Definitely Not A Hollywood Movie – Mikhail Kalatozov’s Letter Never Sent


This 1959 movie from the USSR tells the story of four geologists (or three geologists and a guide — it isn’t quite clear) who are searching for diamonds in the Siberian wilderness.  Since this is the Soviet Union, one of them is a woman, but she certainly pulls her weight with the men.  Her femininity is still integral to the story — she finds herself in the middle of a love triangle — but she isn’t a fragile damsel and unlike in Hollywood, her gender doesn’t grant her any privileges in survival.

For overall, this is survival movie.  First, the four of them must survive each other and the hot Siberian summer as they search for diamonds.  Then, the weather turns and they end up in a forest fire, lost in Siberia with winter approaching.  Above all, they must get their diamond map to government officials.  The whole time, the “letter never sent” is the narration by Andrei, the senior geologist who is most devoted to the cause, who relays the progress of the expedition to his wife, as though he is writing her a letter.  It is uncertain whether the letter and the map make it back to civilization.

Letter Never Sent is definitely a Soviet film from the 1950s, but despite its lack of Hollywood conventions and its propagandistic views, it is a universal tale.  At the heart of the story are four people who have dreams, determination, and perseverance on their side.  It is a horror story without a monster.  It is a story of humans who struggle in their belief that they are making the world a better place.  The moral of the film is that the future is worth self-sacrifice.  Coming on the heels of the Great Patriotic War (WWII), wherein millions were sacrificed, this film is not about fighting in war with other people, but fighting in a war with nature and with one’s own self.

Throughout the film, the four explorers have their own demons.  They doubt whether they will find diamonds at all, whether they are looking in the right place, whether they should act on their feelings for each other, whether their faith in their science and government is well-founded, whether they should go left or right in blinding smoke, and whether they should press onward or give up.

Andrei is the most certain in his faith.  He insists that they are looking in the right place and that they must above all get the map back to civilization.  At least, he expresses this faith to his comrades and to his wife in the letter.  The others have varying degrees of faith that they express in different ways.  Their faith keep them all going just as much as it causes them to make foolish decisions.

Their mission is a disaster for them.  While there is no monster chasing them (and no animals seen in the wilderness), once the fire hits, they seem doomed to die either a quick death or a long and painful one.

Underneath the Soviet propaganda, this is a story of struggle, sacrifice, faith, and death.  It is the human journey.  After all, we are all to die.



On entirely different, joyful note at the other extremity of life, God save the new Prince of Cambridge, future King!

prince cambridge

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