The Tale of Tsar Saltan Review

Michael Brooke has reviewed the Region 0 release of The Tale of Tsar Saltan, a gorgeously lavish slice of fairytale nonsense based on the Alexander Pushkin poem, given the full-scale Russian Cinema Council treatment with a particularly impressive set of extras (and rhyming subtitles, no less!). Sadly, though, there’s something wrong with the aspect ratio, which mars an otherwise superb disc.

Based on the poem by Alexander Pushkin (with which I imagine a Russian audience would be rather more familiar than a Western one, though Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera version pops up from time to time), Alexander Ptushko’s The Tale of Tsar Saltan is pure unadulterated nonsense from beginning to end, and is all the better for it. In terms of visual style and production values, it’s roughly equivalent to the Ray Harryhausen extravaganzas of the 1950s and 1960s (The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts), and what it lacks in logic it more than makes up for in visual and conceptual wit and a delightful refusal to take itself even remotely seriously.

The title is a bit of a misnomer, as Tsar Saltan doesn’t actually do that much except ponce about in his palace or on the battlefield (when he’s not indulging in a bit of decidedly homoerotic towel-flicking with his boyars in the communal shower), and he’s far from a heroic figure, pitifully open to manipulation from all sorts of schemers, such as his mother- and sisters-in-law. Insanely jealous of the Cinderella-like Tsarina’s success at finding a wealthy and important husband, they vow to sabotage her wedded bliss by intercepting messengers, plying them with drink and doctoring letters going in both directions.

Since Tsar Saltan is away fighting various battles and therefore totally reliant on written communication, this causes chaos – he’s told that his wife has given birth to a monster, and his boyars are in turn told to drown her and her offspring forthwith. Fortunately, though, the Tsarina and young Prince Guidon manage to survive not only being sealed in a barrel and dumped into the sea, but also the rather bigger problem of spending what must have been at least a decade (judging from the way Guidon ages in that time) without any food or indeed oxygen. Still, I shouldn’t quibble too much, as I’ll only end up picking holes everywhere else as well, and as this is the kind of film that presents a singing Cossack-dancing squirrel as being perfectly normal, that’s a bit futile.

Anyway, when they finally reach land, and Guidon goes in search of food, he just happens to shoot an evil spirit who has been menacing a beautiful swan who, not too surprisingly, turns out to be a princess in disguise. Better still, she has awesome magical powers, and expresses her gratitude towards Guidon by conjuring up a whole city where miracles are part of the everyday fabric. Word of this fabulous place eventually reaches Tsar Saltan, and he decides to pay it a visit…

The plot is mostly pretty twaddlesome, and the ending is particularly weak, but I still found The Tale of Tsar Saltan irresistible thanks to the incidental detail. Almost every scene is crammed with witty visual touches, such as the lion-shaped armrests of the Tsar’s throne cowering and running off when he gets angry or weeping when he’s sad. The copious special effects aren’t especially sophisticated: even by mid-1960s standards they’re fairly ramshackle (rather closer to Georges Méliès than Ray Harryhausen) – but in many ways their sheer obviousness adds to the film’s endearing qualities.

And the costume and set designs are a veritable feast for the eyes, capturing an authentic storybook atmosphere very effectively – enhanced all the more by the dialogue being in verse throughout. None of the performances are what you might call subtle – we’re firmly in the realm of thigh-slapping eye-rolling melodramatics, with plenty of extravagantly ludicrous beards on display (plus some indescribably silly bone-waving natives that Tsar Saltan seems to have a thing against) – but this is also very much in tune with the rest of the film.

I can’t pretend that children weaned on Toy Story and Shrek will get much out of it – but it has an immensely winning charm that those nostalgic for the likes of The Singing Ringing Tree will pick up on immediately. And the squirrel is worth the price of the DVD on its own!

The transfer is a bit of a mixed bag. The source print varies widely in quality from near-pristine to quite severely blighted with spots and scratches (though, to be fair, the bias is very much in favour of the former condition), and the colours have that decidedly artificial (and somewhat faded) look common to many Soviet colour productions – though this actually suits the material quite well. There’s also a fair amount of picture grain at times, and some shots are noticeably softer than others, which suggests this is inherent in the original materials.

As for the transfer, when it’s good it’s very good indeed – there’s minimal artefacting and the level of detail is commendably high, helped by anamorphic enhancement. There are two problems, though – firstly, static parts of the image are very occasionally prone to momentary freezing, something I’ve noted on other Ruscico discs, though here it’s less of an issue as there’s so much matte work and back projection that static backgrounds are very common anyway.

A more serious defect, though, is that the picture appears to be vertically stretched. Since the original film was shot in 70mm, there’s every possibility that the aspect ratio was the somewhat unorthodox 2:1, but the opening Mosfilm logo looks cropped at the bottom, and the three maidens in the opening sequence look a little too elongated for my liking. Your eyes do get used to it after a time (the stretching isn’t as ridiculously blatant as, say some of Hong Kong Legends’ 2.35:1-to-16:9 trailers) but it’s jarring.

There are plenty of soundtrack options – Russian, English, French and Spanish, all 5.1 remixes from a mono original (the Spanish is a voice-over – the Russian can be heard underneath). As usual, it’s mostly the original mono, though the subwoofer is pressed into service during the battle scenes and there are a few effective surround moments. Recording quality is on a par with what one would expect from the mid-1960s – occasionally a tad harsh and shrill, though dialogue and music come across clearly enough.

