The Seventh Bullet (Ali Khamraev, 1972)

The Seventh Bullet is set after the Russian Civil War as Soviet power established itself in Central Asia and as opposing Basmachi rebels cross the border bringing death and destruction to peaceful villages. Local militia leader Maksumov struggles in his campaign against Basmachi warlord Khairulla who has captured most of his men and won them to his side. With little other option, Maksumov gives himself up in hopes of being reunited with his men and winning them back to the Revolution. Ali Khamraev’s take on the Red Western was an international hit, featuring rollicking action, reassuring heroism, and an unstoppable performance by its star, Suymenkul Chokmorov.

For those (like me) who care about terminology, Ali Khamraev’s The Seventh Bullet is technically an Eastern (or “Ostern”) rather than a true Red Western. Red Westerns, like the Czech film Lemonade Joe (Oldrich Lipsky, 1964) or the East German Indianerfilme, set their stories in the American West, while Easterns recast Western tropes in the Russian steppes and Asian frontiers, usually setting them during the Russian Revolution and following the Civil War. Capitalizing on the popularity of American Westerns in the Eastern Bloc, Soviet studios produced numerous classic Osterns including Mikhail Romm’s The Lost Patrol-inspired Thirteen (1936), Samson Samsonov’s Miles of Fire (1957), Nikita Mikhalkov’s At Home Among Strangers (1974), and the exceptionally popular White Sun of the Desert (Vladimir Motyl, 1969). The Seventh Bullet stands amongst these great examples of the subgenre – celebratory popcorn excitement loaded with all the themes and politics relevant to Ali Khamraev.

The Seventh Bullet opens with Red Army militia commander Maksumov (Suymenkul Chokmorov) arriving on horseback to a ransacked village. He discovers that most of his troop has deserted his command in favour of the enemy, a Basmachi warlord named Khairulla (Melis Abzalov). Revealing his iconoclastic nature, Maksumov decides to surrender himself to Khairulla in order to reunite with his soldiers and win them back to the communist cause. In an extensive adventure across the Uzbek frontier, Maksumov surrenders to a caravan of Khairulla supporters; meets Aigul (Dilorom Kambarova), a young woman reluctantly promised to be Khairulla’s latest wife; becomes the mistaken enemy-turned-loyal ally of a grieving horse rider named Ismail, and eventually surrenders himself to Khairulla, collecting his own bounty in the process.

Suymenkul Chokmorov is captivating onscreen, an uncanny Central Asian combination of Lee Van Cleef’s squinting ruthlessness and Toshiro Mifune’s bristling energy. While filling the role of action film hero, Chokmorov ably embodies Khamraev’s notion of a transitioning Uzbekistan, presenting Maksumov as a man of common sense and rallying principle who understands the traditional Muslim culture but also appreciates its need to modernize. When told that his soldiers revolted after the overseeing commissar punished one of the guardsman for laying down his gun to pray, Maksumov sides with the commissar but laments the manner by which he lorded his authority over the Muslim troop. And when reunited with his soldiers, Maksumov makes no apologies to them and instead reminds them of the injustices they experienced under the rule of Khairulla and his ilk. The truth of his statements (and the manly righteousness of his delivery) are enough to inspire debate among his men between the competing values of Muslim tradition and Soviet idealism, between Allah and the Revolution, and between justice and revenge. Maksumov even rouses concern in Khairulla, who fears the Revolution and its capacity to understand the plight of his people.

Khairulla orders a “trial” of the captured Maksumov that seems intended to be little more than an execution. The commander’s fortunes look poor until Aigul, Ismail, and his compatriots intervene, freeing Maksumov in an elaborate escape. The Seventh Bullet culminates in a prolonged desperate chase of Khairulla by Maksumov, first on horseback and then on foot. No surprises here for this popular action film: Maksumov’s final bullet, his titular “seventh bullet,” finds its mark and, despite some appropriately tragic casualties, The Seventh Bullet ends in celebratory patriotic spectacle.

For Western eyes, much of the Ostern’s appeal comes in seeing a distinctly American genre recast through the lens of its Cold War opponent. The Seventh Bullet certainly encompasses Rick Altman’s classical Western plot: “the story of the lone stranger who rides into a troubled town and cleans it up” while “winning the respect of the townsfolk.” And by casting its heroes on the side of an organized and uniformed militia and pitting them against indigenous contras, The Seventh Bullet encourages comparisons to John Ford’s cavalry films, with the Basmachi substituting for Apache as the obligatory Western opponents – dark-skinned, tribal, socially backward Others. Khamraev’s Uzbek Muslims importantly differ from the Apache typical to the Western (and to the Basmachi of some other Osterns) in the sense that they are peoples whose hearts and minds are to be politically won over, rather than be physically marginalized or exterminated. This is an important distinction to Khamraev’s take on the genre – Soviet and Central Asian cultures are not considered to be mutually incompatible.

The Seventh Bullet was decidedly Ali Khamraev’s most popular Red Western and the director would continue exploring this brand of commercial cinema until the intervention of his friend and colleague Andrei Tarkovsky who demanded the Uzbek director apply his considerable talents to more artistically rigorous projects. Tarkovsky’s view notwithstanding, The Seventh Bullet demonstrates Khamraev’s cinematic mastery with all that goes into rabble-rousing high adventure. Movement, landscapes, scoring, and editing are all utilized to their fullest to create a film that brings a layer of maturity to a genre often loaded with simplified political rhetoric, such was Khamraev’s take on the Wild East.

Credits: In addition to the works previously cited, this post owes particular thanks to Christopher Small’s review for Gorilla Film Online and Vincent Bohlinger’s essay “‘The East is a Delicate Matter’: White Sun of the Desert and the Soviet Western” in Cynthia J. Miller and A. Bowdoin Van Riper’s book, International Westerns: Re-Locating the Frontier.

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