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J. Lee Thompson
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A "Romeo and Juliet" story that takes place in the late 16c. Ukraine. Taras has settled into comfortable farm life after years of adventures and swashbuckling with his cossack companions. Though not wealthy, he is able to send his son Andrei away to a Polish school. At this time the Poles are overlords of Ukraine and the origin of the cossacks is struggle of the Ukrainian serfs to free themselves and their land of Polish domination. Toward this end Taras hopes that his son will be educated in the ways of the enemy. Instead, Andrei falls in love with the daughter of a Polish nobleman, setting the stage for a clash between love, family honor, and a struggle for national identity. Written by
How does one choose between the life of a person you love and your father, your family, your nation? The moral dilemma presented in "Taras Bulba" would be a tough sell in any era, but particularly in "last year of the 50s" ("American Graffitti"). Producer Ben Hecht, screenwriter and director J. Lee Thompson pull no punches. However, one can only wonder how great a film "Taras Bulba" would have been if directed by, say, David Lean and the love story expanded. As it stands, the movie is wildly uneven. The Kiev sequences tend to bog down the movie; while, at the same time the romantic scenes play too quickly for dramatic impact. Curtis' well publicized adulterous affair with actress Christine Kaufman certainly didn't help box office; and, it seems the screen careers of both Curtis and Yul Brynner were permanently damaged, as both went into decline after "Taras Bulba". Sad and ironical, since Curtis recently revealed he was legally separated from wife Janet Leigh for over a year before embarking on "Taras Bulba" (and his liaison with Kaufman); and, in any event, adulterous marriage breakups certainly didn't hurt Liz Taylor. It's all a pity, because "Taras Bulba" is an exciting, profound movie, the kind we are most used to seeing recently from China ("Hero," "House of Flying Daggers," "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon").
Director J. Lee Thompson ("The Guns of Navarone") makes excellent use of the widescreen process, filling the entire frame with action. I say this, seeing only the full screen version, since it is clear from what remains there was plenty to fill the screen, while key action was wisely staged center screen.
Curtis is effective in the difficult role of Andre, Taras Bulba's son. However, Yul Brynner is phenomenal as Taras Bulba. Too bad he's not on screen more. Christine Kaufman is decorative, but her scenes with Curtis are too meager to be truly effective.
One hopes a widescreen DVD soon becomes available; or, at least, Turner or ENCORE ACTION shows the movie in letterbox. The version I previewed on FLIX showed some signs of damage. Flawed or not, "Taras Bulba" is well worth an "8" on my scale of 10.
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