The Bodyguard (Ali Khamraev, 1979)

When a Red Army detachment captures Sultan Nazar, the leader of a Basmachi contingent opposing Soviet forces, a decision is made to urgently escort the prisoner to the neighboring Bukhara province. The difficult mission is entrusted to Mirzo, an experienced mountain trapper and conscientious revolutionary whose expertise is essential to traversing the precarious paths and steep mountain ridges along the way. Mirzo, his brother Kova, the Sultan, his daughter Zaranghis, and his slave Saifulla set off on this journey, pursued doggedly along the way by Fattobek, the ruthless new head of the Basmachis, a cadre of loyal fighters, and his prophetic wife, Aibash. Recalling the Western psychodramas of Anthony Mann, The Bodyguard is yet another of Ali Khamraev’s harshly beautiful and action-packed Easterns.

Ali Khamraev’s The Bodyguard takes place in a much murkier world than that of The Seventh Bullet, where Islamic soldiers must choose between noble former leader Maksumov and dastardly Basmachi warlord Khairulla. In contrast, The Bodyguard features a web of loyalties tested by the hardship of their journey, the physical dangers of the natural world, and violent actions of men. Aleksandr Kaidanovsky is the disciplined and duty bound mountaineer Mirzo who is trusted to fulfil his assignment of transporting his prisoner, the Sultan Nazar (Anatoly Solonitsyn), to a Red Army detachment in the neighbouring province. Mirzo’s dedicated character quickly inspires the loyalty of Nazar’s daughter Zaranghis (D. Alimova) and his slave Saifulla, both of whom dissuade and intervene upon Nazar’s plots against their escort. And when Mirzo’s younger brother Kova joins the group, he develops an immediate affinity for Zaranghis and the two eventually fall in love. Following Mirzo’s track is Fattobek (Shavkat Abdusalyamov), his soothsaying wife Aibash (Gulbuston Tashbaeva), and a troop of Basmachi, however Fattobek’s goal is less the liberation of the Sultan and more his capture of Nazar’s tamga, a large amulet that signifies the Basmachi leader’s supreme power. While these complex character allegiances complicate Khamraev’s storytelling in The Bodyguard, they also offer a richness and a complexity missing from The Seventh Bullet and that makes the latter film memorable.

Themes and characters typical to Khamraev appear in The Bodyguard. Khamraev’s appreciation of Soviet idealism, the grudging admiration and accommodation of those principles by the local Muslim culture, and the figure of a young woman particularly inspired by these ideas are hallmarks of the director all on obvious display, but The Bodyguard presents this content without the didactic Fordian mythologizing of The Seventh Bullet. Rather, The Bodyguard is far more concerned with a physical and emotional journey through extraordinary landscapes and fraught psychological conflicts, making it more comparable to the work of Anthony Mann. Khamraev’s Easterns frequently draw comparisons to Mann, his collaborations with Jimmy Stewart, and, in the case of The Bodyguard, The Naked Spur (1953), Mann’s tale of a captured fugitive, a tense trek through the Rockies, and some tested loyalties.

Within the Soviet Union, The Bodyguard is inextricably tied to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979). Shavkat Abdusalyamov, who designed and acted in many of Khamraev’s films including The Bodyguard and who designed Stalker for Tarkovsky, laid out many of the connections shared between the two films in a memoir. Tarkovsky’s principle trio from Stalker – Aleksandr Kaidanovsky, Anatoly Solonitsyn, and Nikolai Grinko – all appear in The Bodyguard, with Kaidanovsky playing the titular guide in both films, Solonitsyn playing a prickly traveller in each, and Grinko playing the minor role of a Red Army officer early in Khamraev’s film. Both films were given an innovative synth-score by Eduard Artemyev and Khamraev and Tarkovsky jointly scouted locations in Isfara, Tadjikistan, although Tarkovsky filmed elsewhere due to earthquakes in the region.

Abdusalyamov even went so far as to suggest that Khamraev specifically aimed to create a variation on Stalker with Central Asian material, certainly a generous assessment of The Bodyguard even acknowledging the Eastern’s strengths as a genre film. Tarkovsky’s greater contribution to Khamraev’s career is ironically not his influence on the creation of the The Bodyguard, but rather encouraging Khamraev to put the Red Western behind him and take on more ambitious projects. Tarkovsky’s words would inspire Khamraev to explore art cinema more fully and produce arguably his most accomplished films. In retrospect, Khamraev’s later achievements serve to confirm the artistry contained in his more commercial efforts, affirming his status as an auteur and a master across film forms.

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