UKRAINE AND WOMEN at Hot Docs 2014 - PART ONE: LOVE ME
Beyond the myriad of films focusing upon Ukraine that are screening in the Toronto Hot Docs 2014 International Festival of Documentary Cinema, the past few years have yielded a ludicrous number of pictures training their lens upon the beleaguered nation. For all intents and purposes, Ukraine has always remained a colonized entity, even in its years of "freedom" since the fall of communism. With the recent and miraculous revolution in Kyiv's Maidan and the subsequent assault upon Ukraine's borders by Russia, the country's most powerful enemy (and frankly, the greatest threat to all of Eastern Europe), one can only imagine the floodgates opening full throttle on Ukraine-centred docs. My hope, however, is that two of the very best films to focus on Ukraine, Love Me, by Jonathon Narducci and Ukraine is Not a Brothel, by Kitty Green, stay first and foremost ahead of what is, and will be, an over-crowded pack.
Love Me (2014) ****
Dir. Jonathon Narducci
Review By Greg Klymkiw
The world of mail-order brides is the focus of Jonathon Narducci's thorough and affecting film. Using the online dating service "A Foreign Affair" as the door into this world, Love Me focuses upon five men (3 schlubs, 2 not-so-much) who dump thousands upon thousands of dollars on the company's services. From membership fees to per-transaction fees for the online aspect of the service to the actual whirlwind guided tours to Ukraine, Narducci expertly wends his way through a massive amount of material and subjects, but does so with impeccable skill and movie-making savvy.
The company is run by a real-life married couple (the fella's American, the lady's his Russian "mail-order" bride) and it surely looks like a license to print money with all the come-hither ads of scrumptious young Ukrainian ladies beckoning Western fellas to marry them. And in case anyone has any doubt prior to gazing at the swimsuit photos of these Babunya-to-be, let's never forget the Beatles' immortal lines from the song "Back in the U.S.S.R." which clearly declares:
"Those Ukraine girls really knock me out, they leave the West behind…"
Well, in the case of a few of the Ukrainian gals the movie focuses upon, they literally leave the West behind since a great many of these braided-ladies adorned in veenoks-masquerading-as-devil-horns are clearly looking for Western men to come over, dump wads of dough on them, then dump the guys when things get way too serious. Yes, it's a scam, but given the poverty in Ukraine as well as the country's backwards patriarchy, I couldn't actually blame these ladies as they scored scads of greenbacks from mostly middle-aged, paunchy Mama's Boys from North America.
One of the men is from Australia and the manner in which he gets taken for a ride is so ludicrous (on his part) that it's almost laughable. Not that Narducci is ever unfairly slanting his POV to engender feelings of mockery and/or derision at these men (and the old Aussie in particular). His camera rolls from a perfectly positioned fencepost and captures the obvious that seems beyond the purview of the fellas.
The woman who takes the Oz-dweller for a ride is, in every shot, so clearly bored, contemptuous, disgusted and borderline hateful towards him, you keep saying to yourself, "Uh, mate, are you really that blind?" When she has to hug or kiss him, she's in total recoil-mode. In a horrific sequence where they actually get married, her utterance of the matrimonial vows might as well be, "Well, let's toss another kubassa on the barbie." However, when our mate from Down Under eventually reveals, long after the wedding and not hearing from her for months after she stays in Ukraine, that he's a trifle concerned that the marriage has never been consummated, I can't say I felt at all sorry for him. Then again, I've seen first-hand the horrific conditions many Ukrainian women live in over there, the exploitation and lack of regard for them as human, so perhaps I'm a tad biased when well-to-do old men from the Western World get soaked. My only response was, "Well, let's chalk up another win for Ukrainian women."
I do, however, place a bit too much emphasis on the scam-aspect of the mail-order business, though, because Narducci also features a couple of prominent examples where the service provided by "A Foreign Affair" actually works. Chemistry and luck play a humungous part in the process and this, frankly, is how it works out in real life anyway. Using "A Foreign Affair", however, can speed up the luck and chemistry thing by presenting an atmosphere for romance to blossom. One couple seem genuinely suited to each other and though there might be a bit more "convenience" going on for both parties than deep love, there's certainly compatibility taking front seat and for now, in terms of what we experience within the context of the film, the new hubby and wife look like they're going to be happy - at least for awhile.
