Dersu Uzala shows up on countless best-of lists, and won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. The last time I did a Best Directors list, I had Akira Kurosawa at #3. He has made many all-time classics. Dersu Uzala came late in Kurosawa's career, and to my mind, he still had one great picture to come (Ran). Between that film and Dersu Uzala, he directed one other movie, Kagemusha, which didn't do much for me. I found Dersu Uzala to have many wonderful moments, but they are spread out over almost 2 1/2 hours and the result is too repetitive to maintain its power.
That Dersu Uzala was made at all is impressive. The Japanese film industry had lost confidence in Kurosawa's ability make a profitable film. To the rescue came Mosfilm from the USSR, offering Kurosawa the chance to make a film from a Russian literature source. They were surprised when Kurosawa chose a text little known outside of the USSR, the memoir of a Russian soldier called Dersu Uzala. The film was shot in Russia (it's fascinating to see how Siberia changes with the seasons, defying the popular view that the area is like the Arctic), featuring Russian actors and crew members. (It is said there was only one interpreter on the set.)
There are several themes in the movie. The heart of the film is the relationship between the soldier, leading a surveying expedition, and Dersu, a native of the area whose understanding of nature is priceless to the expedition. There is an underlying theme about the gradual eradication of our roots in nature in the name of "progress", but the friendship of the two men is always foregrounded.
I found Dersu Uzala to be a case of eating my vegetables because they are good for you. I won't soon forget the most memorable moments, but it is not the first movie I will return to when I want a taste of Kurosawa. #468 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.