Taras Bulba (1962)
This Harold Hecht production with J. Lee Thompson directing comes across as if it had been intended to be the biggest spectacle of the year capturing the bulk of the box office dollars. Instead it plays more like an outdated variation of Romeo and Juliet that never quite knows how to pick up steam and maintain it due to choppy storytelling and some less than stellar camera tricks.
On the plus side, and it’s a big PLUS is Yul Brynner cast in the title role.
Yul stars as the leader of a Cossack clan who finds himself at war with the Poles. Swearing his son will never yield to the Poles, Yul retreats to the mountains along with his right hand man and fellow Magnificent 7 member, Brad Dexter to raise his children, Tony Curtis and Perry Lopez. Lopez I can somehow see as Yul Brynner’s offspring but as much as I like Tony Curtis, it just doesn’t work. Tony is attempting to recall his role in The Black Shield of Falworth but this time out, he’s just darned old to be believable as the son of he-man Brynner.
When a truce is declared between the Cossacks and the poles, Yul sends his two sons off to school in the heart of the Polish city to learn all about their enemies. The hazing begins as Tony and Perry find themselves as outcasts and the teachers enjoy brandishing a whip across their backs. Despite the clash of races, Curtis learns the meaning of love with the Polish beauty and lady of high standing, Christine Kaufman. The Romeo and Juliet angle begins.
When the secret courtship is uncovered by Kaufman’s brother and Tony’s manhood is threatened….. literally, he and Perry will fight back leaving one man dead and themselves on the run back to Yul and the mountain hideaway. Time for Yul to lead his people into battle against their sworn enemies. Before doing so, Yul will get the chance to sing a song on the soundtrack to go along with Franz Waxman’s score. Trying to give us a bit of a Viking flavor, Tony will have to prove his manhood and once doing so, there will be plenty of time for a drunken party and the implied orgy that seemed to be a fixture in most any period piece movie.
With Hecht doing his best to make this a “big” screen entertainment, a large amount of extras have been gathered for various scenes of riders gathering for battle. Too bad there are plenty of back screen shots of Yul and company yielding their swords with mean intentions.
Clips like that never seem to impress and surely they didn’t back in the days when those phony setups were prevalent to the movie going audiences. Will Tony turn his back on his upbringing and chase after the Polish Kaufman or will he follow Yul into battle sparing no enemies.
“Damn his soul to hell.”
Another of Yul’s Magnificent Seven costars appeared here in a somewhat similar role to the western classic. It’s Vladimir Sokoloff in his final screen appearance as that of the wise elder. In the earlier film, he played the town elder who sent some of the farmers out in search of gunslingers while this time he plays the elder statesman of the fighting horde who wants to die in battle, sabre in hand as opposed to dying in a peaceful existence.
Far from a classic, this effort fits better into the ‘popcorn” adventure that shouldn’t be taken seriously and with Tony playing the teenage kid off to school, it really can’t be. Curtis would marry his on screen love, off screen ending his “fairy tale” life with Janet Leigh. While there are some great shots caught on camera, there are far too many gimmicky setups meant to compliment Miss Kaufman and her dreamy love affair with Tony. Director Thompson was at this time on a roll having just helmed The Guns of Navarone and Cape Fear so it’s easy to see Hecht assigning him to what was intended as a large budgeted blockbuster.
Filmed in Argentina, the production proved to be a terrible disappointment to Brynner according to his son, Rock’s biography on his famous Dad. Brynner was playing the title role but the film had in large part been turned into a Tony Curtis film with a romantic slant. Still when watching it now the thing that stands out the most is Yul Brynner. The Voice. The Posturing. The Authority that he could bring to most any role.
On the flip side, in Tony Curtis’ second autobiography, American Prince, he keeps it light and tells of Brynner not being overly joyed at second billing and playing up his powerful image off camera as well as on. Sounding like a troubled shoot, this might have more to do with the fact that Tony was chasing Miss Kaufman throughout the filming and attempting to keep it hidden from wife Janet.
A failure this might be to those who participated but it might do for a rainy afternoon viewing and with Yul looking terrific, it might be worth it in the end. I know, I know. I’m always looking for the positive in what some might call a movie worthy of a Razzie Award.