The former Soviet Union brought fourth many endearing fairly tale and Fantasy movies that were primarily aimed at a younger audience. The modern Russian film industry followed up on this tradition at least rudimentary. Productions such as Furious, The Gogol movie series, and The Scythian (a.k.a. The Last Warrior and Skif) were certainly not made for children, but retained the somewhat diffuse mystical atmosphere that seems to be inherent to Russian Fantasy movies.
The Scythian is the latest representative of this new school of Russian Fantasy. In Ancient Eastern Europe, Lutobor is a loyal servant of the Russian king. He becomes entrapped in a conspiracy, and needs to flee from his land to rescue his family from the grip of the seemingly savage tribe of the Scythians. Together with honor-bound Scythian warrior Marten, he takes up the long and dangerous journey through the steppe.
The story does not impress, and is as straightforward as it can get. This is not a bad thing by necessity, after all a masterpiece like Conan The Barbarian was just about one man going on a quest and disposing of everyone who got in his way. The Scythian takes a similar approach, there’s no complications that would require any deeper level of reflection on the side of the viewer. The question is of course, how does the film fill his standard Fantasy template with something worth remembering?
The first thing that sets it apart is the central role of the Scythian culture that existed in what is now parts of Eastern Europe in ancient times. This choice ties in well with the advent of the proto-Russian civilization at that time and place. Filmed in Crimea, the region where the Scythian capital was located, the movie shows us a barren, but beautiful world. The selection of the filming locations is perfect, almost every shot uses the vast open spaces of the Crimean steppe as an almost intimidating backdrop.
Another noteworthy feature is the unique set design and looks of the characters. Colorful costumes and bizarre masks were crafted with meticulous detail, and the sets, while certainly not lavish, were put together with incredible attention to detail. The same goes for looks of the characters. It’s all make-up, of course, but the hardships of pre-medieval life are truly reflected in the faces of all protagonists. The dirt, the scars, the scruffy hair, it’s perfect work by the make-up department.
Manners are rough in the society the film depicts, but not in a charming way. There’s no romanticization of anything except that our hero goes on an unlikely and somewhat honorable quest. This is a world filled with violence and tragedy, and almost every man is a warrior or bandit. The dialogues and acting are as course as the landscape, but add a certain naive charm to the whole affair.
A dense atmosphere is great, but we also need some exciting stuff going on to keep us entertained. And The Scythian delivers fully on the thrills front. Duels to the death, caves inhabited by murderous hermits, royal intrigues, battles and ambushes, The Scythian is an action film at its core. The violence is nasty and brutal, and fits perfectly into the desolate setting. The fights are exciting to watch, and perfectly choreographed and filmed.
The Scythian is an historical action-adventure that tells a simple story. It is lifted to greatness by tons of intense and violent action, a unique setting, and a cruel, but enchanting world.