Prisoner of the Mountains (1997) 




Director:     Sergei Bodrov. 

Starring:     Oleg Menshikov (Sacha Kostylin), Sergei Bodrov Jr. (Ivan (Vanya) Zhilin), Jemal Sikharulidze (Abdul-Murat), Susanna Mekhraliyeva (Dina), Aleksandr Bureyev (Hasan), Valentina Fedotova (Zhilin's Mother), Aleksei Zharkov (Maslov, the Russian Commander), T. Kibyev, Valeri Kostrin, Pavel Lebeshev.

drama set in Russian-Chechen war (first war, 1994-1996) 


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie.

Vanya Gilin is a young Russian fellow who is joining the Russian army.  Private Gilin has to go through the various exams to make sure he is physically fit for the military.  Soon enough he is in the Chechen Republic riding in an armored personnel carrier.  The carrier is ambushed.  Vania is so scared (and not really interested in fighting) that he stays down and does not fire his weapon.  The hero of the few minutes is Sgt. Sacha Kostylin, who is very active with his automatic weapon against the rebels/freedom fighters, but the Sgt. is knocked unconscious by an explosion.  The carrier drives away leaving their supposedly dead comrades behind.  But among the dead, the Chechens find two Russians alive: Pvt. Gilin and Sgt. Kostylin.  They take the men to their village. 

A young girl named Dina, teenage daughter of a large man named Abdul-Murat, sees the prisoners brought in.  The two prisoners are placed in her house.  Dina brings them some water. Hasan, who can't speak because his tongue was torn out by the Russians, guards them.  The fellows are shackled together with leg shackles.   

Sarge starts to get to know the private and he doesn't like what he learns.  He tells Gilin that the is a rotten soldier.  Kostylin refuses to cooperate with Gilin even though they are chained together.  Gilin writes a brief letter to his mother who is an elementary school teacher.  She reads the letter to her class. 

Some older men arrive to tell Abdul-Murat to keep the prisoners away from the village.  They also tell him that "Everybody wants you to kill them."  But Abdul-Murat took the two captives because he wants to trade them for his son, who is in the Russian military prison.  He has the two Russians write home and tell their mothers or relatives to tell the Russian commander to make the trade of his son for them.  They write home.  Abdul-Murat goes into the Russian military zone passed a checkpoint.  He mails the letters.

Gilin makes a toy bird for Dina and gives it to her.  While the prisoners work outside, an older Chechen man tries to shoot one of them, but misses.  Hasan tells them that the man has had two sons killed by the Russians and another is in their prison.  He wants revenge.  The prisoners learn from Dina that Hasan's late wife was her sister.  She also tells them that they only have ten days for their relatives to intervene or they are going to be killed.  

Abdul-Murat receives more criticism for keeping the prisoners.  Two older men tell him that he has kept the Russians too long.  He replies:  "I know."  The men add:  "No one approves of you."  Dina also feels the pressure.  A young boy makes fun of her saying that she has to serve the two Russians.  She goes over to him and knocks his cap off, saying:  "Say that again and you'll be sorry."

The prisoners break a hole through a wall and get into another room.  There they find liquor and quickly get drunk and start clowning around.  So Hasan takes them onto the roof of their prison and lets them dance off their drunken stupor.  And dance they do, which causes a lot of the village residents to watch them.  Later the sergeant thinks of home and cries. 

Abdul-Murat is a very stern father and his daughter obviously is wary of him.  He asks her:  "Is living with me so hard?"  She nods her head yes. 

Gilin's mother arrives and speaks with the Russian commander.  The fellow is so not interested in the fate of the prisoners that mom becomes enraged at him and really struggles to hit him with her purse.  So, she decides to try to talk with Abdul-Murat.  She starts talking to the villagers about where her son might be held. 

Two rough-looking fellows with weapons come to Abdul-Murat's house and demand that the prisoners go with them.  Abdul-Murat doesn't like it, but he lets them take the prisoners.  He, however, goes with them.  The captives are put to work finding mines on a road that the Chechen fighters want to use.  The fellow in charge expects them to be killed.  The sarge, however, is a very experienced soldier and he is able to defuse mines. 

The prisoners are now watching a Chechen fighters' celebration.  The fellow in charge tells them:  "No one touches you.  My word."  He also tells them that he was sure they were going to be killed in that mine field.  Abdul-Murat takes the prisoners back to his home. 

Gilin has been trying very hard to build a rapport with Dina.  He tells her that she is very pretty.  Her father does not like her hanging around the prisoners, and tells Dina to go home.  Gilin's mother now speaks with Abul-Murat, but it appears that the Russian commander is still being stubborn.  Something better happen soon or he will be killing the prisoners. 

