TARAS BULBA —-with a romperstomp name like that (conjuring two large brass spheres) you’d pretty much be King of the Playground, especially if the school of hard knocks (Yul of scalped locks) lay on the oft-contested Ukrainian steppes, back in the lusty 1600s. Mention of this big, rowdy, mangled 1962 epic invariably brings a smile to those who saw it as children (mostly a boy thing), applause from soundtrack aficionados, and calls for “fresh vodka for my horses!” from those who appreciate huge pre-CGI battle scenes with thousands of extras. Its manhandled failure brought headaches to United Artists and heartache to star Yul Brynner, as this was a passion project for the 42-year old tale spinner.
“There’s only ONE WAY to keep faith with a Pole. Put your faith in your sword and the sword in the Pole!”
After helping them rout the Turks, vile Polish princes betray their hearty Cossack cavalry allies. Hetman Taras (Brynner) and his host fade away into the country, only to take vengeance against Poland when Bulba’s sons have grown to manhood. Complicating the Cossack chieftains cunning is beloved eye-apple ‘Andrei’ (Tony Curtis) falling in love with a Polish princess (Christine Kaufmann). Someone–quite a few—will have to pay.
Basic-madman Nikolai Gogol’s 1835 novella, based on the mercy-shy Khmelnysky Uprising, had its less-savory aspects (anti-Semitism and everyone getting killed for starters) masked by screenwriters Waldo Salt and Karl Tunberg, who stoke the romantic swashing with loads of buckling dialogue (“The day is coming when Cossacks will have something better to do than carry horses around the house!”) all delivered with gusto. Storybook love-dove interludes with Tony & Christine are almost fairy-tale like in their presentation.
Fresh from his huge hit (and biggest career success) The Guns Of Navarone, director J. Lee Thompson, Yul and crew set up camp in the wide-open spaces outside Salta, Argentina, the expanses of the pampas standing in for the vastness of the steppes. A castle was constructed and they hired thousands of Argentine gauchos, riding like fiends, to play the Cossack & Polish regiments. After the grandeur and success of historical and national epics Spartacus, The Alamo and El Cid, and with Lawrence Of Arabia, The Longest Day, Mutiny On The Bounty and How The West Was Won in the pipeline, Brynner and Thompson put their backs into it.
The $3,800,000 allotted grew to nearly $7,000,000. Tony had a wide-open affair with 17-year old Kaufmann, ending his marriage to Janet Leigh. Curtis, 37, wed his nubile co-star the following year (lasted until ’68). He must have felt flush, playing history’s first Jewish Cossack: he’d managed to be the first Bronx Norseman in The Vikings, and had done Roman duty in Spartacus. He’s fine (albeit too old for the role) and his scenes with Papa Yul are well done—especially strong in the moving finale.
Colorful supporting players include Perry Lopez, Sam Wanamaker (over-acting like he’d never get another chance: you think his teeth will fly out), Brad Dexter, Guy Rolfe (cruel and sinister again), George MacReady, Richard Rust, Vladimir Sokoloff, Abraham Sofaer, Mickey Finn (carrying the horse around the hut) and vixenish Vitina Marcus, as the come-hither Gypsy maiden in the wild debauch sequence. The crazed dancing, wenching and vodka-gulping in that party is a rip-chest-hair classic (fans of the insane punk band Gogol Bordello look no further for seeds of inspiration).
Intended as a lengthy road-show, it was drastically edited down to 122 minutes, and despite the expenditure has some glaringly clunky camera-work (a laughable speed-up effect in the very start is an inexplicable no-no): whether this was Thompson’s carelessness or the editors fault is up for grabs. Some of the matte work and obvious projection shots are woeful, especially coming in a high-profile production. These goofs manage to make it look cardboard and haphazard at the same time as it is spectacular. Brynner, who is great, in his striding element, clearly having the time of his life as the passionate hero, was crushed. *
Salvaging the damage are a couple of eye-popping action scenes and Franz Waxman’s triumphant music score. Money’s worth: the ‘Ride to Dubno’, when every dude who could mount a steed between Santiago and Buenos Aires joins the cast in the greatest accumulation of horsemen in movie history; the attack on the castle (great booming cannon sound effects and vats of boiling oil for the medieval hell of it); the final jaw-dropping mash-up when Taras & Co. collide into bad guy Rolfe’s lancers from three sides and— push ’em over a cliff!
No less a master than Bernard Herrmann praised Waxman’s score to heaven, his last and greatest in a stellar career. Oscar-nominated (losing to Maurice Jarre’s majestic Lawrence Of Arabia), Waxman’s opus is thrilling and beautiful work.
Brynner’s flamboyance, Waxman’s eloquence and the battle blasts did not keep critics from dissing it, and only $9,700,000 came back in the States, skidding into 25th place. Fans of this wounded old warhorse don’t give a fig what keyboard smirkers or box-office accounting serfs think—when recess rings, you can’t keep Taras Bulba off the swingset.
* In his bio “The Man Who Would Be King: A Memoir of Father and Son”, Rock Brynner said his father wept when he saw the results: “The end result was so far from his original dream as to be unrecognizable, and for several nights thereafter he hardly slept. There and then, once and for all, something inside him broke. His aesthetic trust had been violated, and no professional undertaking would ever be quite the same again.
“There’s too much money, and there are too many idiots involved, Rock,” he said late one night, sharing a beer with me. “I can’t put my heart that far out on the line for an industry that no longer cares enough to be proud of the result. They’re hacks, just earning a living. The c———-s ought to be parking cars – instead they’re calling the shots for the whole film business.