Movie Monday: Taras Bulba (1962)

Poster - Taras Bulba_02

OK, here’s the scene: it’s a rainy Sunday afternoon in December 1962, you’re all tired out from a hard week at work and you just want to go see a movie. So you go to the cinema, you’re looking at the ads, and you find a movie with a silly name, but you think, y’know, it’s Yul Brynner and Tony Curtis, it’s got horses and swords and jumping off things and Panavision … this will pass the time.

By those standards, Taras Bulba is a fine film. It’s got everything you want, really. Landscapes, swordfights, grappling, betrayals, a love story, people charging around on horses, poorly contextualised stunts, Tony Curtis looking intently at stuff, battles, explosions, feats of strength, a daring break-in or two. Heck, it’s even got a few songs. It’s big, it’s bright, a bunch of stuff happens, and no one was ever meant to take it seriously. It’s got a heck of a good score, too.

There’s a lot of this kind of thing, by the way: if you don’t like people brandishing sabres, this is not the movie for you.

So anyway, as I have said, by the standards of the big-screen historical epic, this definitely is one. Better than The Conqueror, I’ll tell you that much. But I have to admit I lost interest by the end; by modern standards there’s quite a lot of padding on it, and the corny stereotypes are distracting.

I’ve talked before about how much the historical epic genre owes to 19th-century Romantic nationalism, often in the form of 19th-century novels, and this one is no exception. It’s based on a short novel or novella by Gogol, which is in turn loosely based on the history of various conflicts between the Zaporozhian Cossacks and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The film turns a lot of the ethnic hatred in the text into generic free-people-versus-tyranny stuff, and also leaves out the Jewish stereotypes, which is nice. It also ignores quite a lot of the rest of the story, at least as I understand it (I haven’t read the novel). The book had two editions; an 1835 one that the Russian authorities considered too Ukrainian, and an 1842 one that was more solidly pro-Russian. The film just ignores all that stuff, not mentioning either Russia or Ukraine anywhere.

I don’t think you’ll learn anything about Cossack culture or Ukrainian history from this, to be honest; it’s just the usual Hollywood barbarian stuff. They’re wild! They’re free! They love life but live by a strict code! They have virtues that snooty city folk ignore! You know the kind of thing.

So, yeah, it’s OK; it’s just a mostly content-free adventure movie with a Romeo-and-Juliet love story in it and lots of guys in sheepskin hats waving sabres. But if you’re our guy in December 1962 who’s decided he wants to see a big sweeping epic movie in which people ride around on horses and it’s bright and beautiful and there’s drama and great performances, and you’re looking at the movie ads in the paper, well, you know what’s only been out for eight days at this point? Lawrence of Arabia. And as much as Taras Bulba is an OK film, well …

… you know?

Movie Monday: Taras Bulba (1962)

TV Tuesday: Versailles (2015)

We are now several years into the “like Game of Thrones but in [blah]” era of historical television, and it’s been … well, interesting. Some good, some bad, like everything. This one is an interesting fusion of the traditional “admire this ballgown” genre and the newer “boobs and murders” genre. I’m talking about Versailles, which I have so far watched the first couple episodes of. Basically, it gives Louis XIV the treatment, which I guess at least fits the traditional view of that court as a hotbed of intrigue, conspiracy and seduction.

versailles

As with all of the high-budget (well, high-budget-looking; I dunno) historical dramas I write about, it does have a good set of opening credits. Performances are varied, from interesting to merely line-reading. I do like the way they give Henrietta a weird accent to indicate that she is from the exotic land of England, while all the French people have English accents.

Something that always bugs me about these shows is that although they give the characters attitudes that are not in keeping with modern attitudes, they’re carefully selected ones. So obviously everyone is always banging on about nobility and guilt and sin and whatnot, since those are 17th-century concepts we find quite cool and romantic. But you never hear Louis talking about, say, how it would be a good idea to oppress all the Protestants. Well, at least you don’t in the first four episodes. Now, I know that Louis’ early reign was marked by more conciliation toward Protestants than his later years, but I also suspect it’s partly to do with the fact that this would be seen as an unpopular view today …

… and just as I’m saying that a plotline turns up in episode 5 about how some of the characters are hiding the fact that they’re Protestants. Oh well.

TV Tuesday: Versailles (2015)