- Originally published on the Bartitsu.org site on Wednesday, 6th September 2017
The 1990 Russian sociopolitical satire Bakenbardy (“Side-whiskers”) is distinguished as the only feature film in which walking stick fighting serves as a crucial plot device. It’s also a pertinent warning as to how youthful enthusiasm can be perverted by authoritarian impulses into something dark and ugly.
The story revolves around two fire-eyed young men who are seeking to save their country’s soul by returning it to the mores of the early 19th century. Inspired by the figure of Russian intellectual and duellist Alexander Pushkin, they affect sideburns, wide-brimmed felt hats and capes and habitually carry ball-handled canes, with which both are expert combatants. Pushkin, incidentally, was known to carry an iron walking cane to strengthen his right arm.
Trying to help the citizens of a town beset by a decadent cult of bohemian artists, one of the neo-Pushkinites gets into an alley-fight with members of the rough-house “Tusks” gang:
Realising that the Tusks’ youth and aggression might be harnessed to their own ends, the neo-Pushkinites then further impress the gang with their panache and fighting prowess. Staging a takeover, they gradually transform the Tusks into a disciplined “Pushkin Club”, well-trained in Russian Romantic poetry and in the art of walking-cane combat:
… with which they violently rout the bohemians in a disturbing “Night of the Long Canes”:
Power corrupts and, now viewing anyone who does not love Pushkin as a depraved enemy of their New Order, the fanatical Pushkin Gang turns against the citizens of the town their founders were originally trying to save:
The resulting riot leads to their own downfall and humiliation at the hands of the state, after which, inevitably, a new stickfighting gang rises to take their place.
Produced at a time when many Russians were concerned about the rise of militantly ideological youth groups, the darkly satiric morality play of Bakenbardy is painfully relevant today.