dive into these films and encourage my readers to do so as well. But with Felicity Jones and company looming large on the horizon it would have to wait till after Rogue One was out the door and the ramp up for Star Wars: The Last Jedi began. With only a week away from Star Wars Celebration Orlando, there is no perfect time to kick this challenge into high gear, and it’s my sincerest hope that you all join me in this endeavor.
Letter Never Sent (1960) Directed by MIKHAIL KALATOZOV
Finding this classic on any streaming medium wasn’t easy of course so it was off to Amazon to purchase the Blu-Ray copy and I’m glad I did. The reproduction was excellent and the sound delightful for a film delivered in a 4:3 format. If you are looking for it on Amazon, Netflix or Hulu, you will be out of luck.
Fire, misery, hopelessness and a dash of good ole’ fashion Russian propaganda make Letter Never Sent one of my favorite films. It’s simple, straightforward, flamed plastered hell in black and white. The music was in short, perfect. It’s dramatic, to the point and just plain fits. The cinematography and its complexity to create its claustrophobic feel is nothing short of genius. The plot is simple as it is powerful, like a locomotive barreling down a single track in the middle of nowhere. I sincerely hope Letter Never Sent lends lots of its elements to Star Wars: The Last Jedi and its story.
The picture starts with our four main characters, Sabinin, Tatiana, Andrey and Sergey, geologists searching the thick forests of Bolshaya Zemlya, Siberia in a hunt for diamonds. Their charge is simple enough, find veins of diamond deposits so that The Union Of Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) can begin a new Industrialist Age. The pursuit of these diamonds for our cast is not all for personal benefit and a life of riches. Instead, it’s for the State and its promise of leading the Space Race and a better tomorrow for the Soviet people. This film is dripping with that classic wrap yourself in the sickle and hammer propaganda films of the 1950’s and 60’s. But in this movie, there is a real honest desire to overcome the odds, and achieve success through bog muck thick despair.
Our five geologists are lead by Sabinin as they enter into the Siberian plateau which geologically mimics the famed African plateau that is steep in diamond deposits. Sabinin, who is now on his fourth expedition to find this elusive natural mineral resource is hopeful and inspired at the start of this film. The crew begins their work in the beautiful Boreal forests of Siberia during summer. Here the atmosphere is sunny with flowers blooming as they start their work digging and analyzing mineral samples. It’s during this time that a small separate thread in this story develops between the war veteran in the group, Sergey Stepanovich, becomes jealous of the romantic relationship between Tatiana Nikolayevna, the only woman in the group and her lover Andrey. Sergey, played by Actor Evgeniy Urbanskiy has this fantastic and authentic 1000-yard stare that inflict some veterans of war. Living here in the Nations Capital, I have seen my fair share of this loss of light in the eyes of friends and colleagues that have come back from conflicts abroad. In this film, Urbanskiy’s stare is mesmerizing and believable. It’s that same look that he gives Tatiana when he dreams of real love that he cannot have which turns Sergey into a man drained of any light.
This despondency begins to infect the team after many weeks of no success in finding the diamond deposits. Campsite after campsite and thousands of samples later they come up empty and defeated. The realization begins to sink into Sabinin that this expedition, his fourth, may be his last. To come up empty is non-negotiable when it comes to the Soviet State. Within these scenes of gloom, there is this beautiful and incredibly tense moment when Sergey, feeling supremely jealous of the thin framed scientist Andrey, confronts him while standing in a bog about Tatiana and how he is unworthy. He beats and pummels the man he calls a mosquito. Andrey’s only rebuttal is a calm, somber disagreement of Sergey’s bad behavior, and how his actions will never get him the love he desires. He doesn’t fight back and simply walks away.
This moment is heightened even more in the next scene as the group hits an all time low. In a newly dug trench, Tatian and Sergey work alongside each other searching for evidence of diamonds. With the drone of his pick axe slamming the ground over and over again, the thud builds to a tempo and tension that is just electric and frightening. Like a zombie drained of any emotion, Sergey stares at Tatiana in such a dramatic way that the audience can read it like a billboard. He is going to assault and rape her right here in this hole in the ground. Without even a hint of facial expression, Sergey telegraphs the horror that is about to unfold. Tatiana sees this as well and starts to buckle only to yell at him stop even before he has even moved a single centimeter. She knows what his next actions are, a man desperate and devoid of any checks and balances that would otherwise stop a person from doing the unthinkable. Sergey to his credit, stops gathers himself and then leaves the ditch.
Then it happens, the eureka moment when Tatiana scared and now crying with her lover Andrey now beside her sees the evidence they have all been working so hard for, diamonds! I can’t stress enough how as a viewer, this scene initially put me in place of terror only to end up in jubilation for our characters. It’s nuts, and I loved it.
Just as our heroes are celebrating their win, they decided to hit the sack for the night and soon find themselves in the second circle of hell. For the morning rise brought with it the antagonist of this film, a firestorm in the forest of Bolshaya Zemlya. The crew, now frantic to save the geological samples of evidence of their find and the priceless map of the location of the discovered diamond vein, loses one of their own. Sergey’s quick bout of heroism has him dive into the bog, beyond the brush to gather their materials and toss them over a burning tree to his comrades. In the act of saving all they worked for, the steely-eyed hero is crushed by a tree engulfed in flames. The three, Sabinin, Tatiana and Andrey now find themselves on a journey coiled in fire hundreds of miles long.
