Yul Brynner, Burly Cossack
"Taras Bulba" is a prime candidate for the Flamboyantly Bad Movie Hall of Fame. It's sad to give a thumbs-down review to a movie that features the late, and missed, Yul Brynner, but hey – I'm a Cossack, and I skewer babies for lunch.
"Taras Bulba" offers two attractions: exhibitions of burly Cossack manhood, and hatred of Poles. The lead singers of the Village People – a cowboy, a construction worker, a cop – look like little girls in comparison to "Taras Bulba"'s Cossacks.
Burly macho Cossacks duel by racing their horses over a widening crack in the earth; the first to slip into the crack loses (and presumably dies), but receives a eulogy worthy of a Burly Cossack. Burly Cossacks walk a plank over a pit of fighting bears while chugging vodka, they lift up off the ground a fully grown horse on which sits a fully grown rider, they chop off the hand of an evil Polish character, they plunge their newborn baby boys into freezing cold streams, they lay siege to a city and party down while its citizens die of plague. Cossacks wrestle with their dads, kill their sons, trample their hetmans, ignore their wives, orgy with Gypsies, vault on extemporized trampolines, and thunder across the steppes in carefully choreographed ballet that would make Busby Berkeley's heart beat like those prancing horse's hooves and his eyes well up with envy and admiration.
With all of that, how can this movie suck so bad, and be such a painful, boring slog to sit through? Direction, production, set design, dialogue: nothing works here. Other than Yul Brynner, nothing in this movie comes together. Well – the horses are nice.
An epic doesn't have to be real – it has to create a conceivable alternate world. In what conceivable alternate world is it possible that Yul Brynner is the biological father of Tony Curtis? You get the picture.
Neither Yul Brynner nor Charlton Heston is a believable ancient Egyptian, but they are utterly believable as each other's nemesis in "The Ten Commandments." Yul Brynner was a real live Russian wild man. When Brynner had lung cancer, he continued to do the demanding waltz in the stage production of "The King and I." Tony Curtis was Bernard Schwartz of the undying Bronx accent who, in fights, used to protect his pretty face because he knew it was his fortune. These two are not related; onscreen they clash as if colliding while walking home from the sets of two different films.
Movies can do hate in gripping, even if morally bankrupt ways; we've known that since "Birth of a Nation." But "Taras Bulba"'s hatred of Poles is laughable. Poles here are not dumb Polaks. They are, rather, snobbish noblemen, too effete to fight, and sadomasochistic Catholics who order the torture of Cossacks and then kneel before a crucifix as the torture is carried out. The real sadomasochists are the filmmakers who created these scenes and the audience members who receive a pleasurable, anti-clerical thrill while watching them. The caricature is so two-dimensional no matter what twisted thing the movie has the Poles do – eventually they tie a pretty girl to a stake – it's boring. Yeah, yeah, the viewer wants to scream at the screen. You want me to hate the Poles. Ho, hum. Can't you get this lead balloon of a movie off the ground?
Who was behind this bomb, anyway? Was it a desire on some Hollywood mogul's part to get back at the Poles? But then why cast Cossacks as the heroes, given the many populations brutalized by this warrior people, including those who suffered under the Cossacks who allied themselves with Hitler? The source material, Nikolai Gogol's novel, is anti-Polish, but it is also anti-Semitic; Jewish characters did not make it into this film version. I don't know the backstory behind this film, and the film itself is such a bore I can't bring myself to research the question.