DERSU UZALA. A Small And Unassuming Masterpiece

What is Associated with Adventure Cinema? For me personally, it mainly involves fast-paced action, spectacular chases, forced humorous dialogues, and equally forced romantic subplots.


17 June 2024

DERSU UZALA. A Small And Unassuming Masterpiece

Most films in this genre are so similar to each other that if it weren’t for the faces of the actors, it would be nearly impossible to distinguish them. If I had to say what is missing in adventure cinema, my answer would be: depth, reflection, and originality.

Dersu Uzala as an Adventure Film

Dersu Uzala is commonly classified as an adventure film. Yes, this movie contains elements of adventure cinema, but I can’t shake the feeling that calling Akira Kurosawa‘s classic work an adventure film somewhat diminishes it. While it is indeed a journey through an incredible, unspoiled land filled with numerous dangers for the daring explorers, this film is a poem that forces us to contemplate human nature and our place in the world. It is deep, philosophical, and challenging—qualities that I have rarely, if ever, found in the adventure films I’ve seen.

dersu uzala Maksim Munzuk Yuriy Solomin Mikhail Bychkov

The Historical Background of Kurosawa’s Film

The characters in Kurosawa’s film were real people. The expedition led by Captain Arseniev to the Ussuri region, which the film depicts, took place in 1902. The real Dersu Uzala, like his film counterpart, was a hunter whom Arseniev hired as a guide. The screenplay is based on two books by Arseniev himself. Kurosawa meticulously portrays the relationship between the two main characters and the backdrop of their story—the extraordinary landscapes, costumes (the real Dersu Uzala in photographs closely resembles the one played by Maksim Munzuk), and the customs of the Ussuri trappers. This time, the Japanese director was very sparing with his techniques—he stepped back, allowing the Ussuri region, Arseniev, and especially Uzala to speak for themselves.

Dersu Uzala Maksim Munzuk

The Wisdom of Dersu Uzala

Although there is little moralizing in this film, there is a lot of genuine, deeply rooted wisdom, making the story’s message easily graspable. This does not detract from Dersu Uzala; rather, it makes the film exceptionally cohesive, especially for a fact-based story. For an ordinary European accustomed to the comforts of civilization, it is hard not to admire the main character, who manages to survive in even the harshest conditions and help his Russian friends. From Dersu’s perspective, however, there is nothing extraordinary about him—he simply leads a way of life he has known since birth. Dersu does not have the inflated ego that almost every city dweller struggles with; he is at peace with himself and the world, and as long as he can be himself, he remains happy.

Dersu Uzala

The Tragic Ending

The film’s ending is sad – Dersu Uzala, cut off from the wilderness where he spent nearly his entire adult life, is unable to adapt to the city, despite having devoted friends around him. He is like an old tree that has been transplanted. The civilized world turns out to be far more dangerous for him than the unspoiled Ussuri region was for Arseniev’s cartographers, even though there are no wild animals or dangerous weather phenomena in the city. For Dersu Uzala, city life turns out to be simply empty.

Dersu Uzala Maksim Munzuk

This realization forces the viewer to reflect on whether their own life might be similarly hollow. Both Kurosawa and Maksim Munzuk, who plays the titular role, seem to understand deeply what Dersu felt. This understanding is what gives strength to this over forty-year-old film and is why Dersu Uzala won the 1976 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

Words: Michal Bleja



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