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Film / The Beast of War

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"Well, sir, the roadwheel's cracked. Kaminski drank our brakes. We're low on petrol. The battery's low. We're losing oil. If the engine heats up it's gonna seize. The terrain, obviously against us. We have no rations. The Mujas behind us don't seem to run on rations, petrol, or anything we know of. And they have an RPG. Their aim is getting better. Sir."

The Beast of War (also known as The Beast) is a 1988 American war movie based on the play Nanawatai by William Mastrosimone.

During the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, a T-55 tank becomes separated from the main body of the army after obliterating an Afghan village. Trapped in a dead-end valley and hunted by vengeful mujahideen, the crew gradually turn on each other. The brutal tank commander Warrant Officer Daskal (George Dzundza) grows paranoid about their Afghan Army guide Samad (Erick Avari) and clashes with the independent-minded driver Konstantin Koverchenko (Jason Patric), with the gunner Kaminski (Don Harvey) and loader Golikov (Stephen Baldwin) caught in the middle.


  • Badass Biker: Moufasta and his band of fighters are introduced driving around on motorcycles, shooting guns in the air.
  • Bilingual Dialogue: Sort of: The mujahideen Khan Taj and Koverchenko manage to improvise a patois around onomatopoeia and the names of weapons.
    "RPG... Kaboom... tank?"
    "Da! RPG Kaboom tank!"
  • Big "NO!": Koverchenko when he sees Samad murdered by Daskal.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Daskal is killed by the vengeful women of the village, in violation of the mercy Taj had offered. Kaminski and Golikov flee towards the Kandahar supply road, though there's at best a 50/50 chance they'll die of dehydration before they are rescued. Koverchenko, who had allied himself with the rebels to get revenge on his treacherous crewmates, realizes that he does not belong with the tribe and leaves with a rescue helicopter toward an uncertain fate.
  • Booby Trap: The Soviet tank crew leaves Koverchenko tied to a rock with a grenade under his head. ("If you want anything, just nod.")
    • The tank crew also do the same with a defective cannon shell, which claims one of the mujahideen following them.
  • Chained to a Rock: Koverchenko is tied to a rock by his own comrades and booby-trapped for the Afghan rebels to find. When he's attacked by wild dogs and the grenade slips from under his head, some frantic wriggling is required to let the grenade roll out from under him, over the edge of the rock where it detonates (fortunately driving off the dogs). Convincing the Afghans not to cut the throat of this served-up infidel is another matter (but it helped that he learned the phrase nanawatai ("sanctuary") from Samad beforehand).
  • Chekhov's Rocket Launcher: The sole RPG that the Afghan rebels have left, and the only weapon on hand that can take out the "beast". At the movie's start, it's broken... but Koverchenko fixes it, proving his worth to the rebels. When it comes time to use it, however, it only disables the tank's main gun, which was out of ammo anyway. It's left to an improvised rock slide by the tribal women to immobilize the tank.
  • Child Soldier: Daskal fought in World War II as a kid (ironically as a tank buster), and was all of eight years old when he participated in the Battle of Stalingrad. Also some of the Afghan fighters are clearly underage.
  • Deadly Gas: When the tank is stoned by the village women, a chemical grenade is dropped out the bottom escape hatch. The women all flee except for one who's on top of the tank and doesn't realize the danger.
  • Defiant to the End: Understanding what Daskal has ordered, Taj's brother petulantly slaps Kaminsky's hands away and crawls in front of the tank's left track without a hint of fear for his imminent, gruesome death.
  • Dirty Communists: The tank crew aren't especially political (except Daskal, who began his career as an eight year old fighting in World War II and totally believes Soviet propaganda), but they clearly live in a fearful state of screwing up and suffering some Soviet punishment, which only drives them to turn on each other rather than unite as the situation gets worse.
  • Establishing Character Moment
    • Private Koverchenko's first action unmasked in the village is rushing to a burning T-55 in an attempt to save the crew. He fails, but it contrasts in comparison to the destruction his other crew members did to the Afghan village... although, in his first onscreen moment out of the tank, but still in a mask, is to hand a container of cyanide to Samad to poison a water well. He tries and fails to do the right thing but regularly succeeds at doing the wrong thing.
