Robert Duvall Plays Stalin on HBO

ROBERT DUVALL has played an extraordinary range of characters over the years, everything from a melancholy country signer in "Tender Mercies" to a crazed air-cavalry commander in "Apocalypse Now."

But his latest role as former Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin is perhaps the most challenging assignment he's ever taken on, the two-time Academy Award winner said in an interview during the filming here last winter.

"It's more like quicksand than almost any part I've played," Mr. Duvall says. "Each day I'd go in and I'd say `let's roll the camera and see what happens."'

Viewers can judge Duvall's performance when "Stalin" premieres on cable's Home Box Office this Saturday. As for Duvall, he says it's hard to compare Stalin with his other roles.

"I don't know how to rate it. I know some scenes work - a lot of scenes work," he says. "But it's hard to be consistent with this because I'm playing a guy who was so amoral. I just don't think in the way he thinks."

In making "Stalin," the producers stressed authenticity. They were able to take advantage of the political changes in Russia in recent years to gain access to locations - including Vladimir Lenin's Kremlin apartment and Stalin's country home outside Moscow - that were off-limits during the Communist era.

The film tells the story of Stalin's rise to power, showing how he outmaneuvers political rivals to become the unchallenged dictator of the Soviet empire.

"If Al Capone had become president of the United States, he wouldn't have been as bad as this guy," Duvall says.

The action begins with the coming to power of the Communists during the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, progressing through the bloody purges of the 1930s and ending with his death in March 1953. The story primarily is told from the point of view of his wife Nadya, and his daughter, Svetlana.

"It's a terribly complex story," says producer Mark Carliner.

"What we decided to do was make a gangster movie because Stalin was really a gangster," he adds.

But the film received a mixed reaction from the largely Russian audience attending its world premiere last week in Moscow. Some found glaring discrepancies that damaged the film's credibility, particularly a scene early on in which a familiar Moscow park is depicted as "Siberia."

Many also objected to the portrayals of those around Stalin. Lenin, who was played by Maximilian Schell, was shown to be a bungling figure, while Nikita Khrushchev, the man who followed Stalin as Soviet leader, is sometimes portrayed as a buffoon.

In addition, there were complaints that the three KGB police chiefs who presided over the purges were shown more as the "Keystone Cops," than the men who executed millions and sent millions more to labor camps.

Gen. Dmitry Volkogonov, a prominent Russian historian who served as an adviser on "Stalin," offered only subdued praise for the three-hour film.

"It offers an American perspective of events," he says. "But it succeeds in capturing the general mood of the era."

Duvall says he can understand if Russians don't like the film.

"It's kind of a presumptuous thing to come from one country to another," he says. "Coming in with their left-wing money from Hollywood ... there could be a few people who resent this.

"European filmmakers, when they come to America, a lot of them, to me, make these very pretentious movies...."

But Duvall, Carliner, and others say that despite the mixed reaction to the movie in Russia, the effort was worth it.

"Many Russians said we - the Americans - were the only ones who could make this movie because they're still too close to it," Duvall says.

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