Taras Bulba (1962) dir. J. Lee Thompson
Starring: Yul Brynner, Tony Curtis
Guest Review by Greg Klymkiw
“Do not put your faith in a Pole. Put your faith in your sword and your sword in the Pole!”
Thus spake Taras Bulba – Cossack Chief! (As played by Yul Brynner, ‘natch!)
These days, there are few momentous events for lovers of cinema and, even fewer momentous events for those of the Ukrainian persuasion. However, film lovers and Ukrainians both have something to celebrate. Especially Ukrainians. The recent Fox/MGM DVD release of J. Lee Thompson’s 1962 film adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s Taras Bulba is (and will be), without question, as momentous an occasion in the lives of Ukrainians the world over as the execution of Saddam Hussein must have been to the entire Bush family of Texas.
As a pig-fat-eating Cossack-lover, I recall my own virgin helping (at the ripe age of four) of Taras Bulba with my family at the late lamented North Main Drive-Inn Theatre in the sleepy winter city of Winnipeg. Being situated in the ‘Peg’s North End (on the decidedly wrong side of the tracks), everyone of the Ukrainian persuasion was crammed into this drive-inn theatre when Taras Bulba unspooled there for the first time.
A veritable zabava-like atmosphere overtook this huge lot of gravel and speaker posts. (A zabava is a party where Ukrainians place a passionate emphasis on drinking, dining and dancing until they puke.) Men wore their scalp locks proudly whilst women paraded their braided-hair saucily. Children brandished their plastic sabers pretending to butcher marauding Turks, Mongols and, of course, Poles.
Those adults of the superior sex wore baggy pants (held up proudly by the brightly coloured pois) and red boots whilst the weaker sex sported ornately patterned dresses and multi-coloured ribbons.
All were smartly adorned in their embroidered white shirts.
Enormous chubs of kovbassa and kishka (all prepared with the finest fat, innards and blood of swine) along with Viking-hefty jugs of home-brew were passed around with wild abandon. Hunchbacked old Babas boiled cabbage-filled varenyky (perogies) over open fires and slopped them straight from the vats of scalding hot water into the slavering mouths of those who required a bit of roughage to go with their swine and rotgut. I fondly recall one of my aunties doling out huge loaves of dark rye bread with vats of salo (salted pig-fat and garlic) and studynets (jellied boiled head of pig with garlic) and pickled eggs for those who had already dined at home and required a mere appetizer.
One might say, it was a carnival-like atmosphere, or, if you will, a true Cossack-style chow-down and juice-up.
However, when the lights above the huge silver screen dimmed, the venerable North Main Drive-Inn Theatre transformed reverently into something resembling the hallowed Saint Vladimir and Olga Cathedral during a Stations of the Cross procession or a panachyda (deferential song/dirge for the dead).
Everyone sat quietly in their cars and glued their Ukrainian eyeballs to the screen as Franz Waxman’s exquisitely romantic and alternately boisterous musical score (rooted firmly in the tradition of Ukrainian folk music) thundered over the opening credits which were emblazoned upon a variety of Technicolor tapestries depicting stars Yul Brynner and Tony Curtis in the garb of the Cossacks – Ukraine’s mighty warriors of the steppes.
This screening and the overwhelming feelings infused in those who were there could only be described as an epiphany. Like me (and ultimately, my kind), I can only assume there wasn’t a single Ukrainian alive who didn’t then seek each and every opportunity after their respective virgin screenings to partake – again and again and yet again – in the staggering and overwhelming cinematic splendour that is – and can only be – Taras Bulba.
All this having been said, barbaric garlic-sausage-eating Ukrainian heathen are not the only people who can enjoy this movie. Anyone – and I mean ANYONE – who loves a rousing, astoundingly entertaining, old-fashioned and action-packed costume epic will positively delight in this work of magnificence.
The source material for this terrific picture is the short novel Taras Bulba by Nikolai Gogol, a young Ukrainian writer of Cossack stock who is often considered the father of Russian fiction. He was a contemporary of Pushkin and the two of them were both friends and leaders of the Russian literary scene in St. Petersburg over 150 years ago. Prior to writing Taras Bulba, Gogol (this is the popular Russified version of his name which, in the original Ukrainian would actually be Mykola Hohol) dabbled in narrative poetry, held some teaching positions and worked in the Russian bureaucracy.
Gogol’s early fictional works were short satirical stories steeped in the rural roots of his Ukrainian Cossack background. Evenings On A Farm Near The Village of Dykanka (Vechera Na Khutore Blyz Dykanky) was full of magic and folklore in the rustic, yet somewhat mystical world of simple peasants and Cossacks. The material is, even today, refreshing – sardonically funny, yet oddly sentimental. It even made for an excellent cinematic adaptation in Alexander Rou’s early 60s feature made at the famed Gorky Studios and a recent Ukrainian television remake starring the gorgeous pop idol Ani Lorak. Gogol’s vivid characters, sense of humour and attention to realistic detail all added up to supreme suitability for the big screen.
Taras Bulba is no different. The material is made for motion pictures. Alas, several unsatisfying versions pre-dated this 1962 rendering. Luckily, this version is the one that counts thanks to the team of legendary producer Harold Hecht (Marty, The Crimson Pirate and Sweet Smell of Success in addition to being Burt Lancaster’s producing partner), stalwart crime and action director J. Lee Thompson (Cape Fear, The Guns of Navarone) and screenwriters Waldo Salt (who would go on to write Midnight Cowboy, Serpico and Coming Home) and the veteran Karl Tunberg (Ben-Hur, Down Argentine Way, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and fifty or so other scripts). This was the dream team who were finally able to put Gogol’s Taras Bulba on the silver screen where it ultimately belongs.