    • Private Kaminsky ignoring his burning comrades to brutally beat a man with the butt of his AKMS, then telling Koverchenko that he (Koverchenko) now owes him, presumably for saving his life (Koverchenko already watched the man's flintlock click out a dry-fire when he was dead to rights). He's a violent, petulant bully.
    • Warrant Officer Daskal ordering the man to be put under the tread of his tank and ordering Koverchenko to drive over him. Whatever happened to drive it out of him (it was being a Child Soldier in Stalingrad), Daskal doesn't have a shred of mercy or compassion left in his soul.
    • Taj, upon being informed that he is the village khan, visibly struggles with the responsibility but, learning quickly from advice, does what honor demands.
  • Face Death with Dignity: When Daskal is being pursued by the Afghan women and realizes he can't outrun them, he turns around and buttons up his uniform.
  • Fire-Breathing Weapon: One of the Soviet soldiers involved in the village raid at the beginning of the film is armed with a flamethrower, using it to immolate a villager trying to hide in a building. The tank itself also has a flamethrower mounted, using it when the crew believes themselves to be surrounded in the middle of the night and fire all the tank's weapons at once.
  • Gas Mask Mooks: The opening attack on the village has the protagonists all wearing gas masks, partly because of all the dust kicked up, but also because they're using chemical weapons.
  • Gorn: Naturally for a 1980s war movie, but with additional emphasis on the mundane horror of war. The remains of someone deliberately crushed under tank treads is only momentarily seen, a dead woman is seen shot through the cheek with teeth visible, a few charred flamethrower'd corpses are lingered on, and said crushed man's hand is pulled out of the treads in its very own scene.
  • Heroic BSoD: Koverchenko after convincing the Afghans to spare the tank crew's lives, and the women of the village show up with Daskal's blood-covered uniform and boots.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Daskal refuses to trust Samad on anything, which leads to the tank getting lost from the rest of the unit. Daskal later kills Samad without any proof the man was betraying them to the attacking rebels, which alienates Koverchenko, who threatens to report this to their superiors first chance he gets. This thoughtlessness on both mens' part leads to Daskal chaining Koverchenko (the one man who could have reasonably got them back to safety) to a rock as a trap for the pursuing rebels. But Koverchenko learned a few words from Samad, such as the phrase for "sanctuary" that no Afghani can ignore: basically gifting the rebels someone who can stop that tank once and for all...
    • Also when the tank crew poison a waterhole early on as a failed trap for the mujahideen. Not only could that water have been useful for both tank and crew later, it also kills the helicopter crew which might have airlifted them to safety.
  • Honor Before Reason:
    • The tank commander insists on driving the tank (and its increasingly frustrated crew) all the way back to their base, even though they are clearly lost in enemy territory and the smart move was to take any relief transport out. When the commander threatens to shoot a helicopter crew that offered to get his men back home but mark his beloved tank for an airstrike, you know he's losing it...
    • When the tank is finally caught in a rock slide, and out of ammo to fight back Daskal offers up two grenades to his remaining crew and suggest they "become heroes." The men aren't as keen to die for the motherland and subdue Daskal before immediately surrendering to the rebels.
  • The Hunter Becomes the Hunted: The tank is an extremely potent weapon system, but it is far from unstoppable. Even an untrained force of guerrilla light infantry post a deadly threat (as seen in the opening village assault), all the more so once the tank is separated from the rest of their platoon, and the guerrillas now have an RPG. The Afghans pursue the tank relentlessly on foot, but have to approach it with caution nonetheless. For their part, the tank crew are more afraid of the Afghans than vice-versa, and with good reason.
  • Irony: The tank commander fought in World War II as a boy, used in suicidal missions to blow up German tanks. The irony that he is now in charge of a tank in an invading army is lost on him.
  • Just Plane Wrong: A French-built, Israeli-operated Aérospatiale Super Frelon stands in for the Soviet Mi-8 "Hip". To be fair, it bears more resemblance to an Mi-8 than pretty much any other western helicopter, and they took the time to give it a realistic Soviet paint scheme and markings instead of simply slapping a red star on the side and calling it good.