The highlight of the film, though, is a genuine Prince Charming and Cinderella romance which is so tender, so sweet, so moving, that it feels like it has Hollywood chick-flick written all over it. The gent is handsome, well-to-do, good-humoured and intelligent. The lady is his female counterpart in all these things. One sequence has her visiting the Lavra (a kind of Orthodox Vatican in Kyiv) to offer blessings and prayers of thanks to God when it is clear she's on her way to a new life in American with a man she really loves. It's so damn moving, I know at least one Ukrainian film critic from Canada who squirted geysers of tears.
I suspect there might be a few others who will also shed a few pickle-barrels full of tears and they don't necessarily have to be Ukrainian, nor film critics.
Love Me is playing at Toronto's Hot Docs 2014. ALL UKRAINIANS BUY YOUR TICKETS NOW. UKRAINIANS MUST, AS THEY ALWAYS DO, BUY EVERY AVAILABLE TICKET, THEN THEY MUST, AS UKRAINIANS ALWAYS DO, SHOW UP AT THE CINEMA SEVERAL HOURS BEFORE THE SHOW BEGINS, LINE-UP, AND THEN, TAKE THEIR SEATS THE SECOND THE DOORS OPEN AND SIT THERE UNTIL THE BITTER END. HOWEVER, UNLIKE EVENTS IN UKRAINIAN CHURCH BASEMENTS, THERE WILL NOT BE TORTES AND KAVA SERVED UP, SO BRING YOUR OWN TO EAT IN THE LOBBY AFTER THE MOVIE. UKRAINIANS WHO ACTUALLY HAVE INTERNET, CAN BUY THEIR TICKETS by visiting the Hot Docs website HERE. UKRAINIANS WITHOUT INTERNET MUST GO DOWNTOWN TO THE HOT DOCS BOXOFFICE AND BUY THEIR TICKETS IN PERSON. (Then again, those Ukrainians without internet won't be reading this, so perhaps there will be plenty of tickets for NON-Ukrainians.)
GLOSSARY TO UKRAINIAN TERMS USED IN REVIEW ABOVE:
are you a moron?
this is not a Uke word
UKRAINE AND WOMEN at Hot Docs 2014 PART TWO: UKRAINE IS NOT A BROTHEL
Dir. Kitty Green Review By Greg Klymkiw
Preamble 1 - The Bug
So there we were in "the Old Country". Upon entering a nondescript government office building in Kyiv, my wife and I both required immediate use of the, uh, facilities. I spotted the Men's washroom at once, its door adorned with the telltale Cyrillic letter pronounced "Ch" for "Choloveek" (Man), but I couldn't see where the women's washroom was. I asked Sasha, our fixer-translator-driver (don't go to Ukraine without one) the whereabouts of the ladies' "convenience". He pointed down the hallway. "When you get to end, turn right," he said in slightly broken English, then laughed and added, "Look for bug." I guffawed heartily in response. It's a good, old fashioned joke amongst Ukrainian men. The Cyrillic letter emblazoned upon the doors of female water closets represents the Ukrainian word "zheenka". Pronounced "zh", the word's first letter, printed or hand-written, does indeed look like a bug. Most tellingly, the word "zheenka" not only means "woman", but is in fact the word used for "wife". They are, essentially, one and the same. If you're married or otherwise significantly-othered, your wife is your woman. Yes, in a virulently patriarchal society and culture, women in Ukraine, at least in abbreviation, are little more than bugs - to be squashed, of course, as Sasha's "look for bug" joke suggested. "This is my woman," you would say whilst introducing someone to your wife if, in fact, you bothered to introduce your "bug" at all.
Preamble 2 - Sexual Slavery
Ukraine's sex industry since the collapse of Communism was huge. Brothels and strip clubs filled (and continue to fill) every city. All of it is run by gangsters (or, if you will, most government officials). The sex slavery business, as first identified in Victor Malarek's seminal book "The Natashas" was, during most of the 90s and early 2000s, especially prevalent in snatching its victims from Ukraine. Poverty runs rampant and women are often looked upon as property. During those dark days, we personally observed the especially horrific sex slave underground running out of the nation's orphanages where pimps and their vans, the windows painted black in the rear holding areas, would wait daily for the latest teenage girls being officially released into a world of poverty. As they'd stagger, stunned and terrified, into a brave new world, the pimps would herd them into the vans and off they'd go - sold into sex slavery the world over.
Preamble 3 - Femen
This, then, is the world that inspired "Femen", one of the most influential performance art and activist movements in the world. "Femen" gained fame and notoriety for their protests in public places. This clutch of gorgeous, young Ukrainian women, a la Russia's "Pussy Riot", but somehow far bolder and decidedly feminist in their approach, would show up in places often tied to Ukraine's patriarchy (the bell tower at Kyiv's Orthodox Vatican-styled ancient city, The Lavra, for instance) and tear their clothes off and nakedly, brazenly, bare their breasts in the name of Ukrainian womanhood to declare, first and foremost, that Ukraine is NOT a brothel.