If I have reservations about the picture and sound, I have none about the subtitles, which are outstanding – offering a rhyming translation that also matches the rhythm of the original. I haven’t seen anything like this since Anthony Burgess’s memorable subtitles for the 1990 Cyrano de Bergerac, and while these aren’t in quite the same class as far as linguistic versatility goes, they’re still hugely impressive. Note that the English dub is also in verse – but based on a different translation from the subtitles, which is amusing for a couple of minutes or so (but I urge viewers to choose the Russian soundtrack – Pushkin is much better in the original!).

I’m getting increasingly fond of Ruscico’s lucky dip approach to extras – in virtually all cases you get more than is advertised, and this disc is the most extreme example I’ve come across to date. The back of the box promises “pictures and filmographies of the film’s authors, photo album, an interview with the costume designer and sketches of the costumes”, all of which is perfectly true, but it doesn’t say anything about a whole hour of additional video material. Even more amusingly, the most substantial extra is almost completely buried where you’d least expect to find it!

Kicking off with the basics, there’s the usual stills gallery (ten colour stills, selectable via superbly-presented thumbnails) and a package of filmographies, for Alexander Ptushko, cameramen Valentin Zakharov and Igor Guelein, composer Gavriil Popov and actors Oleg Vidov, Larissa Golubkina, Vladimir Andreyev and Sergei Martinson (sadly, none of them have any of the hidden trailers that have popped up on other Ruscico discs).

A second, rather more elaborate stills gallery contains costume sketches – 29 in all, selectable from a bullet-pointed list to make access as easy as possible – and the same section has a five-minute interview with costume designer Olga Kruchinina, in which she reminisces about the inspiration and technique behind a whole range of her costumes, with plenty of illustrative clips both from the film and her sketches. It’s in Russian with a choice of English, Dutch, Spanish, French and Italian subtitles.

So far so straightforward – all this stuff is at least conventionally signposted, but the great thing about Ruscico menus is that you never know what’s lurking round the corner. The treasure trove here was the ‘Coming Soon’ section which, in addition to trailers for Ilya Muromets and The Tale of Time Lost also contains a 30-minute documentary with the self-explanatory title The Fairy Tale World of Alexander Ptushko.

And this is terrific – presumably made for Russian television in the 1970s, it’s clearly aimed at the same children who would have been the target audience of The Tale of Tsar Saltan, two of whom are initially seen watching a documentary about Ptushko’s work on television, which provides a handy excuse for a brief career rundown. The documentary ends and they’re packed off to bed… where they get caught up in an elaborate dream that involves them being trapped in a whole range of scenes from Ptushko’s films as they meet (and are usually menaced by) a whole range of characters from Russian literature and fairytales.

The back projection, matching and superimposition to allow the children to interact with Ptushko’s images is surprisingly elaborate – obviously not a patch on what today’s CGI-fuelled kids’ television can accomplish, but impressive nonetheless. None of the film clips are identified – it’s clearly designed to be nostalgic, and it’s not the least bit surprising that I responded best to those sequences based on images from Tsar Saltan and Viy, the only two Ptushko films I’ve seen to date (I’ll be returning to this when I?ve sampled a few more of his films!). Presented in the original Russian, it offers subtitles in English, Russian, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Swedish, Hebrew, Arabic, Portuguese, Dutch and Chinese.

And finally there’s another unannounced extra – a 30-minute cartoon, The Fisherman and the Goldfish, made by M.Tsekhanovsky from a Pushkin fairy tale in 1950, very much in the slightly heavy-handed faux-Disney style apparently much loved by Stalin, but which did so much to retard the artistic development of Russian animation in the 1940s and 1950s.

That said, it has a great deal of charm, and I especially liked the way it’s so clearly indebted to both Pushkin and Disney – there’s an underwater jellyfish dance that could have been lifted from Fantasia! There are also quite a few parallels with the main feature – some images, such as the army of warriors emerging from the sea, are common to both, as is the general theme of a man rescuing a helpless creature out of charity and finding that it’s prepared to grant miraculously life-changing wishes in return. But do the fisherman and especially his shrewish Lady Macbeth-style wife really understand the possibilities this offers and, more importantly, their moral dimension?

The print has been very well preserved – a few spots and scratches and very occasional splices and tramlines, but far less than you’d expect from its age, and the transfer is pretty well impeccable. The colours are mostly fairly muted, though with the occasional striking highlight (the goldfish, for instance) that suggests that it’s not entirely down to age-related fading. Unsurprisingly, like every other Russian film of the period, it’s in 4:3, and so it doesn’t need anamorphic enhancement. The sound is mono and pretty crude, with quite a few dropouts and level changes, but it does its job – and subtitles are available in English, French, Dutch, Spanish, Italian and Russian.

In conclusion, while I’d certainly recommend Viy in preference to this as a first choice for those wanting to sample Alexander Ptushko’s work (it’s a superior film and transfer), The Tale of Tsar Saltan is still well worth a look, especially when the extras are taken into account. It’s just a pity that the aspect ratio has been botched, which doesn’t do an overwhelmingly visual film any favours at all.

Michael Brooke

Updated: Jan 03, 2002

Get involved
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum
The Tale of Tsar Saltan Review | The Digital Fix