The Soviet Union was adept at using cinema as a propaganda machine to mold public opinion. However, some products of this censored environment were heartfelt, endearing films that rivaled the best the West had to offer. Неуловимые мстители, or The Elusive Avengers is proof that even censorship cannot prevent artistic vision. The film is a 1966 Soviet adventure about four patriotic young communists fighting in the Russian Civil War, and if you look past the thinly-veiled propagandist message and two-dimensional characters, you’ll find a film that is enjoyable and heartfelt, with notable similarities to classic American westerns.
The plot follows four young teens, orphaned by war. One of the character’s father is murdered in cold blood by a Czarist fighter, igniting the main conflict of the story. Set against the backdrop of the Russian Civil War, the film focuses on the heroes’ protection of their village from Czarist bandits and one individual’s quest for revenge.
The Elusive Avengers has a definitively gunslinger-western feel to it. The first shot is four horsemen riding towards the camera backed by a rising red sun. The majority of the movie takes place in rural Russian villages or the wilderness, with the plucky youngsters getting into horseback chases, gunfights, and even a train robbery. The plot’s centering around one individual’s quest for revenge has obvious parallels with classic western tropes. At one point a character’s deceptive enrollment in an enemy gang to sabotage them bears striking similarity to For A Few Dollars More.
Apart from the story structure, the stunts and cinematography have obvious similarities to classic American westerns. A wide angle, landscape shot is used often in The Elusive Avengers, featuring rolling hills, wide rivers, and expansive farmland, and helps underscore the wilderness setting. Similarly, a significant amount of screen time is devoted to drawn out chases on horseback. The climax of the film is a final chase where our heroes drive a captured train over a flaming bridge with Czarist troops bearing down upon them. The use of a train offers a familiar, western-style platform from which to end the main conflict of the film.
The stunts are remarkable for the time. Falling off a galloping horse while feigning death, and even training horses to fall while running at full speed is enough to leave an impression. The fight scene on top of a train before it barrels through a burning bridge is reminiscent of Mad Max: Fury Road. In this sense The Elusive Avengers rivals the best American films in terms of special effects.
As a Soviet twist on a classic American ending, the final shot of the film is the same four horsemen riding off into a still rising red sun, indicative of the new beginning of a larger Soviet story. Conversely, the rising and setting sun motif in traditional westerns is meant to indicate the beginning and conclusive end to a particular story. At this point the heroes have been promoted from partisans to full-fledged soldiers in the Red Army, and are riding off to defend communism.
The chief detraction of The Elusive Avengers is that it is first and foremost a propaganda film. While the stunts can be delightful and rival the best westerns, the ham-handed political message permeates every facet of the movie. The main conflict is framed constantly through the lens of the civil war. Rather than be the story of a character’s relentless drive for revenge, as demonstrated by The Bride in Kill Bill or Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, this revenge tale has political overtones. The antagonist is turned into a caricature, an improbably evil and cruel bandit fighting for the czar against glorious communism.
The Elusive Avengers is a classic example of Soviet film. Beautifully shot and technically well done, it illustrates Russian proficiency in filmmaking. However, the plot is heavily influenced by the party apparatus to achieve a politically palatable story that is used to indoctrinate viewers into loyalty to and reverence of the state. This detracts from real character growth and leaves the audience with artificial, idealized impressions of Soviet heroes, not unlike the hyper-macho, invincible gunslingers in American westerns.
However, the perspective it offers and similarities it shares with American counterparts make it an important film for any moviegoer. 25 years after the fall of the USSR, the political message is almost quaint, although persistent. Beneath it exists a classic story of friendship, courage, and revenge. Available on YouTube with English subtitles, its possible to witness this pillar of Soviet film at one’s leisure.