For Gogol, Taras Bulba (in spite of the aforementioned literary qualities attributable to his rural stories) took a decidedly different turn than anything that preceded it or followed it in his career as a writer. Bulba sprang, not only from Gogol’s Cossack roots and familiarity with the dumy (songs and ballads of the Cossacks), but interestingly enough, he was greatly inspired by the great Scottish author Sir Walter Scott, of whom he was a big fan. This, of course, makes perfect sense since Scott’s swashbuckling adventures often dealt with Scottish pride and history at odds with the ruling powers of England. And so too with Taras Bulba.
The film (while deviating somewhat from the book) maintains much of the structure, characters and spirit of Gogol’s work. It tells the story of Cossack chieftain Taras Bulba (Yul Brynner) and his desire to make Ukraine free from the oppression of the ruling nation of Poland. Though the Poles subjugate Ukraine, the Cossacks are willing (for a price and booty) to fight alongside the Poles against Turkish invaders. In addition to the pecuniary rewards, the Cossacks also get to use the Poles to help fight one of their enemies. When it comes to paying allegiance to the Poles, Taras steadfastly refuses to do this and, after committing a violent act against one of the Polish generals, the Cossacks all scatter into the hills to regroup and prepare for a time when they can go to war again – but this time, against the Poles.
Secured in their respective mountain hideaways, the Cossacks bide their time. Taras raises two fine and strapping young sons, Andrei (Tony Curtis) and Ostap (Perry Lopez). He sends his boys to Kyiv (the Russified spelling is “Kiev”) to study at the Polish Academy. The Poles wish to tame the Ukrainians, so they offer to educate them. Taras, on the other hand, orders his sons that they must study in order to learn everything they can about the Poles so that someday they can join him in battle against the Poles. At the Polish Academy, the young men learn that Poles are vicious racists who despise Ukrainians and on numerous occasions, both of them are whipped and beaten mercilessly – especially Andrei (because the Dean of the Academy believes Andrei has the greatest possibility of turning Polish and shedding his “barbaric” Ukrainian ways). A hint of Andrei’s turncoat-potential comes when he falls madly in love with Natalia (Christine Kaufmann) a Polish Nobleman’s daughter. When the Poles find out that Andrei has deflowered Natalia, they attempt to castrate him. Luckily, Andrei and Ostap hightail it back to the mountains in time to avoid this unfortunate extrication.
Even more miraculously, the Cossacks have been asked by the Poles to join them in a Holy War against the infidel in the Middle East. Taras has other plans. He joins all the Cossacks together and they march against the Poles rather than with them. The battle comes to a head when the Cossacks have surrounded the Poles in the walled city of Dubno. Taras gets the evil idea to simply let the Poles starve to death rather than charge the city. Soon, Dubno is wracked with starvation, cannibalism and the plague. Andrei, fearing for his Polish lover Natalia secretly enters the city and is soon faced with a very tragic decision – join the Poles against the Cossacks or go back to his father and let Natalia die.
Thanks to a great script and superb direction, this movie really barrels along head first. The battle sequences are stunningly directed and it’s truly amazing to see fully costumed armies comprised of hundreds and even thousands of extras (rather than today’s CGI armies). The romance is suitably syrupy – accompanied by Vaseline smeared iris shots and the humour as robust and full-bodied as one would expect from a movie about Cossacks. Franz Waxman’s score is absolutely out of this world, especially the “Ride to Dubno” (AKA “Ride of the Cossacks”) theme. The music carries the movie with incredible force and power – so much so that even cinema composing God Bernard Herrmann jealously proclaimed it as “the score of a lifetime”.
The movie’s two central performances are outstanding. Though Jack Palance (an actual Ukrainian from Cossack stock) turned the role down, he was replaced with Yul Brynner who, with his Siberian looks and Slavic-Asian countenance seems now to be the only actor who could have played Taras Bulba. Tony Curtis also makes for a fine figure of a Cossack. This strapping leading man of Hungarian-Jewish stock attacks the role with the kind of boyish vigour that one also cannot imagine anyone else playing Andrei (though at one point, Burt Lancaster had considered taking the role for himself since it was his company through Hecht that developed the property). The supporting roles are played by stalwart character actors like Sam Wanamaker as the one Cossack who gives Bulba some grief about fighting the Poles and George MacCready as the evil Polish rival of the Cossacks. Perry Lopez as Ostap is so obviously Latin that he seems a bit uncomfortable in the role of Ostap and Christine Kaufmann as Natalia is not much of an actress, but she’s so stunningly gorgeous that one can see why Curtis cheated on Janet Leigh and had a torrid open affair with Kaufmann during the shoot.
Taras Bulba is one stirring epic adventure picture. And yes, one wishes it took the darker paths that the original book ventured down, but it still manages to have a dollop of tragedy wending its way through this tale of warring fathers and their disobedient sons. And yes, as a Ukrainian, I do wish all the great Cossack songs had NOT been translated into English – especially since Yul Brynner would have been more than up to singing them in the original language. But these are minor quibbles. It’s a first rate, old-fashioned studio epic – big, sprawling, brawling and beautiful.
It’s definitely the cinematic equivalent of one fine chub of garlic sausage.