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That this classic novel by Gogol about the legendary Ukrainian cossack hero
could have been made into a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster, and that this
was done at the very height of the cold war seems unbelievable
While the film is dated a bit by the kitschy love story involving Tony Curtis' character, Yul Brynner is perfect in his role which seems one of those he was born to play.
A colourful and spectacular historical epic in the best of the then-dying old Hollywood tradition, this is probably the only exposure that the American public at large has to Ukrainian history, and in this alone it is a valuable work. But the film manages to succeed on the entertainment level as well, and I recommend it to all fans of the good ol' Hollywood studio historical drama.
I've seen the reviews here and a couple of comments set "Taras Bulba"'s
location in the Argentine pampas. As a native Argentine I must say
that's not correct; the pampas run all through the middle part of our
Country but this film was shot in the Province of Salta way up in the
northern part of Argentina (some 1400 miles from Buenos Aires); the
pampas are a huge flat ground very fertile, but Salta is uneven with
not too high hills ("cerros") very different from the pampas. Another
reviewer says Tony Curtis declared once that when he and co-star
Kristine Kaufmann got mixed up during the filming he was already
divorced of Janet Leigh; I don't know about that but I can assure you
that Leigh came to Salta with him (a friend of mine has a photo with
her on the "cerros").
As to the picture, I really enjoyed it -also because I lived in Salta a couple of years and the landscape is very familiar to me- but I think a real classical epic could have come out of Nicolai Gogol's famous novel with a more elaborated script (as a reviewer correctly stated here).
J. Lee Thompson's product seems sort of "cheap" and lacks spectacle (except for some real good battle scenes) although I admit if has some very good moments. A somehow impressive one is when the big doors of the sieged city open slowly and André (Curtis) appears in a frontal close shot wearing a Polish armor and helmet for he will make a run for food too feed the starving citizens inside in a clear treason to his country and father for the love of a woman. Also the final dark atmosphere Thompson achieves when Taras (Yul Brynner) confronts his favourite son after a treason he can't possibly understand and even less when André just explains "I did what I had to do".
Brynner's performance though a little overacted is good enough and he fills the role of Taras easily. Tony Curtis makes a great effort and gets some good moments as André though he clearly lacks the appropriate "physic du rol". The rest of the cast gives a good support, among them Sam Wanamaker, Brad Dexter, Guy Rolfe and George MacReady. German actress Kristine Kauffman shows her beauty.
All in all "Taras Bulba" comes out as an entertaining and amusing film in its genre and a decent intent on Gogol's book, but no much more than that.
Although the famous Nikolai Gogol novel, Taras Bulba, was filmed many
times, this version starring Tony Curtis and Yul Brynner is the best
known at least in the USA. It's an exciting portrait of 16th century
Ukraine under the then powerful kingdom of Poland.
What's strangely muted in this version though is the religious angle. The Poles are Roman Catholic and the Ukranians are Russian Orthodox, it's a very big part of the reason for the resentments shown here yet we never see the religious beliefs portrayed for either group. Not sure why the script didn't include it.
As rulers the Poles hire out the Cossack Ukranians who in today's terminology might be considered a paramilitary outfit to fight off the Ottoman Turks and then turn on them. Yul Brynner as one of the Cossack brigade commanders lops off the right hand of Guy Rolfe, the Polish prince in retribution, but that hardly satisfies. He goes back to the steppes of the Ukraine and awaits a time for some real payback.
In the meantime he fathers two sons, Tony Curtis and Perry Lopez, who both inherit their father's geopolitical views. Brynner sends them off to school in Poland to learn all the Poles know.
While there Curtis falls in love with a Polish princess Christine Kauffman. It's the beginning of his downfall as a Cossack.
In his memoirs Tony Curtis says that Yul Brynner was a strangely aloof character with a sort of self imposed grandeur about him in his manner. But that Taras Bulba was a part he was born to play. I certainly can't visualize anyone else in the role, including Burt Lancaster who originally had the screen rights then gave them to Tony Curtis when he couldn't do the film. Of course Brynner being in the title role might have had some resentments to being second billed to Curtis, but Curtis in fact as a co-producer and he who produces decides billing.
