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TARAS BULBA(director: J. Lee Thompson; screenwriters: Waldo Salt/Karl Tunberg/from the novel by Nikolai Gogol; cinematographer: Joseph MacDonald; editors: Folmar Blanksted/Gene Milford/William Reynolds/Eda Warren; music: Franz Waxman; cast: Tony Curtis (Andrei Bulba), Yul Brynner (Taras Bulba), Christine Kaufmann (Natalia Dubrov), Sam Wanamaker (Filipenko), Brad Dexter (Shilo), Guy Rolfe (Prince Grigory), Perry Lopez (Ostap Bulba); Runtime: 122; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Harold Hecht; MGM; 1962)
“It seems to be in genre form when showing hordes of Cossack horsemen flying across the steppes to do battle.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

British-born director J. Lee Thompson (“The Yellow Balloon”/”The Passage”/”King Solomon’s Mines”) helms this bloody spectacular. It’s a serviceable large-scale epic that mainly goes wrong with a mushy subplot involving a miscast Tony Curtis as a Cossack wooing a Polish noblewoman, Christine Kaufmann (they were soon to be married in real-life after his divorce from Janet Leigh). It seems to be in genre form when showing hordes of Cossack horsemen flying across the steppes to do battle. It’s based on the novel by Nikolai Gogol and is written without wit or logic by Waldo Salt (former blacklisted writer) and Karl Tunberg.

In 1550, after centuries of fighting for possession of the Ukraine with the Turks, the Cossacks under the leadership of Taras Bulba (Yul Brynner) aid the Polish Army in the battle of the steppes (Argentina subbing for the Ukraine, where reportedly some 10,000 Argentinean extras were employed) and are victorious. Invited to a Polish feast to celebrate, the Cossacks are betrayed by their cunning hosts and flee under cannon fire to safety across the steppes.

The cocky and arrogant Taras raises two sons, Andrei (Tony Curtis) and Ostap (Perry Lopez), and eventually sends them to Kiev University to learn how their enemies think. The independent-minded Andrei falls in love with Natalia (Christine Kaufmann), a young beautiful Polish noblewoman, but her family deems him unworthy of her because of his lowly birth. The heartbroken Andrei returns home to the steppes and his bloodthirsty barbarian warrior father—definitely not a college grad.

It then turns into a family drama, as Andrei rejects his people to return to Poland and his Princess. The stern dad deals with this betrayal by shooting his son down as a traitor when he tries to raid the Cossack camp for food for his captive Princess, who the Poles threaten to burn at the stake unless Andrei acts.

Franz Waxman’s bombastic score bursts across the lush Technicolor screen as a reminder of how much Gogol’s novel has been cheapened, Cossacks on horseback engage the Poles in battle giving the film its life pulse and the action-packed film ultimately serves as a paean to Ukrainian nationalism as it rewrites history to leave out how the violently anti-Semitic Cossacks attacked the Jewish population of Poland with a barbaric ruthlessness to dispense with their ethnic cleansing. Yul chews the scenery, but is watchable. Tony demonstrates he can’t act by giving an unbearable gooey performance.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”