In the early 1960’s Hollywood was in a state of minor panic. Its vast studio empires had crumbled under the Government Consent Decrees and its impotence in combating the ever-increasing threat of television had led virtually every studio to divest itself of the one essential necessary to keep their foundering enterprises afloat: namely, its stars. Gone was the ironclad life-long indentured servitude …and good riddance, as far as some stars were concerned. But in a free market, many would quickly discover there was, indeed something to be gained by remaining under the protective umbrella of one mogul at one studio; and something decidedly lost in being hired on a picture-by-picture basis – explicitly, a steady paycheck. Some stars ultimately fared better than others in finding work to keep their glamorous facades sparkling. Some would quietly fade into obscurity. Still, others would suffer the indignation of a very public implosion; their unchaperoned foibles becoming tabloid fodder.
At the same instance, Hollywood railed against that little black box in everyone’s living room by offering audiences what no TV programming could; color and widescreen, and spectacular vistas to boot. There are really two schools of thought in competition throughout the sixties. The first, and less common, was to scale down production and spend less on single pictures. This trend was begun by Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) which seemed to suggest movies could be made on a virtual shoestring – and in B&W – and still turn a very handsome profit. Alas, not every filmmaker had Hitch’s cache. And so another school of thought took hold – spending money like water and worrying about the profits to be derived at some later date. The budgets of certain movies made throughout the decade are staggering; the expectation on a dwindling number of productions per annum, to carry the weight of an entire organization and keep it in the black for the coming year, creating even sweatier palms in the front offices. In the past, one flop could ruin a career. Now, it might very well take out an entire studio. Conversely, one success could put both over the top like never before. And so, the love affair was on – however ephemeral.
In hindsight, director J. Lee Thompson’s Taras Bulba (1962) is attempting to straddle an impossible chasm; promising to be the sort of colossus that could make the likes of Ben-Hur (1959) gush, but ultimately succumbing to a sort of epic ennui, loosely translated into abject tedium; Waldo Salt and Karl Tunberg’s screenplay meandering through the lusty encampments of an aged Zaporozhian Cossack (played with spectacular aplomb by Yul Brynner, looking uncharacteristically gaunt and moody); alas, failing to catch the spark of essential cinema magic. In its initial incarnation, as a Ukrainian short story first published in 1835, Taras Bulba had been heavily criticized. Hence, the eventual romanticized novel, almost entirely rewritten by Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol (completed in 1842) became a curious amalgam of Gogol’s own shifting political alliances and aesthetic views; each infused with a strong nationalist sentiment for mother Russia. The novel is a fantastic read; alas, peppered in thought-provoking precepts and philosophies that the more tangible medium of cinema has always had a great deal of difficulty visually quantifying.
Independently produced by Harold Hecht and Avala Films, Taras Bulba desperately wants to be the epic to end all gone before it. Quite simply, it hasn’t the budget to achieve this desired effect and, in the expansive and crystal clear vistas of 70mm Panavision, the pennies behind pinched backstage are occasionally – and woefully – present on the big screen. The hordes of galloping extras aren’t nearly as plentiful, as example; Edward Carrere’s art direction looking just that – artificial and pared down to stretch the monies as far as they can go. A lot of Taras Bulba was shot on indoor sets looking very much like plasticized dioramas; the attempt to meld the artifice with some rare outdoor location photography producing a distinct disconnect between the two. It’s a tough sell and it impacts the overall appreciation for the story and the acting put forth.
Taras Bulba is really the story of paternal love betrayed by a favorite son. The Salt/Tunberg screenplay is particularly adept at presenting both sides to this perfidy; the beloved, Andrei (Tony Curtis being Tony Curtis) unable to align his heart’s desire for the woman he loves with his father’s more embittered warrior stance. Andrei must defy his own heritage. But it remains Taras’ inability to understand his own flesh and blood or – in fact – see the error of his own grievances, that leads to the penultimate battle between father and son; the giver of life forced into an impossible situation where he must take it away. The movie retains a good deal of the novel’s fairytale quality, thanks in part to Yul Brynner’s vigorous and nourishing central performance. In some respects, everything Brynner did on film is colored by his iconic turn in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I (1956); an indelible and inescapable career-making act. In Taras Bulba, Brynner retains his bald pate, topping it off with a fantastic shock of white fur. Indeed, costume designer, Irene Sharif told Brynner he should never grow his hair again. It was, in retrospect, a wise bit of advice; Brynner being perhaps the only man in movie history to make baldness appealing as the height of masculinity.