Here in the wilderness of Siberia, there are no roads; no internet cafe’s, no pay phones to make a call home. With the fire raging across the screen- a trick used by the Director often in this film, you are left with this fast building sense of worry. The 4:3 aspect ratio is such a dream in this movie. The limited view makes the fast trek through this forest fire feel like you are well and truly there. Sergey Urusevsky, the cinematographer for this film, is nothing but a pure genius. How he captured these shots though the thicket of this dense forest, which was literally on fire is the most amazing thing I have ever seen on film. Quite literally the cameraman puts himself in the fiery mess to deliver these stunning visuals. I sincerely doubt something like this could even be achieved practically today. The sheer danger and work protections from OSHA would make it impossible and for a good reason. The fast paced side scrolling fire infused imagery is something I will never forget, and for me, it brought back lots of memories when I was a boy visiting Portugal. There in the northern mountains of Portugal for a summer visit to my father’s picturesque town of Gorgoco, fires raged through the forest, and there were a couple of times where we thought we might be in trouble. The smell of fresh pine burning and the smoke it creates is unforgettable, and this film brought it all back in spades for me.
If the lust of Tatiana and that 1000-yard stare wasn’t good enough, the radio on Andrey’s back is one of the best-supporting actors of this film. The crew report back to base daily on their good, reliable shortwave backpack radio. These vital transmissions to base command detail their current whereabouts, the general mood and successes of the team. The radio is their only lifeline to the real world as it is their only means to call up a helicopter to go home. When the firestorm breaks out, the radio gets damaged in the best drama filled way possible. They can hear the transmissions, but they cannot send communications in return. Here through the march of desolate unbearable smoke, they listen to their masters on the radio, first celebrating their good news, then worry about their loss of transmissions. Soon after, the worst as the realization that the team is lost in a firestorm stretching across a thousand miles. The final direction from base command is deafening as they remind the survivors that they are well off their path and hope of rescue is slim. With little food and water, something that scorched Earth has little of, our trio begins their trek to the wide river. There they will find there only hope in a raft or boat and float their way to civilization.
Each frame is flame and dense forest in constant motion. Each step is scorched lungs and despair. Their panic compounds when Andrey injures his leg and must be carried by Tatiana and Sabinin. Exhausted both physically and mentally, they begin to collapse. So much so that Andrey in the dead of night decides that he must leave his compatriots and be lost to the flames to save his love Tatiana so that she might have a chance to survive. In this night scene lit by fires in every corner, she screams into the night searching for her love demanding “He has no right!”, Only to finally give up. Here Sabinin and Tatiana continue one, slow step by slow step until they hit the high peaks at the edge of the Siberian plateau where winter has come. Snow and cold with inadequate supplies food and water, we see our duo soon become one as Tatiana succumbs to the cold.
It is in the final scenes of this film that our beloved leader Sabinin carries on until he reaches the wide river and creates one of the coolest scenes I have ever seen in a movie. Walking in the snow in bare socks, riddled with frostbite, he builds a raft from a fallen frozen tree. Something akin to a mini ice float that he drops himself onto in bid to float to civilization. There he decides to build a campfire at its end of the raft as he gently floats downstream. The makeshift ice raft is so cold that the fire at it bow doesn’t even pose a problem. After a long drift, a savior in the way of a helicopter finds Sabinin, beached alongside the banks of the river. In face covered in frost in one of the best close-ups I have ever seen, Sabinin finally opens his eyes as the crew is checking for a heartbeat. In roaring musical tones we see his eyes open slowly defying fate and beating the odds for the people of Soviet Republic and his Wife of his precious letters.
I love this film. After two weeks of letting it sink in, I find myself drifting off thinking about it. Letters Never Sent is a simple story, but damn if it doesn’t have you wanting to come back for more. It’s superb and should be mandated viewing for anyone wanting to be a cinematographer. If this movie were filmed in cinemascope, it wouldn’t feel as claustrophobic, and it would lose its intensity. The close ups and look of this film by cinematographer Sergey Urusevsky are breathtaking and impactful.
Of course, this is a Star Wars blog, and a small part of Rian’s Challenge is how this film would provide some muse or inspiration for Star Wars: The Last Jedi. For me, the role of Sabinin and his journey through the fire instantly reminded me of Luke Skywalker and how his demeanor would culminate by the time we witness him on the deserted planet of AHCH-TO. A Jedi who has seen his share of optimism, despair, jubilation and horror mirrors what Sabinin has endured in Letters Never Sent. Men brought to their knees with the demands of the universe and wanting nothing of it anymore. Sabinin is looking for diamonds in the deserted forest of Siberia and Luke searching for enlightenment in the Force on the hidden Jedi temple on AHCH-TO.
Letters Never Sent reminds us to never give up for the causes that matter most. For Sabinin it was to return to his Wife and to enrich the lives of those of the Motherland. For me, the lesson remains to revel in the work of compelling storytellers and to endeavor to better understand their craft.
You can pick up “Letters Never Sent” on Amazon here; you will be glad you did. Special thanks to Director Rian Johnson and Pablo Hidalgo for their commitment to expanding our knowledge of storytelling.