The 1950s and ’60s excelled in lavish, big-budget historical epics featuring the hottest Hollywood names of the time. Coming three years after what was probably the biggest of these – Ben Hur (1959) -, Taras Bulba is the story of a Cossack warlord and his sons, and the 16th century origin of the hatred between the Ukrainians (who identify with the Cossacks who used to roam the fertile steppes of that region) and the Polish; a hatred which is still smoldering today. At the time of this movie, Poland was an imperialist power that sometimes used Cossacks as mercenaries. After one such occasion, however, they turned on the Cossacks who had helped them win their wars, dispersing them into the hills. Warlord Taras Bulba (played here by the always charismatic Yul Brynner) decides to keep a low profile until the time is ripe for revenge, and he even sends his two sons to be educated at a Polish-controlled Lithuanian academy where “Cossack barbarians” are graciously allowed to enroll. His eldest son is Andrei (Tony Curtis) and the younger is Ostap (Perry Lopez), and although they do learn something at the academy, their time their is short, both because they are bullied by the other students and because Andrei has the audacity to grow enamored of a beautiful Polish noblewoman, Natalia (played by stunning Austrian beauty Christine Kaufmann), who also likes him, but is totally out of his league. In a brawl over the woman, Ostap kills her brother, and Andrei and Ostap barely escape with their lives.
As they return to their father on the faraway steppes, war is soon abrewing again. The Polish has once again, just as twenty years before, asked the Cossacks to fight for them against the Ottoman Turks, and the leader of all the Cossack tribes has agreed. However, on the impassioned advice of Taras Bulba, they all decide to turn on the Polish, ending up laying siege to one of their cities. As bad luck would have it, Natalia is in this city, and Andrei is forced by the power of love to change sides for her sake. This is not a good idea, as they both become outcasts from both the Cossacks and the Polish. This movie has been called a Romeo and Juliet story, and there is certainly truth in that. The cultural forces the lovers must contend with are too great for the outcome to be a happy one.
Taras Bulba is an impressive production in many ways, but it is also marked by a clear desire to be big and epic for the sake of being big and epic, without the plot substance and the cinematic workmanship being top-notch. Many of the battle scenes are shown in faster-than-normal speed, obviously to look more frenetic and action-oriented (not unlike the action scenes of those old Tarzan movies!), but the actual effect is closer to silly and ridiculous. The Cossacks are all wearing baggy clothes in bright and variegated colors, which doesn’t strike me as very likely for the 16th century; it looks more like mid-20th century ostentatious Hollywood lavishness. But that’s ‘60s Hollywood historical vision for you. It is entertaining enough, especially when actors like recently deceased Tony Curtis run around dancing Cossack dances and climbing castle walls and what-not. Curtis’ role here is not unlike his part in 1958’s The Vikings, where he also played one of two brothers and son to a warlord. While he played second fiddle to Kirk Douglas in The Vikings, Curtis is the “first fiddle” in Taras Bulba, having much more limelight in this movie than any of the other actors. His Hollywood Walk of Fame star was rising, but Taras Bulba did not end up much of a classic; it is not even as good as The Vikings, which itself is only so-so. As in so many movies of questionable quality, what ends up being most noteworthy (for the male audience, anyway) is the opportunity to gaze longingly at the female lead. Well. I guess that’s also a kind of quality.
I have a Danish DVD release with Scandinavian subs. It has scene selections but no other features.
Director: J. Lee Thompson
Cast: Tony Curtis, Yul Brynner, Perry Lopez, Christine Kaufmann, Sam Wanamaker and others.
Runtime: 119 minutes.
Country: USA, Yugoslavia