The Desert of the Tartars is a warless war epic. Set at a remote desert fort, a young officer (Jacques Perrin) discovers army life isn’t what he was expecting. The film opens with Perrin leaving home, ready for the great fortune awaiting him, only to learn he’s been assigned to the ass-end of nowhere. The fort, commanded by Vittorio Gassman, is between a vast desert, where once upon a time lived and warred the Tartars, and a foreign power to the north. There’s uneasy peace with the north, desert to the south, nothing for the men to do but wait and wonder if they’ll ever see battle.
With a couple exceptions, the film ignores the enlisted men. Principally there’s Francisco Rabal, who’s in Perrin’s platoon; Perrin turns to him for advice the first time he thinks he sees something in the desert. You’re never supposed to see anything in the desert, lest you act on it, and end up like the fort’s captain, Max von Sydow. Ten years before, von Sydow sounded the alarm and got everyone very worked up… only for there to be no invading army. So instead of becoming a war hero, von Sydow’s become another of the fort’s forgotten officers, waiting and hoping for eventual glory.
The film’s first half takes place over Perrin’s first four to six months at the fort. The first four are clearly delineated, as Perrin’s got to wait for general Philippe Noiret to arrive and sign his transfer orders. Perrin arranged with the fort’s major, Giuliano Gemma, for the fort doctor, Jean-Louis Trintignant, to give him a medical out. Perrin doesn’t understand why Gemma’s helping him—Perrin gives the assignment only a few days (at most) before trying to get out and doesn’t want to file for an official transfer because it’d look bad. It takes the film a while to observe Gemma’s behavior enough to explain his altruism in the matter—Gemma resents the upper-class officer core in the fort and doesn’t want to share the eventual glory.
Trintignant is willing to help Perrin but would never consider leaving himself. There’s an unspoken agreement between the officers to not abandon one another or the fort, especially not when one of them, Laurent Terzieff, is deathly ill. Turns out the fort has mold growing in its walls, and, if it gets you sick, you never get better. But Terzieff’s not willing to abandon his duty, being royalty and all, which confuses Gemma but not the rest of the officers.
So much of Tartars, at least in the first and second acts, is a society drama with dress uniforms, occasional military exercises, and foreboding dread. The other important officer is Helmut Griem. Griem, Terzieff, and Perrin all serve under von Sydow; there are some other lieutenants around, but the film never shows their commands, if they have any.
Fernando Rey plays the only officer to have seen any action; everyone needs to pitch in and help him since he’s got a broken back from the experience. He’s not eagerly anticipating an invasion or any glory.
The first six months of Perrin’s assignment will be more consequential than the rest of it, with the fort suffering enough tragedy to lose its stature. The failure and tragedy play out on all the officers, who find themselves looking out into the empty desert to stay occupied; they can look out and remember to dream of glorious battle instead of looking around at the various failures in leadership and camaraderie.
The second half of the film takes place over an indeterminate number of years, with Perrin aging along with his peers, unprepared for how the years of waiting will affect them all.
Director and co-screenwriter Zurlini sustains a languid, lyrical pacing for almost a full hour (Tartars runs two hours and twenty minutes, never feeling it). Much more happens in the first hour, but because there are more people around, Zurlini keeps and maintains the same narrative distance throughout, approximately eight feet away from Perrin at all times. It’s a character study, just one without much detail. The film doesn’t dwell too deep into the characters’ personal lives or thoughts—outside their formal or professional interactions, we don’t see anything of the character relationships. Perrin and Griem are good friends, for example, but outside how they exhibit that friendship on duty, we don’t see it. Other characters have similarly opaque relationships, with aristocratic pride and privacy enforcing the haziness. Tartars, especially in the first half, is a fascinating character drama.
The most pay-off the film ever allows is Gemma’s arc about not being high enough class to understand how the rest of the officers feel. Otherwise, the characters remain private and separated from one another. One subplot involves the fort’s enlisted men organizing and acting out, but Zurlini still keeps it at a distance. Duty requires the officers not to address it, but their subsequent inability to process it will congeal into very particular morale rot.
The second half of the film becomes far more concerned with the endless waiting, with Perrin unexpectedly having to endure more of the remote assignment and how his peers change. Perrin becomes disillusioned and more and more isolated, mentally and physically. By the end of the film, the fort’s officers more haunt it than serve it, the empty years of anticipation eating them away, nothing left but a someday glory.
Zurlini ends the film more empathetic than sympathetic with the characters. They’re all too far gone by the end, too broken to remember when they weren’t, the fort literally poisoning them.
Tartars is technically exceptional, with Zurlini, cinematographer Luciano Tovoli, editors Franco Arcalli and Raimondo Crociani, production designer Giancarlo Bartolini Salimbeni (who also worked on costumes), and other costume designer Sissi Parravicini all doing spectacular work. The costumes are essential in the first act, tracking Perrin’s acceptance into the fort’s “society.” Zurlini and Tovoli shoot a magnificent picture. And then there’s Ennis Morricone’s outstanding score. Morricone’s music needs to do a lot in the second half, and it’s always a success.
Most of the performances are excellent; the rest are just exceptionally good. Gassman, Gemma, and von Sydow are the standouts. And Rabal, who’s not around as much once Perrin gets in with the officers.
Desert of the Tartars is a superb film. It’s nimble with a lengthy runtime and a long present action, with Zurlini knowing just when to slow down and when to turn the haunting and the dread up to eleven.