In Taras Bulba, we are painfully reminded of just how far Brynner has fallen from playing the king of all he surveys; the clumsy pancake makeup and grayed out brows and moustache making him appear somewhat less imposing – and thus, less impressive – despite his performance. And he’s thin too; perhaps ill – already deprived of one lung, thanks to his chronic smoking habits. Taras Bulba is only two years removed from Brynner’s powerful turn as the gangly gunslinger in The Magnificent Seven (1960), and yet he seems frightfully lean and not terribly prepossessing in his physical stature. Still, he has the command of his voice; that rich and unidentifiable accented pseudo-baritone. And nothing – not even bad makeup – can prevent Brynner from occasionally reaching the audience with his inimitable piercing stare. Still, it is difficult to claim Taras Bulba as Brynner’s show, primarily because the screenplay tends to parcel off his appearance with healthy interludes involving Tony Curtis and the turgid, Christine Kaufmann.
I have to say, Tony Curtis is an actor whose popularity has always baffled me. In his youth he was almost painfully too beautiful to look at and adoring the strength of his own physicality far too well to ever entirely surrender it to the perfect performance. Even in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959) Curtis still likes Curtis way too much. While one might accept Yul Brynner in any number of roles taking him outside the milieu of contemporary America. But Tony Curtis is decidedly an American through and through…and much too American for his own good. He looks insincerely uncomfortable in most of Norma Koch’s period costumes and downright silly in some of them; the clothes always wearing him instead of the other way around. Worse, Curtis seems to instinctually understand how out of his depth he is; his performance stilted and unconvincing; the syllables issuing from his lips never going beyond the credibility of obviously scripted words on a page.
Taras Bulba is not a total washout despite these flaws. In fact, composer, Franz Waxman’s enveloping Oscar-nominated score remains one of the film’s undisputed and peerless highlights, gleaning its influences from traditional Ukrainian folk songs and Schedryk’s The Carol of the Bells. Waxman’s melodic tome has since gone on to have a life of its own apart from the film. Segments from it are frequently revived as part of a ‘classical’ repertoire for philharmonic orchestras in concert halls around the world. What the score does spectacularly well is to bottle up Gogol’s sensualist approach to nationalism. Gogol’s novel – his longest – is quite unlike his other masterworks; retaining an air of dark realism despite being a total fabrication from start to finish. The story had been brought to the screen first as a silent production directed by Aleksandr Dankov in 1909. Later, Taras Bulba was revived again, this time as a much revered German film made in 1935. A year later, Britain took a stab at the book with an adaptation that quietly went unnoticed. After that, the story virtually disappeared from movie screens for almost three decades.
In re-conceptualizing the scope and sweep of this literary masterwork, Salt and Tunberg manage a minor coup. They retain both the grandeur and intimacy of the novel while reframing its narrative structure to accommodate the infinitely smaller canvas of actual screen time. Looking back, Taras Bulba ought to have been a road show. Instead it is 122 minutes of noise, melodrama, more noise and a penultimate battle that ends with tragic sacrifice. Shot in 70mm on location in the former Yugoslavia, with interiors photographed in the United States, the film strives for a sense of that idyllic storybook quality the novel has, but cannot resist to venture beyond, into occasional bouts of bold expansiveness. It’s an odd blend, occasionally suffering from narrative delays and fits of meandering dialogue between the lovers.
The plot concerns Dneiper Cossack, Taras Bulba (Yul Brynner) and his two sons, the adventurous, Ostap (Perry Lopez) and deeply romantic, Andrei (Andriy in the novel and played superbly by Tony Curtis in the film). The latter has just returned home after studying in a Kiev seminary where, inadvertently he has also fallen madly in love with Natalia Dubrov (Christine Kaufmann) the daughter of the Governor of Dubno (George Macready). Under Cossack rule, a man cannot marry until he has been in combat – presumably, because without a little chest-thumping he cannot justly consider himself a man. To hasten Andrei’s maturity, Taras journeys to a nearby Cossack camp where he rallies his contemporaries into fervor for war against the Poles – the latter accused of atrocities against Orthodoxy. Eventually, Taras, his sons and the Cossack army attack Dubno. However, in a grand twist of irony Andrei is reunited with Natalia – who, along with the rest of the inhabitants, is being starved. Disgusted by what he believes has been an unjust conflict, Andrei forsakes his father’s revolt and the Cossack way of life to feed Natalia and her family by smuggling loaves of bread into a monastery where they have gathered for sanctuary.
