The Beast of War, aka The Beast (1988)

“Not foreseeing where we were going to be 20 years on, at the time I saw the Soviets’ situation in Afghanistan as something akin to their Vietnam.”
— Director Kevin Reynolds, The Austin Chronicle

Oliver Stone’s Platoon meets Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot is not a critical understatement.

We’ve had this war flick (working as a deeper character study and war treatise) on our backburners since January, when one of our loyal readers, Nick Paticchio, discovered this lost Kevin Reynolds film for the first time. He reached out, urging B&S About Movies to review and, in his words: “drag it out of complete obscurity.”

Nick schooled us that the film, originally known as The Beast of War, was directed by ex-Kevin Costner associate Kevin Reynolds and it stars George Dzundza, Jason Patric and Steven Bauer. A box office flop, it was released on only two screens in the U.S. by Columbia Pictures. Nick also told us that Roger Avery, Quentin Tarantino’s old writing partner, has The Beast listed as “The Best Movie of 1988” on his personal Letterboxd page, as well as one of his “20 Desert Island Films” — with Apocalypse Now as the only other war film on the list.

You’ll recall that Kevin Reynolds made his bones with his feature film debut script for the “brat pack” apocalypse flick, Red Dawn (1984), a film that he envisioned as a modernized take on William Golding’s 1954 novel, Lord of the Flies; understandably, he wasn’t happy with the John Milius-directed end product.

Then, with his second script (and one of my “desert island” movies since discovering it as a UHF-TV re-run and taping it), which caught the eye of producer Steven Spielberg, Reynolds first worked with Kevin Costner and made his directing debut with the coming-of-age road comedy, Fandango (1985). Then the two Kevins collaborated on four more films: the Kostner-directed Dances with Wolves (1990; but as second unit director), Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), Rapa-Nui (1994; with Costner as producer), and Waterworld (1995).

In between Fandango and Robin Hood sits this second Reynolds directing effort — a film originally conceived as Nanawatai (sanctuary), a stage production by Trenton, New Jersey-born playwright William Mastrosimone. The playwright made his debut mark in Hollywood by giving Farrah Fawcett the best role of her career with the rape thriller, Extremities (1986) (if you’ve seen Somebody Killed Her Husband (1978) and Sunburn (1979), you know what we mean).

Why Columbia Pictures released The Beast in only two theaters (for a $160,000 take against $8 million), then both mothballed it — even with rave reviews from the Lost Angeles Times, PBS-TV Sneak Previews, The Christian Science Monitor, and the Lost Angeles Daily News is anyone’s guess. The film, however — based on its many Euro IMDb reviews — received a wider, as most failed U.S. theatricals do, theatrical release.

Some say it was the changing of the guard at Columbia Pictures: The film began production when David Puttnam (produced one of our favorites, Foxes) was head of the studio. By the time of release, Puttman was replaced by Dawn Steel (made her producing debut with Honey, I Blew Up the Kid). It’s opined that Steel didn’t think audiences would relate to Afghan characters played by Steven Bauer, who is of Cuban/German-Jewish descent, while Erick Avari is an Indian Parsi, Kabir Bedi is an Indian Sikh — and the rest are played by Israeli Jews (with the deserts of Israel doubling for Afghanistan). Others believe, even thought the film is effectively subtitled and the Russian language is minimal, large portions of the Afghan dialog is spoken in native Pashto.

Well, courtesy of a 2014 interview with Rutgers graduate playwright William Mastrosimone, on the digital pages of Matthew Gault’s War is Boring blog (a newly discovered and incredible blog; thanks, Nick), we know the reasons why The Beast failed: Sylvester Stallone.

Mastrosimone tells us that the new executives at Columbia weren’t interested in his take on Afghanistan. Sly had approached them with an idea for Rambo III (1988) around the same time — another film set in Afghanistan that the suits at Columbia thought had a better chance of making money.

The Beast was buried.

As we discussed during our “Box Office Failures Week” in the context of our reviews for Zyzzyx Road (2006) and the Christian Slater-starrer Playback (2012), The Beast did, in fact, suffer its unjustified fate as result of a contractual obligation. Troubled productions or films that lose a studio’s faith, to fulfill a clause in a SAG or IATSE agreement regarding release-distribution regulations (among other clauses only lawyers can dream up), Columbia held up their end of the contract by releasing the film in two theaters in New York City and Los Angeles. The movie ran a few weeks — and vanished.

That’s until filmmakers like Roger Avery and fans like B&S About Movies’ reader Nick Paticchio discover the film. Nick, in fact, came to have a discussion about the film with Roger Avery.

Avery, along with Quentin Tarantino*, came to see the film in Westwood, California, on the opening weekend . . . and no one was there; they had the theater to themselves. In speaking with the owner, they learned it was in the theater for one day, for “awards qualifications.” As Nick and Roger continued their discussion, Roger astutely analogized the similarities between The Beast — its release suppressed for reasons of political agenda — to Mike Judge’s (brilliant, IMO) Idiocracy (2006): too intelligent for its own good.