This is a beautifully shot and finely observed film that takes us behind the scenes as the women prepare for their protests, then follows them to a variety of said protests, covers the savage responses of both the public and authorities and is finally, chockfull of insightful interviews dolloped throughout, zeroing in on these clearly very intelligent and vibrant young women.
The politics and feminism are freewheeling and fun, but as the movie progresses, danger does lurk behind every corner. Protest patriarchy in a patriarchal (and frankly corrupt, if not downright criminal) society, trouble is sure to follow, especially as demonstrated upon discovering the horrific tale of Femen's protest field trip to Belarus where the ladies are stripped naked and shoved into a forest on the border of Ukraine - forced at gunpoint to march their way back to their homeland.
Where the film begins to shock - yes, at least for me - is with the introduction of a genuinely malevolent force behind the Femen movement. There are hints throughout, to be sure, but we tend to file them under, "Yeah, let's ignore this and have fun with the lassies instead." Once the noxious influence is revealed in its full and grotesquely foul form, we begin to realize that something is a tad rotten in the state of the birthplace of Kyivan-Rus. What's revealed to us (as it was, ultimately to Green as she was making the film), seems diabolically nefarious. The activities of Femen become infused with the sort of foul patriarchal manipulations that began to remind me of the horrendous discoveries I was making in Ukraine during my own sojourns. What's revealed as the motivating force behind the feminist performance artists feels like the very thing designed to keep women in their place in Ukraine.
Once we come face to face with a Rasputin-like evil (no more "rah, rah"), Ukraine is Not a Brothel becomes sickeningly creepy. This, of course, is what makes for great drama and great cinema - when the bed of roses is growing from within a fetid fertilizer of rank manipulation.
In spite of this surprising element, director Green, girds all her resolve and plunges forward, taking her exploration of these women well beyond the unexpected creep factor. Finally, she sticks to the women with a loyalty that can ONLY come from building enough trust in her subjects that she can begin to ask EXTREMELY tough questions.
The answers the Femen ladies provide are full of self reflection, self analysis and the sort of intelligence we first fell for - in spite of what we discover about them a little past the halfway point. If anything, the film is almost perfectly structured to mirror the actual events that transpired in chronological order. The film transforms, quite miraculously and once we become aware of it. we're cascaded along with the kind of magic that's not only unique to the form of documentary, but organically inherent in cinema at its most profound levels. Green's film is, finally, as much an exploration for us, as it is for its filmmaker and most profoundly, for the brilliant young women of Femen.
Ukraine is currently on the precipice of disaster or glory. If Green's film proves anything (and believe me, it proves a whole LOT), it especially suggests that Ukraine's future MUST include both women and youth. The old shackles of patriarchy need to be shaken free and if anything, it's women who might well be the force necessary to maintain Ukraine's freedom in the face of the greatest threat to the nation's sovereignty.
No beguiling Mona Lisa smile
In both these seminal works, Ukrainian women are either flanked by patriarchs, or indeed, represent patriarchal elements of Christianity. In contrast to this, the performance art as activism of Femen might well be the future of art and its place as a weapon, the final blow, if you will, against Ukraine's patriarchal dominance that keeps, not only its women at bay, but by extension, its youth, its very future.
|Murashko's Annunciation, Shevechenko's Kateryna|
Patriarchy all consuming: Imbuing the spirit,
surrounding the body of Ukrainian womanhood
In this sense, both the film and subjects of Ukraine is Not a Brothel, via the commitment and artistry of the movie's director, indeed seeks, I think, to prove that Ukraine is not ONLY not a brothel, but a country as a state of being rooted in its real power. Ukraine, personified as matriarchal, rather than patriarchal, is possibly the key to its future survival. As such, the country must not be bought and sold, but will need, in order to stave off the horse trading at every level, the kind of commitment and political will to change all that might only come via very concerted efforts to reflect upon what the goals must be and how to achieve them beyond all shackles, beyond all influence, save for that which comes from within.