Unfortunately for these star-crossed lovers, Taras learns of his Andrei’s treason from Shilo (Yankel, the Jew in the novel and played by Brad Dexter in the film) and, in the Cossack tradition, Taras is forced to put to death his own son for his treason. Taras and Ostap continue their battle with the Poles. But they are separated amidst this clash of swords. Much later, Taras learns Ostap is now a prisoner of war. Disguised as a Jew by Shilo, Taras attempts to see his son in prison. He is denied this access and witnesses Ostap’s public execution the next day. Returning to the Cossack army, Taras learn the old guard has been replaced by a new breed who desire peace with the Poles. Believing his fellow countrymen have betrayed him, Taras retreats into the hills with a small army of followers; their independent battle – nee revenge – coloring the purpose of their labors against insurmountable odds. As Taras had predicted, the Poles turn on the Cossack’s peace treaty, butcher their armies and burn Taras at the stake. The film’s narrative concludes with a new generation of Cossack’s recalling the valiant heroism of Taras Bulba.
Despite some exotic touches and J. Lee Thompson’s skillful handling of the action, Taras Bulba is a forgettable entertainment. Thanks in part to its nimble script, the film moves along swiftly enough – perhaps too swiftly to cover the wealth of historical backdrop in just 122 minutes. Yul Brynner’s commanding presence retains an air of grandeur. But even he has seen better days, and, in some decidedly better movies. The personalized conflict between Taras and Andrei is problematic; Tony Curtis making valiant attempts to capture and bottle the panged essence of his moralizing romantic in broodingly soulful gazes. Initially, Burt Lancaster had been offered the part. Given Lancaster’s innate athleticism and penchant for punctuated dialogue, this might have been the casting coup of the decade. Alas, we get Tony Curtis instead; again, undeniably handsome, but out of his element and, frankly, dull as paint.
Director, J. Lee Thompson, whose pedigree included The Guns of Navarone (1961), is working at a disadvantage here. Perhaps the onus for another ‘Navarone’ was too great for Thompson to stomach – certainly too vast to conquer. And certainly, he’s not given the ideal cast to fulfill this quota. Apart from Brynner, the roster is mostly filled with second string talent – competent – though undistinguished; 40’s ham, George Macready and western sidekick, Brad Dexter about the biggest names under the title. We should also point out Christine Kaufmann is a thoroughly underwhelming would-be love interest. There isn’t much time for Kaufmann to make her mark. Even so, a Sophia Loren or even a Gina Lollobrigida could have made something more of it. Why any man, particularly a devoted son would forsake his father’s love for this tepid peasant girl is anyone’s guess. Kaufmann doesn’t give us any clues and, as such, the romance between Andrei and Natalia is hamstrung. It isn’t simply Kaufmann’s physical presence is painfully nondescript. She lacks the acting chops to infuse her character with a stronger moral presence – anything, in fact – that could make us believe she might possess the key to a secret longing for Andrei that could inspire him to self-sacrifice.
In the end, Taras Bulba comes across as a rather run of the mill action/drama; falling flat on both accounts with only flashes of excitement to be gleaned along the way. Nevertheless, the movie has retained its following over the years. It’s not great entertainment, though nevertheless, competently made. If only one could be assured of as much by Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray we might have at least had something to champion. Alas, no. Derived from old digital files used for MGM Home Video’s DVD, what’s here has obviously been sourced from 35mm elements rather than the 70mm road show camera negative. It’s a shame too, because overall the image is only marginally crisp. Frequently, it’s less than that and occasionally, it’s even disturbingly soft. Age-related artifacts are present throughout. Color density is an issue, the Eastman stock faded and muddy; flesh tones too orange and background detail intermittently marred by some low frequency video-based noise.
I am simply going to go on record here and state there really is NO point to such half-baked transfers. If a movie has enough merit to warrant a hi-def release, it should at least be given base consideration and the necessary clean-up to make it sparkle in 1080p. While studios continue to claim there is no market for catalog titles in hi-def in North America, I would sincerely argue – there is – but the studios have worn out their welcome with shoddy junk like this. Do it well and give it class. It’s an old MGM motto from the Louis B. Mayer days but it would behoove the newer regimes to reconsider it now. The 6-track Westrex sound of the original 70mm engagement has been distilled into a 2.0 DTS mix herein; hardly reassuring or as bold as it might have been. There are NO extras. Bottom line: pass.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)