Yesterday’s post about “The Red Scare” inspired me to watch a movie I haven’t seen in years. I grew up at a time when everyone talked about the possibility of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. That fear was referenced in a lot of pop culture in the 80s.
In early 1985, the Cold War was in full swing. I was twelve years old and acutely aware of the threat of nuclear war. There were many books, TV plots, and movies about the hostilities between the United States and the former Soviet Union. I was fascinated by it, though I lacked the ability to do a lot of reading about the Soviet Union. I didn’t have Internet, nor did I have a library card until I was about fourteen. What I did have in those days was HBO. When I was growing up, a lot of my world centered around what was on HBO.
Back in the 80s, there was no shortage of films depicting how nasty the Soviet people were. We had Red Dawn, which was about the United States being invaded by Russians and Cubans. I watched film that I don’t know how many times. It thrilled twelve year old me, even to the point at which I felt pretty strongly that I would join the military if the Russians ever invaded. I think that was also one of the very first movies to have a PG-13 rating. Since I was twelve, I thought it was “neato” that I got to see Red Dawn, even if I’d been watching R rated movies on HBO since I was about eight.
We had Born American, a strange film by Renny Harlin that came out in 1986. It was about three foolish guys on vacation in Finland who decide to cross into the Soviet Union just as some village girl is being raped and slaughtered by a local priest. The guys get blamed for her rape and murder and end up in a hellish prison where humans are playing a bizarre chess game.
There was 1985’s White Nights, a film notably starring Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines. Baryshnikov’s character was a famous ballet dancer who had defected to the United States and ended up back in Russia after a plane crash. There, he meets Hines’ character, an American who grew disenchanted with the United States after Vietnam and ended up marrying a Russian. They form an unlikely partnership, dance a lot, and escape to the West.
And there was also Gulag, a film that was made for Home Box Office. It starred David Keith (of An Officer and a Gentleman and The Lords of Discipline fame) and Malcom McDowell, a Brit who has been in a shitload of films. I remember seeing Gulag on HBO not long after it premiered. I was probably too young to be watching it. Having seen it on YouTube yesterday, I know I was too young. It was actually a pretty scary film.
Gulag is the fictional story of Mickey Almon, a track star and Olympian who has been hired by a television network to cover sports in Moscow. He and his wife are enjoying Soviet hospitality, although Mickey is a bit of an ugly American. He’s loud, obnoxious, arrogant, and has a false sense of superiority for being from the United States.
At the beginning of the film, Almon runs into a Russian man who claims to be a scientist and asks him to take his story back to the United States. The man promises that if Almon helps him, he’ll win the Nobel Peace Prize. Almon is perplexed. He’s not in the Soviet Union to help anyone. He’s there to do a job. But the guy’s request is compelling and as an American with a hero complex, Almon feels compelled to take action. Naturally, he soon finds himself in serious trouble with the police. Turns out the “scientist” is really a member of the KGB who has set Almon up to be a political pawn.
Next thing Mickey Almon knows, he’s locked in a filthy cell reeking of raw sewage. The Russians demand that he sign a confession to spying. Almon refuses for months and keeps going back to the rotten cell. He’s forced to wear the same uniform for months, not allowed to shower, and grows a heavy beard. One day, the guards tell him his wife has come. They let him shower and give him fresh clothes. Just when he thinks he’s going to see his wife, they bring back the putrid uniform and demand that he put it back on.
The prospect of wearing the filthy uniform and going back to the disgusting cell is too much for Mickey. He finally breaks. He’s been promised that if he confesses and makes a video for the Soviets, he’ll be deported back to the United States. Of course, the promise of going home turns out to be a lie. Pretty soon, Mickey is wrestled onto a crowded train with a bunch of other prisoners. That’s when Almon learns he’s not going to the airport. He’s destined for a ten year sentence at a gulag in Siberia. Almon puts on a brave show, swearing at the guards and refusing to cower. But eventually, Mickey Almon determines that he must take things into his own hands. No one is going to rescue him. He either has to stand the brutal, inhuman conditions, or find some way to escape.
As I was watching this film yesterday, I couldn’t help but realize that if Mickey Almon had actually been arrested in Moscow in the 80s, he would not have done ten years in a Soviet gulag. The Soviet Union fell apart in 1991. But in the 80s, we had no idea that it was going to fall apart. In those days, the Soviet Union was a massive superpower and it was perceived to be a huge threat to the United States. There was a lot of talk about who was going to “push the red button”.
Since I remember the 80s so clearly and they don’t seem like they were really that long ago, this film still gave me the willies. And yet, just ten years after Gulag was released, I went to the former Soviet Union to live for two years. I quickly found out that Soviets… Armenians, anyway… were just normal folks like everybody else. Yes, the lifestyle there was different than what I was used to, but at their core, people living in what used to be Soviet Armenia were just people who wanted the best for themselves and their loved ones. And I happened to be there at a time when their country was going through extreme turmoil due to the fall of the Soviet Union.
Another thing I noticed was that the film looked “old”. I mean, I remember watching movies from the 60s and 70s when I was a child and thinking they looked dated. I had that same experience yesterday. 1985 really was 36 years ago! To put that in perspective, it would be the same as me watching a film in 1985 that was made in 1949. 1949 in the 1980s sure did seem like it was ages ago. Hell, that was back before my parents were married. The upshot is that now I feel ancient.
Actually, I’ve been going through a bit of a mid life crisis lately, so it probably wasn’t the best idea to watch this film. It really does seem like yesterday that I was a teenager. Now I’m about to turn 49 and I feel like there’s a lot I haven’t yet done. I have never had a “real” career. I don’t have children. I have a great marriage and I’m grateful for that, but I think it’s mainly because I found an unusually patient guy who has already survived the wife from hell. Anything I do seems to be very small potatoes to him.
I still have a few Armenian friends. I wonder what they would think of Gulag and the other American made propaganda films. I am sure they’ve seen their share of anti-American propaganda, too. I kind of wish I’d had the chance to talk to some of them in person about it back when I saw them on a daily basis.
Anyway, if you’re curious, here’s a link to Gulag, which also has helpful Polish subtitles. Enjoy!