Gilin and the sarge are getting very nervous and decide to break out.  They are able to make a primitive key that unlocks one of the leg shackles, but not the other.  They escape from their prison and start running down the road.  Hasan chases after them and knocks them both down.  As Hasan is hitting Gilin, the sarge clobbers him with a rock.  Hasan starts to fall off a cliff, but is able to hang on to the edge.  The two prisoners try to pull him up, but he slips from their hands and falls to his  death.

The prisoners come to an orchard.  They approach a shepherd with his flock.  The sarge tries to take the man's rifle.  When the man refuses to let it go, sarge stabs him with the long key he made.  The man dies.  The two men then find out that there is only one bullet in the rifle and it a really old rifle.  Gilin starts to examine it and it fires.  This alerts the Chechens who are out looking for the men.  They surround them and start to bring them back to Abdul-Murat.  The Chechens ask who killed the shepherd and sarge almost cavalierly tells them that that he did.  A small group takes the sarge off in another direction.  They execute him by slitting his throat. 

Back with Abdul-Murat Gilin talks with Dina.  He asks her if she has married yet?  She says no and he says that he will marry her.  She responds that this would not be permitted.  At night Gilin imagines that the sarge is still alive. 

In town the butcher sells a pistol to another Chechen.  The man goes to the military prison and asks to see his imprisoned son.  The soldiers let him in.  But when the fellow pulls out his gun, there is a lot of commotion.  A guard rushes out to see what is going on and Chechen shoots him in the chest.  In all the confusion, the prisoners, who were in the process of being transferred on a train, make a break for it.  The Russians fire on them and some are killed. 

Abdul-Murat is informed that his son is dead, killed while trying to escape.  Dina goes to Gilin and tells him that her brother is now dead, meaning that Gilin only has one night to live.  Gilin asks her to help him but she says no.  Abdul-Murat places his son in his casket onto a truck to bury him.   The Russian commander tells Gilin's mother not to worry because:  "We'll make them pay." 

Abdul-Murat comes to Gilin for the execution.  Dina tells her father:  "Don't kill him."  He ignores her and takes Gilin for a walk up the nearby hill.  The Chechen stops, but tells Gilin to keep walking.  Gilin prepares himself for death.  But Abdul-Murat fires his weapon into the air, turns around and starts walking back home.  As Gilin walks across a huge field he sees five Russian helicopters fly approach him.  He thinks they are there to pick him up, but no, they are headed to the village to make the residents "pay" for what they did.  He shouts to the helicopters, "No!" but it is of no use. 

Gilin says that he spent two weeks in a hospital and then was discharged.  He thinks about the bombed villagers and says:  "I want to see them in my dreams.  All those people whom I grew to love and will never meet again.  But they just won't come."  


Good movie.  Both my wife and I liked it.  The viewer will sympathize with the plight of the reluctant soldier Vanya Gilin.  When he is captured you root for his escaping death.  This keeps the tension going and makes for a good movie.  (You don't really root for the sarge because he is too willing to kill rather than avoid killing in unnecessary situations.)  I don't think they ever mentioned the word Chechen in the movie.  I wasn't sure if it was Afghanistan or the Chechen Republic where the action took place.  It was the Chechen Republic.  The two main actors were very good.

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 


Historical Background:

The Chechen Republic of around a million people is located in the Northern Caucasus mountains. Stavropol Krai is on the northwest, the republic of Dagestan to the northeast and east, Georgia to the south, and the republics of Ingushetia and North Ossetia to the west. It is a federal subject of Russia.  Most Chechens are Sunni Muslims. 

1991 -- Soviet Union is collapsing. In the Chechen Republic, an independence movement, the Chechen National Congress, forms. Boris Yeltsin of Russia opposed independence for the Chechen Republic. There were three reasons for this. Chechnya was not an independent entity within the Soviet Union. There was also a fear that other republics of Russia, such as Tatarstan would join the Chechens and secede. Chechnya is a major chokepoint in the oil infrastructure of the country and hence would hurt Russsia's economy.

1994-1996 -- the First Chechen War between Russia and the Chechen Republic. Chechen guerrilla raids made it impossible for the Russians to establish effective control over the mountainous area. And there was a lot of demoralization within the Russian forces.

1997 -- Boris Yeltsin signs a peace treaty. Around 7,500 Russian deaths and 4,000 Chechen combatant deaths. The lower estimate is that 35,000 civilians were killed.

1999 (August) -- Shamil Basayev begins an incursion into the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan. The incursion was defeated.

2000 (September) -- a series of apartment bombings took place in several Russian cities, including Moscow.

1999-2000 -- the Second Chechen War.

The Russians began a long campaign of retaliatory air strikes against the Ichkerian regime in the Chechen Republic.

2000 (October) -- Russian ground offensive. The Russian re-establish control over most regions.

2000 (February) -- re-capture of Grozny. The Ichkerian government falls apart. Russia install a pro-Russian regime in the area.

Guerrilla activity in the southern mountainous regions continues.


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