Dersu Uzala and the Cinema of Man-Out-of-Time Anti-Modernism

It’s rain-pocalypse week in North Carolina, and on a dreary Saturday afternoon a friend suggested I watch his favorite Akira Kurosawa film, Dersu Uzala (1975). His recommendation was spot-on; it’s a beautiful film, at once contemplative and thrilling, and just may be one of Kurosawa’s best. You might have to pay a couple of bucks to see it on Amazon and iTunes, but its worth it.

As I was enjoying the film, it got me thinking about the way that it fits into a broader genre, that which I’m going to call “Man-Out-of-Time Anti-Modernism.” I believe that the film works with various discourses that have marked periods of American history, but in particular seem to have risen in cinema starting in the 1960s. In these films, characters reject the trappings of the city, or the suburb, or the factory, in favor of a lifestyle that is usually seen as simpler, occasionally perceived as kinder, often portrayed as more savage, and sometimes a combination of all these things. That I see this genre working through Dersu Uzala is not a dismissal of the film as an object of great artistry or authentic humanism. I simply seek to think about the ways that this genre has worked “conjucturally” or “intertextually” in ways that work to amplify certain discourses (namely neoliberalism or libertarianism) in unintended ways.

Dersu Uzala tells the story of a Russian military man and his small band of soldiers on a mission to survey the Siberian wilderness at the start of the 20th century. The explorer and his men encounter a Chinese frontiersman, the eponymous Dersu Uzala, who guides them through the wilderness and aids their mission like an oriental Sacajawea. Along the way, Uzala imparts his indigenous wisdom. In one notable scene for example, Uzala instructs the Russian men to leave supplies — salt, rice, and matches — for any men that may arrive in the future to the spot that they’ve made camp. The Russian troop leader is awed both by Uzala’s expertise with the wilderness, and his kindness. In narration, the Russian remarks that he would have never thought to perform such a selfless act. Uzala teaches the men to be both self-sufficient and charitable.

Towards the end of the film — ** Spoiler alert! ** — Uzala comes to live with the Russian man and his wife. The city confounds him; Uzala has a fit when he learns that potable water isn’t free for urbanites, and he gets even madder when he learns that he can’t roam the city hunting animals. The city isn’t made for Uzala, this much is clear. But further, the city is perhaps not made for authentic living. On the frontier, one learns camaraderie and individualism, compassion and viciousness, to be master of one’s environment and at the same time humble before the wilds of mother nature.


In this, Dersu Uzala sent my head spinning. It reminded me first and foremost of a Kirk Douglas film called Lonely Are the Brave, in which Douglas plays a young man who is just too damn free for modern society. It also reminded me of  a film which echoed that one, the much more recent Edward Norton vehicle, Down in the Valley. In both these films, the protagonists meet their ends because they are men out of time. They fashion themselves chivalric cowboys from another age. And yes, they’re almost always men. They’re men in the Sam Peckinpah movies that draw heavily on this trope, for example, including The Wild Bunch and Convoy. And they’re men in Larry McMurtry stories such as Hud.

Ever since the Populist moment of the 1890s, anti-modern discourses have constrained the politics of the Left. Historians including Michael Kazin, Richard Hofstadter, and James Livingston have made as much clear. But less remarked upon is the degree to which anti-modernism in general, and man-out-time anti-modernism in particular, has become part of the creeping libertarianism of popular culture that emerged during the red scare of the 1950s.

Whereas in 1936, the film The Petrified Forest saw a character charge another with being “the last great apostle of rugged individualism” as an epithet, films of the postwar period see such characters as tragic heroes. Consider Sean Penn’s Into the Wild (2007), where the young hero wrestles free of “society” in order to live, and to die, on his own terms. Or consider another recent film, the near universally well-received Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012). Here’s what I wrote about the film a couple of years ago:

Beasts of the Southern Wild revels in a kind of ambiguous racial progressiveness and features a post-Bush allusion to Hurricane Katrina, but in reality, Americans were angry at President George W. Bush not because he was paternalistic towards the poor and working class people of color in New Orleans, but because he seemed to be blind to their suffering and unwilling to commit enough resources to aid them in the aftermath of the 2005 storm.

At the same time that Republicans in Washington, D.C. were fighting to repeal the Democrats’ 2010 Affordable Care Act, Beasts of the Southern Wild had its suffering character Wink reject hospital care, not because he couldn’t afford it, but because it would allegedly inhibit his individual freedom….  The film is a critique of modern society that revels in and fetishizes the lifestyles of its most marginalized victims. [1]

The pre-modern Dersu Uzala imparts lessons to his new Russian friend that no one should discount. And further, he makes me think of the beautiful and powerful writings of Charles Eastman, who describes the pre-Dakota War wilderness not as a place of savagery, but one of community and cooperation. (It’s a lot harder to poke holes in Eastman’s story than in that of Into the Wild)[2] And yet, at the same time, Kurosawa’s film is one in a genre that sees cities as unredeemable, and looks conservatively to the past for a future that would be, to use a future-looking and urban-friendly word, unsustainable.[3]

To be sure, man-out-time anti-modernism makes for wonderful film. I wonder though, do we have any broader use for such tales in the twenty first century?


[1] Andrew Paul, The Roots of Post-Racial Neoliberalism in Blacklist Era Hollywood, dissertation, University of Minnesota, 2014.

[2] The first few chapters of this are great, but in particular, I enjoy the part where he describes the harvesting of wild rice.

[3] This view of the city is wonderfully investigated in Steven Conn’s Americans Against the City.