Ukraine is Not a Brothel is playing at Toronto's Hot Docs 2014. ALL UKRAINIANS BUY YOUR TICKETS NOW. UKRAINIANS MUST, AS THEY ALWAYS DO, BUY EVERY AVAILABLE TICKET, THEN THEY MUST, AS UKRAINIANS ALWAYS DO, SHOW UP AT THE CINEMA SEVERAL HOURS BEFORE THE SHOW BEGINS, LINE-UP, AND THEN, TAKE THEIR SEATS THE SECOND THE DOORS OPEN AND SIT THERE UNTIL THE BITTER END. HOWEVER, UNLIKE EVENTS IN UKRAINIAN CHURCH BASEMENTS, THERE WILL NOT BE TORTES AND KAVA SERVED UP, SO BRING YOUR OWN TO EAT IN THE LOBBY AFTER THE MOVIE. UKRAINIANS WHO ACTUALLY HAVE INTERNET, CAN BUY THEIR TICKETS by visiting the Hot Docs website HERE. UKRAINIANS WITHOUT INTERNET MUST GO DOWNTOWN TO THE HOT DOCS BOXOFFICE AND BUY THEIR TICKETS IN PERSON. (Then again, those Ukrainians without internet won't be reading this, so perhaps there will be plenty of tickets for NON-Ukrainians.) Distributed by Kinosmith.
HERE IS A SPECIAL SURPRISE BONUS FOR UKRAINIANS AND
NON-UKRAINIANS VISITING THE HOT DOCS 2014 FESTIVAL IN TORONTO
WHO NEED A FEW SHOTS OF UKRAINIAN CULTURE - CANADIAN STYLE
NON-UKRAINIANS VISITING THE HOT DOCS 2014 FESTIVAL IN TORONTO
WHO NEED A FEW SHOTS OF UKRAINIAN CULTURE - CANADIAN STYLE
These are a few Ukrainian points of interest in Toronto. Alas, most of them are located on the west end of Toronto and are best accessed by car. If you are a filmmaker or other guest of the festival, insist that HOT DOCS let a bunch of you pile into official Hot Docs vehicles (and in Ukrainian tradition, with jars of open liquor - for you, not the drivers) and take you all over the city for these delectables. I also recommend you buy an extra suitcase to pack it with a care package of Ukrainian Food to take back with you to wherever you're coming from (unless you're coming from Ukraine). Here then are a few joints worth considering:
1. Fresh and Tasty
99 Advance Rd, Toronto, ON M8Z 2S6
This joint is owned by relatively recent Uke immigrants from Western Ukraine. They love it when you speak Uke to them. If you don't speak Uke, they DO speak English. They have the most amazing delectables at their meat counter. Your best bets are:
Ternopilska Kubassa: Cherry smoked, garlic overload, only the finest and freshest meat, innards and fat of pig.
Bukovynska Kubassa: Tangy, garlic-infused kubassa,
Kishka: This is the non-Jewish Uke kishka. Nobody in Toronto makes it as well. It's ALMOST as good as my Babunia's. Crushed garlic, mashed buckwheat and, of course, only the finest and freshest Blood of Pig.
Real Ukrainian Halvah in plastic containers on top of meat counter made from sunflower and honey.
The best fucking sweet cheese crepes known to man.
Real Ukrainian potato pancakes (in the Jewish parlance, latkes)
2. Future Bakery (NOT the ho-hum joint near the Bloor Cinema, though it'll do in a pinch), but rather the main store at:
106 North Queen, Etobicoke, ON M8Z 2E2
Fucking unbelievable selection of Uke breads and baked goods,
small or humungous tubs of real Uke Sour Cream,
homemade borscht in jars
3. Starsky - 2040 Dundas Street East (just east of HWY 427
Okay, they're Polish, but we won't hold this against them.
This is a humungous big box supermarket with every conceivable
Eastern European food product known to man - Polish, Uke, Russian
4. Astra Deli - 238 Bloor St W, Toronto, ON M6S 3B4
(416) 763-1093, near Runnymede Station
Smaller version of stuff available at the above, but it's specialty is
HOT FOODS for takeout.
5. KOOTA OOMA - 42 The Queensway Toronto, Ontario Canada M8Z 1N7
Great Ukrainian Kids Bookstore which also has pysanky supplies
to make your very own Uke Easter Eggs.
6. Ukrainian National Federation = 145 Evans Ave #210, Toronto, ON M8Z 5X8
The insane organization my family were founding members of. Hard to say if the Toronto version is worth visiting these days. If there are events scheduled, this could be fun. They have a bar inside and you can juice it up with Ukrainians. They have Ukrainian Saturday School and Ukrainian Dancing, but I suspect these will be of absolutely no use to you.
7. There are a shitload of Uke churches in the west end, but I can't imagine they'll be of interest, though the cathedral on Queen West and Bellwoods is kinda nice. Also, every one of these churches sells freshly prepared varenyky (perogies/pyrohy) prepared by old Uke ladies. Alas, they only sell them on Wednesdays, so you are possibly S.O.L. on this one.
