Taras Bulba (J. Lee Thompson, 1962)


No, no, you've got that all wrong. Taras Bulba isn't that great at all. It's almost a holdover from a bygone age, even at the time. It has that strange and fascinating 'a cast of thousands!' brand of sensationalism that today's movies are much too subtle for – HA! But seriously, in so far as the film isn't the grossest vehicle for the grossly alluring Tony Curtis with his impossible eyes, capitalizing on his budding fame with whatever exotic trifle had been sitting on some Hollywood shelf, it's a concoction of weird themes and choices that all but fall flat.

Curtis isn't even the titular character, no, he plays the son of Taras Bulba, embodied by the outlandish Yul Brynner. The film, based on a Gogol novel, paints the struggle of the Cossack hordes as they try to wrest free from Poland and reclaim their Eastern steppes (though at no point do the pastel-colored landscapes remind you of anything but Argentina, where the thing was filmed). Taras is their de facto leader and bears two sons, one of whom falls for a Polish damsel. Of note: this is a movie where the characters love each other through oval masks of vaseline – their eyesight blurred from sheerest desire.

The first half focuses on the strangely Police Academy-like misadventures of Curtis as he attends a Polish university and woos the princess. There's a note of class warfare here, a smidgeon of Romeo and Juliet, suppression of minorities, but mostly it smacks of a good old comedy of errors. Then in the second half it's WAR, I tell you, WAR! Taras rallies the dispersed bands of Cossacks and marches on a city.

And you have to hand it them: it's here that the film finds its glorious peak. And by gum if it doesn't deliver on its ludicrous claim from the trailer, which repeats no less than three times that people should probably list this feature among 'the wonders of the world'. Making for the siege, Taras starts out with only his two sons on horseback, straddling the steppes of faux Poland. Not long after, a group joins them with the cry of ZAPOROZHYE, after the brotherhood of Cossacks. More horses, and more riders race along, and still more, and more again, and soon there's a thundering army of clattering hoofs and incessant, insouciant cries of zaporozhye. They're all waving their sabers and so enthusiastically gallop to battle that it's hard not to wish that you could just be a Cossack too, fistbumping with Brynner in full stride.

What makes it so endearing isn't just the spectacle, it's (just like in War & Peace) the certainty that it's all real. The characters are all there, engaging in non-trivial danger as they ride and ride (the scene lasts over three minutes), waving cutlasses and having a great time. If one of them had fallen off, their head would've splattered under a hundred horse legs. And all the while there's this fantastic score by Franz Waxman, 'The Ride to Dubno', both pompously trumpetty and genuinely riveting.

Sometimes it takes but a single scene to redeem a whole film. Unless you have a weak spot (and I wouldn't blame you) for Tony Curtis, Taras Bulba is a long sit – old-fashioned and outdated even when it arrived in 1962. But that ride of the Cossacks... it's just glorious. ZAPOROZHYE!

Roderick Leeuwenhart