There’s no room in a tank for a conscious.

“It’s my best work. I don’t care if it’s an Academy Award [winner]. I just want the movie to get its due some day.”
— Screenwriter William Mastrosimone, War is Boring

The Beast follows the exploits of a Soviet tank crew that becomes lost in the desert during the 1981 invasion of Afghanistan** (the invasion began December 24, 1979, ended on February 15, 1989, the U.S.S.R fell on December 26, 1991). Following the heartless assault of a Pashtun village and the resulting slaughter of mujahidin freedom fighters by a tank unit, that lone tank commanded by Daskai (an incredible, Oscar-level turn by George Dzundza; he campaigned hard for the role and went on a heavy diet and workout routine prior to filming, losing over 50 pounds) becomes lost in a mountain pass.

That wrong turn becomes the catalyst for the tribe’s new khan, Taj (a really incredible Steven Bauer of Scarface fame; later of TV’s Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul), to ban with Moustafa, his warring, desert scavenger cousin (a fine Chaim Jeraffi; sorry Sam, he was the Jiffy Dump Guy / Jiffy Park Guy in two Seinfeld episodes). Together, reluctantly, they gather up the survivors and, manned with a captured RPG anti-tank weapon, seek bloody revenge. The same stress and betrayals also plague the Soviet tank crew, jeopardizing their escape (the crew stars India-born Erick Avari of Stargate (1994) and The Mummy (1999) fame as the crew’s Afghani guide).

A battle of wills between a rogue commander and a solider with a conscious.

“The Beast was written by a great playwright by the name of Bill Mastrosimone. It was sent to me in a 50-page outline, I read it and thought, ‘Wow, this is cool,’ and then I found out it was a play. So I went to see the play . . . and I thought, this isn’t a play, this is a movie.”
— Director Kevin Reynolds, “The Constancy of Sorrow” by Marc Savlov of The Austin Chronicle

To say anymore would be plot spoiling: this is a film to be experienced and not by a review read. Everything works in this second, overly ambitious film by Kevin Reynolds — and foretells his directorial skills in pulling off the “Mad Max on the Water” effort of Waterworld, itself a film that languished in development hell since 1986 because no one knew how, or was confident enough, to make that liquid apoc’er, work. The Beast truly is a tour de force masterpiece in writing and directing, acting, set design and costuming. I loved Waterworld . . . but I love The Beast, even more. This is a repeat-viewing movie.

Nick — who inspired this review — is right: Criterion or Shout Factory! — or Arrow or Severin — need to reissue this on a DVD and Blu-ray proper, complete with commentary tracks from all concerned. For now, we did find one production insight from the film’s art director, Richard James, courtesy of his recent, July 2021 comment on the You Tube channel VOD upload of the film. Here’s his insights from July 2021:

“I was the art director on this movie. My focus was to build the interior of the [Israeli] T-55 [Tiran] Russian Tank. The goal was to make the interior so it could be filmed and to look like the real thing. The interior set had to function to meet requirements in the script, such as loading and firing the gun. The turret had to revolve 360 degrees. I was able to locate a shop manual of the tank. The tank interior set was suspended by metal framing, all sitting on a turn table; port holes allowed the camera to position itself perched also on turntable. The whole contraption had to be dismantled and shipped to Israel for the shooting location. The set was reassembled in a warehouse in Old Haifa, as [we] filmed in the desert. Even the studio suits didn’t know how [Kevin Reynolds] was able to accomplish his interior shots.”

In addition to Richard James, actor Jason Patric provides his insights on the production as part of the June 9, 2021, podcast of Ty & That Guy, hosted by producer Ty Franck and actor Wes Chatham of SyFy/Amazon’s The Expanse. The timestamp where you need to start to learn more about The Beast begins around the 39 minutes and 40 seconds mark and runs to the 51:00 minute mark. (Great find, Nick!)

You can stream The Beast on Tubi. For an ad-free experience, you can rent it from You Tube Movies. As a testament to the love of the film’s effectively shot action sequences: you can find several fan-cut clips on You Tube. (You’ve seen the film’s opening tank assault of the village in the 2001, better-distributed film, Megiddo: The Omega Code.)

* We did a week-long blow out on his films, which we recapped with our “Exploring: The 8 Films of Quentin Tarantino’s Rolling Thunder Pictures” featurette.

** To learn more about the politics behind the invasion, you can read an overview at The History Channel.com.

Reader input also resulted in our recent reviews of Peter Carpenter’s Vixen! (1968) and Love Me Like I Do (1970), Future-Kill (1985), and Robo Warriors (1996), god bless their VHS-pack rattin’ brains. Surf ’em up, if you can.

About the Authors: You can learn more about the writings of R.D Francis on Facebook. He also writes for B&S About Movies. A very special thanks to Nick Paticchio for his collaborative efforts in our exposing this incredible film to a wider audience. We got you, Mr. Mastrosimone. We got you.

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