Taras Bulba Review
Yul Brynner was a huge star in the 50s and 60s. With his well-honed physique, deep and sonorously accented voice and his ideally shaped bald cranium, he projected an exotic manliness and was a big heartthrob with women of a certain age and disposition. Like Anthony Quinn, he possessed an elastic, one-size-fits-all sense of ethnicity, so with equanimity he could play a Siamese king, an Egyptian pharaoh, a Cossack warlord, an Indian chief or even an ur-terminator (in the excellent Westworld). After his success in 50s blockbusters like The Ten Commandments and The King and I, for which he won an Oscar, he was much in demand for epic, adventure roles, usually involving distant, faraway wide-open spaces, historical settings, romance and war, and the two early 60s films now released by Optimum as 'Yul Brynner Classics' - Taras Bulba and Kings of the Sun - are perfect examples of this genre.
With a shaved head, excepting the Cossack topknot, and a downward-curving moustache, Brynner is with Taras Bulba playing a role close to his own Russian ethnicity; and also within Cossack society, head-shaving is the rule rather than the exception, so he couldn't be more in place. The accent, the posturing and the rumbustious personality are all just right and it's difficult to imagine another actor doing justice to such a role. The Cossacks are a jolly lot, given to binge drinking and rousing singsongs, allowing Brynner a chance to exercise those vocal talents much in evidence in The King and I. Fierce warriors and excellent horsemen, Cossacks also indulge in feats of prowess and daredevilry, such as leaping over deep chasms on horseback and drinking vodka whilst crossing a narrow beam balanced over a bear pit. Really, you wouldn't want to mess with a Cossack.
However, this is exactly what the Polish ruling elite does when they trick the Cossacks into an alliance to fight the Turks, and after victory is achieved they turn on them and capture their Ukrainian territories. Taras flees to the hills with his people, where they lead a quiet, agriculturally centred life, waiting for the right time to rise against their oppressors. In the meantime, Taras fathers two sons, Andrei (Tony Curtis) and Ostap (Perry Lopez), and decides to send them off to Kiev to be educated amongst the Poles, the better to know one's enemy. But the plan goes awry when Andrei falls in love with Natalia (Christine Kaufman), incurring the wrath of her family in true Romeo and Juliet fashion. So when the inevitable Cossack uprising gets underway, Andrei's loyalties are put to a supreme test.
Taras Bulba is an odd hybrid of a film, having some pretensions towards serious historical drama but occasionally appearing more like a fantasy, such as Hans Christian Andersen or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. This is in part a question of design. The Kiev set looks like something out of Disneyland and the various castles and towers look to be made out of cake icing - less real, in fact, than Ludwig II's Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria where some of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was filmed. With Taras Bulba they never went near Europe or Asia; it was shot in Californian studios with Salta in Argentina standing in for the Steppes. Similarly the costumes are overly clean, bright and colourful, which gives the impression of an ongoing pageant rather than the gritty realities of sixteenth century life. Then there's the casting to consider. Whilst Brynner is perfection as Taras Bulba, having Tony Curtis, a mere five years his junior, playing his son is a bit weird; plus the fact they're completely different in looks and Curtis retains his regular American 50s/60s hairstyle, so he sticks out like a sore thumb amongst Cossacks.
Things are much improved when the action is in full swing, and the spectacle of a mass Cossack cavalry charge, with sabres waving in the air, is undeniably impressive. The battle scenes are well handled by director J. Lee Thompson, who has a good sense of choreography and gets the balance right in the micro and macro action of extended combat scenes. Ultimately though the larger story of Cossack freedom fighting and the more intimate one of Taras' family strife fail to gel and resolve satisfyingly, with the scripting becoming overly schematic and lacking in emotion. As an epic, Taras Bulba remains very much a curate's egg.
The DiscPresented in anamorphic 2.35 : 1, the transfer is taken from a good condition source which well displays the quality of the Panavision original. Contrast is on the high side and colours are vivid and saturated, adding to the overall ‘fantasy’ impression. There is occasional slight digital noise and some quite pronounced edge enhancement, particularly noticeable in the outdoor close-ups. The audio track, converted to stereo from the original mono, is loud, gutsy and satisfactory throughout. Dialogue is crisp and clear and the mix of music and gunfire in the battle scenes is very in-your-face effective. There are no extras.
ConclusionTaras Bulba is notable for being a strange and not greatly auspicious pairing of two major Hollywood stars - in his autobiography, Tony Curtis notes an animosity between Brynner and himself, stemming from the fact that Curtis had top billing even though the film is titled after Brynner’s character. For Curtis fans it’s also notable that the film’s love story extended to real life, with Curtis finally ditching first wife Janet Leigh in favour of seventeen year old Christine Kaufmann.
As a 50s/60s historical epic, Taras Bulba is nowhere near in the same class as Ben-Hur, Spartacus or Dr Zhivago, but it’s worth watching for the battle set pieces and the ebullient, if slightly comical, depiction of sixteenth century Cossack life.