  • Market-Based Title: Known simply as The Beast outside America.
  • Moby Schtick: A slightly unusual variant, but Daskal is irrationally obsessed with bringing his tank home. He refuses the perfectly-reasonable option of flying out on the helicopter and scuttling the tank in place, even threatening to shoot the helicopter down with his pintle HMG if his crew don’t go with him.
  • Motive Rant: Daskal at one point berates his crew, saying that their generation is soft and selfish, while his defeated the nazis.
    "When the Motherland called, we didn't ask questions, we gave! My father didn't ask, he gave! My mother didn't ask, she gave!"
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Toward the end of the movie they finally make it back to where they got separated from the other tanks, and Daskal stares in silence at the track marks leading off in one direction whereas theirs lead off in the other. At the beginning of the movie he ignored the advice of Koverchenko that they were heading in the wrong direction.
  • New Meat: Private Anton Golikov is the youngest member of the crew. He freaks out as things get worse, and goes along with Daskal and Kaminsky in abandoning Koverchenko, though the latter only because he's terrified that he'll be next.
  • Only Sane Man:
    • Taj, the newly-promoted khan of the Afghan tribe pursuing the tank is more sensible and level-headed than the rest of his tribe, especially compared to his reckless and corrupt cousin and to his sister-in-law, who's gone from mad witnessing her husband's death under the tank's treads.
    • On the other side is Private Konstantin Koverchenko, who "thinks for himself," as he puts it. Where Kaminsky is a thug in a uniform, Koverchenko is moral and decent. And unlike Golikov, who also has a conscience but follows Daskal out of fear, Koverchenko has the courage to stand up to him.
  • Punch-Clock Villain: The Russian helicopter crew come across as less ruthless than the tankers (save for Koverchenko, Samad, and Golikov), offer the stranded tankers a lift and are more interested in finding water than pursuing and killing Afghan fighters.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Koverchenko delivers one to Daskal.
    Koverchenko: Sorry, sir. Not much of a war. No Stalingrad. How is it that we're the Nazis this time? How is that? I tried to be a good soldier. But you can't be a good soldier in a rotten war, sir. I want you to live to see them win.
  • Reckless Gun Usage: A moment of Black Comedy occurs when Taj's cousin Moustafa is trying to work out how to fire the RPG and launches off a rocket.
  • Religious Bruiser: Taj and his men encounter a holy man who feels that their pursuit of the tank is re-enacting the tale of David and Goliath. He proceeds to accompany them for the rest of the pursuit.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Most of the Afghan rebels pursuing the tank are this, especially the tribal women led by the grieving widow whose husband was crushed by the tank's treads. Subverted by the newly appointed tribal leader who stays level-headed for most of the film.
  • Sacred Hospitality: The Pashtun rebels spare the life of Koverchenko when he appeals to their traditional code of Pashtunwali, which requires even an enemy to be given sanctuary if he asks. Though some of the rebels argue that the rules shouldn't apply to Dirty Communists who've learnt a single word of their language (nanawatai = sanctuary), the fact that he'd been left for dead by his comrades (and is willing to repair an RPG in order to blow them up in payback) is a significant factor in his defense.
  • Sensor Suspense: After digging in for the night, the tankers set up motion sensors around the vehicle. Koverchenko soon sees movement on the display all around them, and warns that they are well inside the RPG-7s effective range. Daskal orders "rotational fire," i.e. traverse the turret 360 degrees while holding down the triggers of both the flamethrower (depleting its fuel) and the coaxial machine gun. Once the sun rises, they discover that they massacred (and barbecued) a herd of deer.
  • Shout-Out: The film opens with a few lines from "The Young British Soldier" by Rudyard Kipling:
    When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
    And the women come out to cut up what remains,
    Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
    An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.
  • Shown Their Work: The overall depiction of the Soviet-Afghan War is reasonably accurate, showing good and bad on both sides, featuring an ANA soldier who is a PDPA communist party member as a sympathetic character, and exploring both the fractious nature of Pashtun tribal culture and the importance of the Pashtunwali code.
    • The operation of a main battle tank in the field is realistically depicted, not just in how it drives and blows things up but also in maintenance, vulnerabilities, and safety hazardsnote .
