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June 19, 2005

Taras Bulba

J. Lee Thompson - 1962
Japanese DVD

Taras Bulba is a film I originally tried to see when it was released. At the time, most of my film viewing was done with the approval of my parents. I figured I had a shot as the movie was based on a book by Gogol and my father was big on Russian literature. The reviews of the film were less than enthusiastic. My parents usually went by the word of Bosley Crowthers of the New York Times. In this case he trashed the film.

The story is essentially about the son of a 16th Century Cossack who betrays his father to save the life of a Polish princess. Even worse, his father kills him for his action.

The Cossacks are mostly burly guys who love getting drunk on vodka, dancing, and tossing each other in the air. They're led by Yul Brynner who wears a mustache and queue of hair from the middle of his head. Tony Curtis, who is ten years younger than Brynner, plays the son, Andrei. Curtis, of course, is pretty much playing his usual eager to please persona. Curtis falls for Christine Kaufmann. Christine was seventeen at the time, twenty years younger than Curtis. Even though Curtis dies at the end of the film, he got Kaufmann in real life.

Aside from the age discrepancies of the lead actors, we see Curtis and his brother go to college in Kiev where all the students are at least thirty years old. Even more unbelievable are the faux Russian folk songs with lyrics by Mack David. Breaking up the action with songs is something I'll allow in westerns, usually in something by John Ford or Howard Hawks. It's a convention that pretty much ended after Rio Bravo. Within the context of a costume drama made in 1962, the musical numbers are pretty cornball and more glaringly anachronistic. Maybe producer Harold Hecht figured that Yul Brynner should get another chance at singing on the big screen since The King and I.

The music can be described as rousing. This was one of the last scores by Franz Waxman and was rightly nominated for an Academy Award. The music can by described as old fashioned, but in a good way, which is to say comparable with his contemporaries like Erich Korngold and Miklos Rosza.

In terms of J. Lee Thompson's filmography, Taras Bulba pretty much marks his decline from earlier artistic and commercial promise. This was his first film after back to back hits with Gregory Peck, The Guns of Navarone and Cape Fear. This film was a commercial flop, reportedly earning about four million dollars with a budget of seven million. It's not that Taras Bulba is a bad film as much as it is uninvolving. The best moment comes early when Yul Brynner unexpectedly lops off Guy Rolfe's had hand with a sword. Thompson lovingly films Curtis and Kaufmann in iris shots with the lens smeared with vaseline. If ever a screen romance could literally be called gooey, this is it.

At cinema-scope.com, Jonathan Rosenbaum has an article titled Global Discoveries on DVD: Anomolies and Experiments. Rosenbaum discusses his own exploration of various films found either in foreign DVDs or in the DVD-R format. While Taras Bulba is hardly a classic, it is another example of the arbitrary policies regarding DVD releases of older films. While a U.S. VHS version is available, I saw this film as a Japanese DVD. While I understand that there may not be a great demand for certain titles, especially older films, this is for me another reason by region coding is detrimental to film scholarship. Especially as most of the older films are commercially played out, it would make sense to me to have DVD versions of older titles released code free. This would allow the greatest number of people who appreciate less popular or obscure titles to view the films rather than forcing serious film lovers to either purchase code free DVD players or go without seeing certain films. As it is, the film production companies, like much of the audience it aims for, is made of people with short memories.
This is why a recent box office failure like the remake of Flight of the Phoenix gets a second life on DVD. With the current state of older and classic films on DVD, I'll see what I can and appreciate those opportunities that exist.

Posted by peter at June 19, 2005 05:31 PM


je voudrais recevoir le film car je le cherche depuis lontemps

Posted by: taras at May 22, 2006 12:57 PM