" The Desert of the Tartars: An
Epic Nightmare shot in Bam"
By Darius Kadivar
When Dino Buzzati expressed his vision for a
screen adaptation of his novel, The Desert of the Tartars,
he certainly could not have imagined that the sets in which the
film would be shot would use the magnificent sand citadel of
Bam. The tragic earthquake which recently devastated the entire
city of Bam makes the words of Buzzati resonate even with more
Italian author Dino Buzzati (1906-1970) and
"Le Desert des Tartares" aka "The Tartar
The Desert of the Tartars first appeared in the late
spring of 1940, while Buzzati was in East Africa as a special
correspondent of Corriere della Sera. Italy's entering
the war was by then simply a question of days. The book would
have come out a couple of months earlier if it had not been for
a last-minute problem: the Fascist regime censors had forbidden
the use of the third person singular while the dialogue of the Steppe
made abundant use of it.
One of Buzzati's dearest friends, professor Arturo Brambilla,
made all the changes from third singular to second plural, but
this naturally caused a certain amount of delay. Buzzati's novel
set in a no man's land desert could also be interpreted as a
hidden criticism of Benito Mussolini military campaign in
Ethiopia back in 1935 which led the Emperor Haile Selassie to
plead in vain for his countries independence in front of the
League of Nations.
Buzzati's novel has become a classic of surreal literature
since its first publication. In some ways Buzzati can be
compared to an "Italian Orwell" sharing with the famed
British author of "1984" a nightmarish and dark vision
of humanity and its shortcomings. In 1976 Italian director
Valerio Zurlini decides to adapt Buzzati's novel to the screen.
The film was to become a classic involving some of the times
greatest European stars, who were to shoot in this Kafkaesque
story in one of the most enigmatic looking desert citadels in
the World: That of the Safavid fort of Bam in Iran.
In the mid seventies French actor and producer Jacques Perrin
who had bought the screen rights to the Buzzati's novel and
decided to make the film adaptation with the help and financial
backing of Iranian producer Bahman Farmanara.
Synopsis: Valerio Zurlini's melancholy final film
(1976) is a psychological drama about a pan-European group of
officers, stationed at an outpost along the eastern edge of the
Austro-Hungarian Empire, who cling to the rigid military values
of a crumbling order as they await an enemy that may not even
exist. Using an austere, almost abstract mise-en-scene
(distinguished by Luciano Tovoli's stark cinematography),
Zurlini parallels the labyrinth of the soldiers' sandstone
fortress with their interior state, an unbearable
"ennui" that ends only in self destruction or death.
Set in a remote desert fort, with an all male cast and no
action, may seem a daunting prospect. However The desert of
the Tartars is a strikingly memorable experience. Italian
author Buzzati famous tale had tempted many filmmakers such as
Michelangelo Antonioni, David Lean, Luchino Visconti, Pierre
Schoendorffer, or Jean-Louis Bertucelli. Finally, thanks to the
perseverance of Jacques Perrin who held the rights of the novel
the film adaptation was made possible. The direction was thus
offered to his mentor Valerio Zurlini who had already directed
him in the 1960's .
The characters are full of suppressed emotion and inner
turmoil, the strange surrealistic fort a metaphor of their
spiritual imprisonment, and the huge expanse of surrounding
desert a tangent reminder, day by day, and year by year, of
their fears and lost aspirations. Time passes imperceptibly, and
a dashing young lieutenant, played by Jacques Perrin and
surrounded by a stellar male cast, ages and weakens as the
desert and the constraints of life in the fort strips away his
physical strength and inner resolve. He yearns to free himself
of the debilitating fort's influence, but finds himself
transfixed by the mystical challenges of the landscape, and the
perceived danger from the unseen enemy beyond.
Those who hope to find a spectacular epic movie filled with
action will be disappointed, but it will be certainly more
appreciated by anyone interested in a psychological
confrontation between actors who at the time had reached the
summit of their art. The fable's plausible and
"Kafkaesque" symbolism and situations are strong and
odd against the mute question of death framing the entire film.
