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"The Desert of the Tartars": Valerio Zurlini's Epic Nightmare

6/30/03 Screen adaptation of Dino Buzzati's novel, shot in Iran's Bam Citadel
By Darius Kadivar

"If I were the director - he said to me - for the soldiers of the Fortezza Bastiani I would not choose a single uniform, but all the most beautiful uniforms in history, as long as they were slightly worn, rather like old flags. I am thinking of the uniforms of the dragoons, the hussars, he musketeers encountered in the pages of Dumas, the Bengal Lancers, like the ones used in a film with Gary Cooper...Of course, together with the uniforms, also different helmets, caps and badges. In other words, a regiment that has never existed but which is universal". The question I asked Buzzati was: "Which uniform would you have lieutenant Drogo wear?". The answer came without hesitation, "I should dress him up like a Hapsburg officer because Drogo's life is pointless, but full of pride".

- Dino Buzzati in an interview with Italian journalist Giulio Nascimbeni on the screen adaptation of his novel (courtesy) trad.Interpres-Giussano)

"Il Deserto dei Tartari" aka "The Desert of the Tartars" ( See Authors Note) first appeared in the late spring of 1940, while Buzzati was in East Africa as a special correspondent of the "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 mans land desert could also be interpreted as a hidden criticism of Benito Mussolini military campaign in Ethiopia back in 1935 which led the négus Emperor Haïlé Sélassié to plead in vain for his countries independence in front of the League of Nations.

Buzatti'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 Valerio Zurlini decides to adapt Buzzatis 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 Savafid Fort of Bam in Iran.

Valerio Zurlini sudden death was announced in the international news, this picture was taken by Iranian photograph Dariush Radpour during the shoot of the "Le Desert des Tartares" aka "The Desert of the Tartars". in Bam Iran. 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.

In the mid seventies French actor and producer Jacques Perrin who had bought the screen rights to the an Italian novel by Dino Buzzati "The Desert of the Tartars" decides to make the film adaptation with the help of Iranian Producer Bahman Farman Ara help and financial backing.


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.

A film over two hours long 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" Tis a strikingly memorable experience.
Italian author Dino 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 ( See Below ) who had already directed him in the 1960's .

Italian author Dino Buzzati (1906-1970) and his bestseller "Le Desert des Tartares" aka "The Tartar Steppe"

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 (See Authors notes) , 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.


Italian DVD of the 1976 film With Bam Fortress on the cover and actors Fernando Rey (Nathanson), Max Von Sydow (Hortiz), Jean Louis Trintignan (The Doctor), Vittorio Gassman (Filimore with hat) and Laurent Terzieff (Amerling) in Valerio Zurlini' film Left Two views of
The Safavid dynasty Mud citadel, Bam which served as the setting for the 1977 Film, Right Horitz (Max Von Syndow) is one of the protagonists of this Kafkaesque tale. Center Italian Painting by Giorgio de Chirico: "La Torre Rossa" which inspired Zurlini to set the film in Bam.

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 widescreen photography and aided immeasurably by the haunting musical themes written by Ennio Moriconne.

The music score was composed by the gifted film music composer Ennio Morricone

Also Two Iranian actors were cast in this film :Shaban Golchin Honaz as "Soldier Lazar" and writer actor Kamran Nozad ("Malakout" (1976) , "Ferestadeh" (1982)) is cast as "Captain Sern". 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.

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 (1502-1722). The citadel of Bam which looks like a Gigantic Sand Castle has 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 industry.

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.

Author's note:
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"


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