Curtis also mentions that on the Argentine pampas location away from American laws, the long banned 'flying W' was used in the filming of the battle and charge scenes and many horses were killed. He also mentions that with production overrun costs and accountants ripping him and the film company off what started as a three million dollar film became a nine million dollar film and Taras Bulba in theatrical release barely cleared ten million.
However Tony did get a second wife out of the film. Christine Kauffman became the second Mrs. Tony Curtis after the film. Curtis says that Christine did not break him and Janet Leigh up, that things were over before he met here, still that was the common gossip back in the day.
Director J. Lee Thompson made great use of the Argentine pampas standing in for the Ukraine steppes and one does get a feel for the Cossack love of the land the freedom of the wide open spaces. Cossack stories in the Ukraine are just like our American westerns. Those people for all their faults settled and conquered much of what is now Russian Federation.
As a bonus Franz Waxman's musical score which did earn Taras Bulba it's only Academy Award nomination is really quite rousing. We get to hear Yul Brynner sing in this film which is a treat, a Cossack drinking song. And the love theme for Curtis and Kauffman, The Wishing Star, is a very beautiful song that Tony Martin put on an album of film songs he did at the time.
Ukranian Americans loved this particular film for which I can personally attest. I think others will as well.
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
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.
I agree with most of the posts. However, one area that does not get attention is the soundtrack to the movie. When the Cossacks gather and ride to the Polish city to fight, the music is truly great. Having seen the movie over 40 years ago I can still hear the music of the ride to Dubnoi over and over in my head. I find it intoxicating!! Yul Brenner is made for the part of Tarus. I could never see Tony Curtis as a Ukrainian prince and his looks do not fit the part. He is however a Hungarian of Eastern European descent. This is a fun movie that has a great score, cinematography, and some interesting scenes and performances. The Yul Brenner song is laughable though.
Taras Bulba is the story of the Cossack's fight for freedom, a fight to
reclaim their beloved land from the Poles. It is also a story of a
father's love and pride for his son. Yul Brynner is the definitive
Cossack in this movie. His swagger and bigger than life persona is the
perfect match for Taras. His portrayal is both powerful and moving.
Added to that is the fantastic horseback battle scenes on the Steppes.
The scenes where the Cossack regiments gather with a rallying cry are
awesome. Those alone deserve a 10.
The story of Taras Bulba had the potential to be a great historical epic had it focused on Taras' struggle between his love for the Cossack way of life and that for his son. Unfortunately, given the box office requirements of the time, the studio execs decided to toss in a cheesy love story (complete with fuzzy close-ups) and Tony Curtis, with his matinée-idol hairdo untouched. That just jars you out of the period. According to his biography, Brynner worked long and hard to bring the rich character to life, but broke down when he saw the final cut. That said, this movie still deserves a watch if only to see the magnificent Yul Brynner and the wonderfully choreographed battle sequences.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
While I admire Yul Brynner as Bulba, as well as those breathtaking
battle scenes, I must say some idiotic historical inaccuracies in this
movie took out a bit of fun while watching it.
1st of all, costumes. Especially those silly Russian-style shirts on both sons in tavern scene. Polish army outfits.
2nd - cossacks (ukrainian Cossacks - NOT Russian cossacks) were mostly infantry, they were renowned by being best foot-soldiers of their time. While many horse raiders look great on widescreen it's not really true.
3rd - some music used in movie is actually Russian! Ukrainian Cossacks from 16th century sing Russian song from 19th century??? Kalinka-Malinka is NOT Ukrainian song! In general, while watching this movie I see a lot of Russian-based influences, interesting where and why they came from. In 16th century Russia was unimportant and weak country, still bearing heritage of Kyiv Rus' and paying tribute to Golden Horde in order to survive. Hence she has no significant, if at all, influence on her neighbors. But in movie we see Brynner speak with Russian accent, Cossacks sing Russian songs and dancing weird dances (this is NOT hopak, Ukrainian traditional dance) What we see here is yet another example of old Hollywood blockbuster movie made without serious historical research, and yes, it's really great that to-day movies are made using totally different approach - instant examples are Gladiator, Rome TV-series or With Fire and Sword.
All in all, movie is good, but remember: Ukrainians are NOT Russians, and in Ukrainian language Zaporostsi is pronounced Za-po-ro-zh-tsee.