  • Smart People Play Chess: Samad and Koverchenko bond over games of chess. Daskal, already distrustful of his Afghan ally, doesn't share their interest in the game and sees it as a reason to distrust Koverchenko...
  • Sociopathic Soldier:
    • Kaminsky is an all-around prick who enjoys beating and shooting people, and gets a kick out of leaving Koverchenko to die.
    • Warrant Officer Daskal is less of a superficial bully, but casually orders his crew to crush an Afghan villager under their tracks in full view of the man's family, murders their Afghan interpreter out of paranoia, leaves Koverchenko for dead to prevent the driver from reporting him to their superiors, and threatens to do the same to the rest of the crew to keep them in line.
  • Squashed Flat: Taj's older brother, whom Daskal attempts to interrogate by running him over feet-first, slowly, with the tank. We get a good look at his remains when Taj returns to the village. It would be bad enough if it were a western tank with rubber track pads attached to the links, but this is a Soviet T-55, and like most Soviet tanks, its tracks are unpadded and made of steel waffle-grid links. So he’s basically a smear of ground hamburger roughly the size of a man.
  • Tanks, but No Tanks: The eponymous beast is in fact a Ti-67; a T-54/55 captured by Israel from Egypt or Syria, refitted with new armament, seats, optics et al., and pressed into Israeli service. Still, the T-55/Ti-67, designed for a four-man crew, is incredibly cramped inside, especially "buttoned-up" (all the hatches closed.) Cramming five men, the Soviets and Samad, in there is highly unrealistic. Kaminski would practically be sitting in Daskal's lap, and Golikov would never be able to load the main gun quickly and efficiently while sharing the space with Samad, even if they could fit both men in the loader's position at all.
  • Tank Goodness: ...But unlike many other movies, the only thing that makes the tank used and the tank depicted different are modifications. Israeli modifications aside, it's still a T-55.
  • Translation Convention: The Russian tank crew speak (American) English, while the Afghans speak Pashtu with English subtitles.
  • Tactful Translation: Daskal orders a villager to be placed in front of his tank-track to encourage him to talk. His wife comes running up and is grabbed by the Afghan translator. The exchange goes something like this:
    Translator: (in Pashtu) Get out of here, woman. This one prefers bullets to words!
    Wife: (struggling) You dirty traitor, tell this Russian pig to let my husband go!
    Samad: (in English [Russian]) "Sir, this woman respectfully requests you release her husband.
    WO Daskal: Ask him where the rebels are.
    Villager: Mujahideen are all around you! They will kill every one of you!
    Samad: He says he doesn't know.
    (Daskal isn't fooled, and drives over the villager)
  • Unfriendly Fire:
    • The tank commander kills their ANA interpreter in a fit of paranoia, convinced he's working for the mujahideen pursuing them.
    • Also lampshaded between two crew members who don't like each other much.
      Kaminski: You better watch your ass, Koverchenko. You know, sometimes Afghan snipers pick off tank drivers.
      Koverchenko: Sometimes tank drivers pick 'em off first, Kaminski.
  • Water Source Tampering: the Soviet tank crew is shown emptying poison canisters into a well while attacking a village. Later on one of the mujahideen is killed when he drinks from a poisoned waterhole. The Soviets' poisoning of every water source they come across ends up biting them in the butt later, when Soviet helicopter crew unknowingly drinks from a pond the tank crew had poured cyanide into earlier and all die before they can radio assistance for the stranded tank.
  • We ARE Struggling Together:
    • As they get lost and as the situation worsens, the tank crew turns on each other rather than unite and trust each other to get themselves back home.
    • The mujahideen have elements of this too, but they're more effective in the long run. Taj and his cousin Moustafa detest each other, but they're willing to cooperate to take down the Russian tank.
  • You Owe Me: Subverted. Kaminski knocks down an Afghan rebel pointing a jezail musket at Koverchenko and says, "You owe me." Koverchenko doesn't bother telling him that the Afghan had actually pulled the trigger a moment before, but the weapon had misfired.
  • Your Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters: Both the mujahideen and Soviets view each other as terrorists, while viewing themselves as fighting for freedom. Koverchenko notes that "this time we're the Nazis" to Daskal.