Written by: Michael Den Boer on December 25th, 2005
Theatrical Release Date: Italy, October 29th, 1976
Director: Valerio Zurlini
Writers: Jean-Louis Bertucelli, André G. Brunelin, Dino Buzzati, Peter Fernandez, Valerio Zurlini
Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant,Max von Sydow, Giuliano Gemma, Fernando Rey, Jacques Perrin, Vittorio Gassman
DVD Released: January 31st, 2006
Approximate Running Time: 148 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Sound: Dolby Digital Mono
DVD Release: No Shame
Region Coding: Region 1 NTSC
Retail Price: $29.95
Lieutenant Drogo for his first assignment since joining the military is assignment at Fort Bastiani an isolated fortress that has mountains to its left and right and a vast desert in front of it to help maintain the border. Being assigned to Fort Bastiani was not Lieutenant Drogo first choice and he quickly tries everything he can after arriving to get placed somewhere else. One evening while on watch a white horse like the one that the Tartars who hail from the north kingdom just beyond the desert is spotted without any rider. None of the men who are currently stationed at Fort Bastiani have ever fought in any combat situation and only one man Captain Hortiz has ever seen these men know as the Tartars. Many years ago Captain Hortiz sounded the alarm as he saw them approaching to only have them disappear before anyone else had a chance to see them. Now it appears that the Tartars are approaching Fort Bastiani once again or are they?
The narrative structure of The Desert of the Tartars is timeless as days and months move by without any direct acknowledgment of their passing. This film is almost entirely set inside a desolate fort that is inhabited with nothing but men and event though this film runs nearly 2 ½ hours in length there are no action set pieces that we have come to expect when watching films about war.
Through out the film director Valerio Zurlini masterfully dissects each character as he them as the height of their aspirations before he tares them down into the former shelf of what they used to be as they live out their lives in Fort Bastiani a place which they consider to be more a prison then they place they are assigned to protect. The films is filled with many wonderful shots are scenic landscapes in the desert and snow cover peaks. Every inch of film has been beautifully composed with the utmost detail that as you start to watch this film you soon forget you are a spectator as the decay that is all around starts to engulf you.
The films two main themes Fear and the Unknown are universal as every human being is confronted by these two things are numerous occasions through out their lives. Director Valerio Zurlini methodically tells us of an impeding danger that never fully materializes. In a Franz Kafka/David Lynch like way he shows us things only to take them away and make us wonder if what we same was real or was it all imagined. Ennio Morricone is no stranger to epic films having worked with directors’ like Sergio Leone. For this film The Desert of the Tartars he creates a work that is not only timeless but haunting as each cue perfectly accentuates every emotion and image that graces the screen. To describe what this film is ultimately about is not an easy task since each viewer will most likely take away from it something different.
This film is blessed with an amazing cast of actors with one of the standout performances being Max von Sydow as Captian Hortiz a broken man who has all but accepted his fate. In many ways Captian Hortiz is what Lieutenant Drogo is destined to become as he was once a youthful man who had they dreams and desires that Lieutenant Drogo arrives at the fort with. Jacques Perrin as Lieutenant Drogo gives a subtle yet convincing performance and his transformation as the film progresses is nothing short of brilliant. Other strong performances come from the following actors Giuliano Gemma as a Major who is a little to wound up tight, Jean-Louis Trintignant as the Forts doctor and Fernando Rey plays a sickly officer who needs help doing the basic things. Overall it is these strong performances that make this film near impossible to look away from as each moment is engrossing and spellbinding.
No Shame presents The Desert of the Tartars in an anamorphic widescreen that preserves the films original 1.78:1 aspect ratio. They have sourced this transfer from original vault materials. There are no noticeable problems with artifacts or compression and there is some minor edge enhancement. Colors look vibrant and nicely saturated. Black levels look solid and details look sharp in the background and foreground. Grain is noticeable through out and flesh tones look healthy. Overall No Shame has done another solid transfer.
The release comes with one audio option Italian and it comes in a Dolby Digital mono. The dialog is clean and effects sound evenly mixed as they never overpower the other. Ennio Morricones scores sounds evenly balanced with in the rest of the mix. There are no problems with hiss or distortion. Removable English subtitles have been included that are easy to read and follow. Of note even thought the DVD box art says that there is an English language track this DVD doesn’t come with one.
Extras for this release include the films original Italian trailer with English subtitles and a poster and still gallery that plays like a featurette as music from the film plays in the background. Other extras include two interviews with Giuliano Gemma who discusses how he got the role in The Desert of the Tartars and how important it was to his career. He also talks about actors Kirk Douglas and William Holden. Each interview runs about six minutes and they are both in Italian with English subtitles. Rounding out the extras is a thirty five minute interview titled “Ghosts of the Deseret” with Cinematographer Luciano Tovoli who is probably most known for his work on Dario Argento’s Suspiria. Luciano Tovoli discusses how the film came about and his involvement in getting it made behind the scenes and behind the camera. He also discusses the various stages of his career and even briefly talks about Suspiria. Overall this interview is the best of the three included as it is full of wonderful stories about the various films Luciano Tovoli worked on.
Once again No Shame has also included with this release a collectable booklet which includes bios for Valerio Zurlini, Luciano Tovoli and Dino Buzzati. The booklet also includes other text pieces one about the film and the other about the book The Desert of the Tartars.
For this release No Shame has also included a CD of Ennio Morricone’s complete score for The Desert of the Tartars. The booklet also includes a track listing for all the tracks included on the CD.
No Shame with their The Desert of the Tartars DVD adds to their already impressive track record by giving this rarely seen film the kind of first class treatment it deserves. The Desert of the Tartars is not an easy film to digest and while some may find it challenging to watch those who stick with it to the very end will forever be haunted by imagery.
For more information about The Desert of the Tartars visit No Shame here.