25 November 2011 | Spikeopath
Faith and a good Sabre arm.
Taras Bulba is directed by J. Lee Thompson and adapted to the screen by Waldo Salt and Karl Tunberg from a story by Nikolai Gogol. It stars Yul Brynner, Tony Curtis, Christine Kaufmann and Perry Lopez. Out of United Artists, it's a DeLuxe/Eastman Color/Panavision production, with the music scored by Franz Waxman and cinematography by Joseph MacDonald.
Loosely based on Gogol's short novel, story tells of a Cossack uprising against the Polish forces who have taken control of the Ukraine. At the centre of the Cossack army is the leader Taras (Brynner) and his two sons, Andrei (Curtis) and Ostap (Lopez). But when Andrei falls in love with a Polish princess called Natalia (Kaufmann), it sets the wheels in motion for the Bulba family to crack from within; just as the Polish come calling asking for the Cossacks help to defeat the Turkish.
While not as epic as the film, the troubled back story of the production is big enough to lend one to understand why Taras Bulba is not the grandiose picture the story deserves. Main problem comes with casting, particularly that of Curtis as the elder Bulba son. It should have been Burt Lancaster, who walked, so in came Curtis and a decision was made to put him front and centre of the picture. Thus rendering Brynner's title character to playing second fiddle, so much so they really should have called the film Andrei Bulba instead. On his day Curtis could act, but he's out of place here playing a Cossack with brain and brawn. Then there was the small matter of Curtis' marriage to Janet Leigh falling apart, with Leigh visiting the set, falling ill and no doubt noticing the sparks flying between Curtis and his delectable co-star, Kaufmann. Curtis would say it wasn't the final straw, but with him going on to marry Kaufman shortly after his divorce, it's hard not to think that it sealed the deal!
He's not helped by the writers, though, who allow the love story sub-plot between Andrei and Natalia to form the core of the plot. They too, Messrs Salt & Tunberg, were brought in after historical novelist Howard Fast (Spartacus) refused to tone down the screenplay. He wanted to include what was an important part of the Cossack/Pole war, that of the Cossacks anti-Semitic attack on Polish Jews. The makers balked and Salt & Tunberg came in and delivered the Andrei overkill and some rather cheese laden dialogue. Brynner was crushed, his biography (written by his son Rock) reveals that it was a role and film he cared for more than any other, he had grand plans for the portrayal but the makers didn't share his view. A shame because what we do get of Brynner is wonderfully exuberant, muscular and (correctly) scene stealing.
However, when Taras Bulba as a film is good, it's real good, and thankfully it's never dull, even if it's it a bit more jovial in the mid section than it is meant to be. Thompson was a fine director of action and suspense, and he gets to flex his muscles here to great effect. Casting aside the cheap shots of dummies and wooden horses being hurled about a couple of times, the sight of thousands of men on horseback swarming across the Steppes (actual location used was Argentina) is spectacular. The battles are fierce, violent and gripping, while the scenes in the Cossacks camps are joyous as men drink, sing, test their manhood by doing things like dangling over a bear pit, it's all very robust and Vikingesque, but entertainingly so. There's even some dashing sword play, while quality suspense is eked out during a challenge to the death over a seemingly bottomless gorge.
Joseph MacDonald's Panavision photography neatly brings the wide vistas to life, aided by the use of Eastman Color which gives off a nice period hue. Waxman delivers a blunderbuss score that's seasoned with Russian vitality, while the costume department deserves a mention for their efforts, particularly for the Polish army who look dandy men of steel. Yes it's a film of flaws and bad decisions, but the good does outweigh the bad in this instance, and how nice it is to have the chance to see a little known part of "bloody" history up there on the screen. 7/10