In the barren fort of the hypothetical empire, above a ruined
ancient city ravaged by marauders, the landscape of mind that
Drogo (Jaques Perrin ) finds in this society of men is the only
comfort and diversion to be had. Max von Sydow's Hortiz, who
initially seems slightly insane, carries the lengthy film
through its more pensive or absurd moments with a strange,
convincing performance. Philippe Noiret's august
"General" is a quiet master of the powerful forces at
work through their travails, drills and inflammations. Set
against Drogo's gradual aging process are brief moments that
mark out new dimensions to his character, through a few
well-turned words or a quiet expression.
Notwithstanding a length that makes the end a long time in
coming, the large star cast gives unfailingly good performances
and the quality of the filmmaking is excellent using an
exemplary color wide screen photography and aided immeasurably
by the haunting musical themes written by Ennio Moriconne.
Also interestingly the movie used the contribution of Iranian
actors and technical crew. Cast in this film were Shaban Golchin
Honaz as "Soldier Lazar" and writer, actor Kamran
Nozad ("Malakout" 1976, "Ferestadeh", 1982)
is cast as "Captain Sern". However most importantly
was certainly the technical and artistic contribution of
photographer Dariush Radpour who was to supervise the special
effects and set constructions for some key scenes in this epic.
Special effects supervisor and on set photographer
Dariush Radpour indicating the arrival of a sand storm
that delayed the shooting activity for 3 days
(photo by Franco Stivali).
Left to Right Helmut Griem, Max Von Sidow,
The Film won the "David Di Donatello
Award" for "Best Film" and "Best Director"
on the 22nd edition (1976-1977) of the Italian Film Festival. This
film was in fact made in 1976, with an exceptional cast of actors
including Jacques Perrin, in the leading role, Vittorio Gassman,
Giuliano Gemma, Philippe Noiret, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Max von
Sydow, Laurent Terzieff, Fernando Rey and Francisco Rabal.
Dariush Radpour and Kamran Nozad (photo by Houshang Baharloo).
A rare moment of relaxation between two shots for
Francisco Rabal who took off his wig because of the
tremendous heat. (photo by Dariush Radpour ).
It should be noted that it is the Italian Painting by Giorgio de
Chirico: "La Torre Rossa" that convinced the Italian
filmmaker and production to shoot the film on location at the famous
Fortress of Bam. Located in southeastern Iran, 200 kilometers south
of Kerman, the ruined city of Arg-e-Bam is made entirely of mud
bricks, clay, straw and trunks of palm trees. The city was
originally founded during the Sassanian period (224-637 AD) and
while some of the surviving structures date from before the 12th
century, most of what remains was built during the Safavid period
Insert Italian Painting by Giorgio de Chirico:
"La Torre Rossa" that convinced the Italian filmmaker
and production to shoot the film on location at the famous
Fortress of Bam. Max Von Sydow in the role of Horitz.
The citadel of Bam which looked like a gigantic sand castle had
become one of the major attractions In Iran for film buffs and for
tourists often surprised to find the original settings of the 1976
film on the touring agendas proposed by the Iranian tourist
The "Desert of the Tartars" is a strange movie, that
takes full advantage of the lunar scenery of the Bam Citadel and the
Iranian Desert. It is also reminiscent of an era when International
co-producers saw potential in filming in Iran. The country offered
many exotic landscapes for the Western eye and a number of films
were to be filmed on location such as an Aghata Christie film
"The Ten Little Indians" shot at the Shah Abbas Hotel of
Isphahan and in Persepolis. Unfortunately the Revolution of 1979 put
an abrupt end to other major European or American co-productions.
Valerio Zurlini sudden death was announced in the international
this picture was taken by Dariush Radpour during the shooting
of "Le Desert des Tartares" aka "The Desert of the
in Bam. Top Left and Below actors Jean Louis Tringtinian
and Vittorio Gassman, Right Top and Below: Giuliano Gemma,
and Phillipe Noiret were part of the international cast.
When most people think about classic Italian cinema, it is directors
like Federico Fellini and Roberto Rossellini who come to mind.
However Valerio Zurlini's name can be added to that list. Critics
often refer to Zurlini, who died in 1982, as the “overlooked”
Italian director, and the Desert Epic can be rated as a major part
of his filmography. He was also noticed for his 1972 film "The
Professor" with Alain Delon in the title role. The English
Title of the Novel is also "The Tartar Steppe".