As movie industry pitches go, a plot centered around a geology expedition that ends in failure when a forest fire devastates the campsite and all but one of four protagonists perish in the wilderness isn’t the surest recipe for success. If a film like Letter Never Sent were even to have a chance of being made nowadays, it would need to be amped up to the verge of absurdity with a big-name star, eye-popping visual effects, over the top stunts and a pack of killer animals out to devour the miserable survivors of earlier calamities. Oh, that movie’s already been made I guess… Joe Carnahan’s The Grey… but I digress. As scripted, Letter Never Sent was indeed made, once upon a simpler, less frenetic time, back in 1959 in the old Soviet Union, where the censors who oversaw that country’s popular entertainment had an obvious penchant for heroic tales of practically anonymous working class idealists who showed no hesitation at sacrificing their own well-being if there was a chance that doing so would advance the glorious goals of the Revolution. However, if its success depended on the story more than the spectacular images plotted and captured by director Mikhail Kolotozov and cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky, I can guarantee you that Letter Never Sent wouldn’t be the subject of much conversation in 2012.
Released on DVD and Blu-ray earlier this past March, Letter Never Sent first caught my attention late last summer when I stumbled across it while browsing through the offerings on Criterion’s Hulu Plus page. I had recently seen another Soviet film from 1959, Ballad of a Soldier, and I recognized Kolotozov’s name from The Cranes are Flying which I watched in 2010. Impressed with them both, I clicked on Letter Never Sent and found myself immediately drawn in by the prospect of watching this small band of explorers go about their task of digging up diamonds out in the midst of a vast, trackless wilderness. Their initial drop-off and abandonment by the plane as it pulls away made for a dynamic opening scene:
…and the handheld shots of the group clambering through flooded clusters of birch saplings, the twigs and branches poking right into the lens of the camera, held my fascination long enough to get me through some of the drier portions of exposition – basically just about whenever the characters (and camera) stop moving in a half-hearted attempt to create some kind of empathy on our part for the relationships they left behind or the small rivalries that begin to develop within the encampment.
The truth is, there’s really not much to be concerned about in worrying whether or not expedition leader Sabinin ever gets around to finishing, let alone sending, the letter to his wife Vera. Nor is there much to be gained by tracking the infatuation that exists between earnest bespectacled Andrei and exuberantly demonstrative Tanya, or the threat to their fragile romance posed by the brawny Sergei, who otherwise doesn’t serve much of a function other than to be the first to die, once calamity strikes and the team find themselves haplessly stuck somewhere in the middle of a thousand-kilometer long forest fire. Trust me, once the flames erupt at the 38 minute mark, shortly after the geologists achieve a small validation for their efforts, the meager attempts to develop character and engaging back story are justifiably shelved in favor of placing us vicariously in one of the most awe-inspiring, hellish landscapes I’ve ever seen captured on film. And I mean real flames, billowing hot death, thick suffocating smoke, randomly shooting tendrils of scorching heat perilously close to actors, camera and crew alike, engulfing huge trees that crash down in all directions over a wide swath of the Siberian taiga. And I doubt they had the full regalia of fire trucks, ambulances and stunt doubles that would be on hand to film such scenes today. This ain’t no CGI inferno, kids – it’s gutsy, engrossing, go for the throat film making, an adventure in reckless abandon that literally plays with fire.
From that point until the end of the film, Letter Never Sent is an exercise in survivalism, as fire is supplanted by rain, frost and snow. The survivors endure some frustrating close calls as their radio transmissions back to the Fatherland fail to register, leaving them to find small solace in the one-way congratulations they receive from headquarters for lifting high the banner of official Soviet geology as they wait for a search party to rescue them. Metaphors for the lonesome futility of the individualist who struggles in vain with a numb, inert bureaucracy come to mind, but are best left for post-viewing rumination, since the direct significance of what’s happening on screen, namely finding a way to emerge from the chaos alive and physically intact, is much more compelling.
Letter Never Sent is one of an undeclared series of Blu-ray and DVD titles that Criterion has released at a discount rate over the past year or so, knocking $10 off of the normal retail price in exchange for a lack of supplemental features. Though it would be nice to have some more examples included of Kalatozov’s work, and I would seriously love to see a “making of” feature that offers some explanation of just how they went about staging the forest fire and some of the other harrowing elemental catastrophes that befall Sibunin, Andrei and Tanya, I like the lower price. I hope to see more of these budget-priced offerings from Criterion in the months ahead, even though after the upcoming release of Ingmar Bergman’s Summer Interlude next week, I don’t see any more cheap discs coming up on the new release schedule. Maybe we’ll get some later in the year. If you haven’t pick up this disc yet, give it strong consideration either by clicking through one of the links below or when it goes on sale at a certain retail chain’s annual 50% off Criterion sale sometime later this summer. I think you’ll get your money’s worth! I’ve watched Letter Never Sent several times and shown it to a few people just to get their reaction to some of the more extreme shots concocted by Kalatozov and Urusevsky. We’re always impressed, and I certainly have not grown bored with the film. Even if its underlying narrative seems somewhat ephemeral in the big scheme of things, Letter Never Sent provides a truly sensational cinematic experience.