A Romeo and Juliet plot wherein Tony Curtis falls in love with a Polish princess on first sight. He later betrays father, brother, friends, and his homeland, because he had one date with the princess. Well, O.K. From the first moment that we see the princess we know exactly where we are going. Needless to say the most important thing in the fathers life is driving the Poles from 16th Century Ukraine. And here the son betrays all, and runs off with a polish princess. Yul Bryner is Taras Bulba , a pure warrior Cossack. He loves his Steppes, his sons, his friends, his horse, his sword, and his wife. In that order. Of course Yul overacts but given what he is supposed to be, well who can blame him. And after all who else could have played this part.But really,Tony Curtis as a 16th century Cossck. Well O.K.,but with the perfect hairdo, perfect teeth, and perfect blue eyes......it just doesnt seem as if Tony has spent much time mowing his front lawn, let alone invading, raping, and pillaging much of Eastern Europe. The battle scenes are wonderful, and we get the full effect of cavalry battles. They are really quite rousing. They however are the only things that save this film. As such I give this film a SEVEN.
Like a couple of other reviewers I remember seeing this film as a kid
at a riotous Saturday matinée. For weeks afterwards we played cossacks,
even found a ravine in a landfill where I lived in NJ to play out one
of the scenes. We were lured into seeing it with a great "trailer" of
cossacks running riot, fighting, horses galloping about. It looked
cool. The absolutely wretched love story that took over most of the
film almost triggered a riot in the theater that day.
This is one of those epics films that I like to describe as "so bad it's almost good." The writing is awful, the so called epic scenes tend to be ridiculous, a couple of thousand extras might have helped, and of course a overly mushy love story is thrown in, complete to the soft focus scenes. (David Lean could pull off the soft focus over and over in Zhivago but whoever directed this turkey simply made them laughable.) And yet. . . I just love Yul. He looks the part of a cossack and he plays the part. Tony, in contrast is absurd. I guess he just couldn't shave his head to the traditional cossack style so it get's explained away as adopting the "Polish" style. The parties though, and the riding around. What a kick. When I saw this film again in grad school with my Polish girl friend at my side, it triggered our first real fight. I roared over the line, "put your trust in the sword and the sword in the Pole," (Freud would have loved that one!) and she just freaked. She then announced she would enjoy attending the party as it unfolded on my dorm room TV, a thought I found appealing in regards to her, but I made a comment that I would be hung before I'd let my as yet hypothetical daughter go to one. That really set the girl friend off with accusations of sexism.
In fact this movie and "The Vikings" finally inspired us to stage a "barbarian party," a riotous success which is still legend with our friends, I won't go into the details but it was great, everyone in costume, food and drinking horns filled with beer flying about, etc.
But back to the film. The book is remarkable, in fact when I use to teach Russian history it was required reading. It appealed to me not only as the great Ukranian epic but the sci fi author as well, a model actually for the great heroic epic fantasies of Howard, Lamb, DeCamp and others. In contrast the film could actually be a case study in how Hollywood can turn an epic book into smush, and then lure kids into seeing it with a great trailer of a bunch of guys riding around.
And definitely do not miss Yul singing the "Cossack song," absolutely hysterical. If you can dig up a few Ukranian friends to sit with you, do so, and watch them go berserk! It would be like their making a movie in Kiev about George Washington and casting Danny DeVito in the lead, building a couple of log cabins out in the middle of the real Ukranian steppes (and I've been there) and saying its Valley Forge.
And yet, if it ran again tonight at midnight, I know I'd watch it. . .the same way I'd watch a train wreck.
A final note. Tony was insane. Janet Leigh was ten times (dare I say it?) "the babe" when compared to his co-star in this film whom he later married.
I have not seen Taras Bulba for many years and just came online to try and buy a copy. No mention of it at all on Amazon, as if it had never existed. No-one could ever forget the contest as the horses jump the gradually widening ravine, and the defeat in victory for the young Andrei (Tony Curtis) as the old warrior dies. When my wife married me nearly 20 years ago she reminded me of the times I had quoted the polish commander, excuse me if it is not quite accurate but it went something like this. "If we could harness the power of love we could rule the world" So many have tried other ways but still only the power of love will overcome all in the end.
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