8. St. Vladimir Institute -
620 Spadina Ave, Toronto, ON M5S
Kind of a smaller version of the Ukrainian National Federation, but mostly a residence for Ukrainian U of T students. Still, they sometimes have events, a great Uke library and if head honcho Lida is around, she heads up a lot of the cultural stuff there, so she might be worth meeting. I shot Zabava there, a vile short drama I wrote and directed (with GOVERNMENT MONEY from the Ontario Media Development Corporation) about young Ukrainian men being fucking pigs. I'm not sure I've ever been forgiven for this.
9. Baby Point Catering and Hall
343 Jane St, north of the Jane Street TTC station. (416) 767- 2623
Have a humungous Ukrainian meal catered for you and your Hot Docs pals. If Hot Docs is too cheap to send someone to pick up the food and bring it to your hotel, send a cab driver down there.
Just give them a call and ask for Ivanka or Petro or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
Your best bets are the Pyrohy (get with potato and kapusta), Cabbage rolls, Knyshi, Patychky, Nalesnyky, Lots of Kapusta, Buckets of Mushroom Gravy and the Beef Roll-ups with pickle and bacon.
Here's the Baby Point Menu:
Well, even if you don't make it out to any of these, save this guide for your next trip to Hot Docs or TIFF.
And now, a little something for my UKRAINIAN brothers and sisters:
dir. J. Lee Thompson
Starring: Yul Brynner, Tony Curtis
Review By Greg Klymkiw
“Do not put your faith in a Pole.
Put your faith in your sword and your sword in the Pole!”
Thus spake Taras Bulba – Cossack Chief!
(As played in 1962 by Yul Brynner, ‘natch!)
These days, there are so few truly momentous events for lovers of fine cinema and, frankly, even fewer such momentous events for those of the Ukrainian persuasion. However, film lovers and Ukrainians both have something to celebrate. Especially Ukrainians.
The recent events in Ukraine involving the revolution against Russia are indicative of the events celebrated in the Fox/MGM DVD release of J. Lee Thompson’s 1962 film adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s Taras Bulba is (and will be), without question, as momentous an occasion in the lives of Ukrainians the world over as the execution of Saddam Hussein must have been to the entire Bush family of Texas.
As a pig-fat-eating Cossack-lover, I recall my own virgin helping (at the ripe age of four) of Taras Bulba with my family at the late lamented North Main Drive-Inn Theatre in the sleepy winter city of Winnipeg. Being situated in the ‘Peg’s North End (on the decidedly wrong side of the tracks), everyone of the Ukrainian persuasion was crammed into this drive-inn theatre when Taras Bulba unspooled there for the first time.
A veritable zabava-like atmosphere overtook this huge lot of gravel and speaker posts. (A zabava is a party where Ukrainians place a passionate emphasis on drinking, dining and dancing until they all puke.) Men wore their scalp locks proudly whilst women paraded their braided-hair saucily. Children brandished their plastic sabers pretending to butcher marauding Russians, Turks, Mongols and, of course, as per Gogol's great book, Poles.
Those adults of the superior sex wore baggy pants (held up proudly by the brightly coloured pois) and red boots whilst the weaker sex sported ornately patterned dresses and multi-coloured ribbons in their braided hair.
All were smartly adorned in embroidered white shirts.
Enormous chubs of kovbassa and kishka (all prepared with the finest fat, innards and blood of swine) along with Viking-hefty jugs of home-brew were passed around with wild abandon. Hunchbacked old Babas boiled cabbage-filled varenyky (perogies) over open fires and slopped them straight from the vats of scalding hot water into the slavering mouths of those who required a bit of roughage to go with their swine and rotgut. I fondly recall one of my aunties doling out huge loaves of dark rye bread with vats of salo (salted pig-fat and garlic) and studynets (jellied boiled head of pig with garlic) and pickled eggs for those who had already dined at home and required a mere appetizer.
One might say, it was a carnival-like atmosphere, or, if you will, a true Cossack-style chow-down and juice-up.
However, when the lights above the huge silver screen dimmed, the venerable North Main Drive-Inn Theatre transformed reverently into something resembling the hallowed Saint Vladimir and Olga Cathedral during a Stations of the Cross procession or a panachyda (deferential song/dirge/prayers for the dead) at Korban's Funeral Chapel.
Everyone sat quietly in their cars and glued their Ukrainian eyeballs to the screen as Franz Waxman’s exquisitely romantic and alternately boisterous musical score (rooted firmly in the tradition of Ukrainian folk music) thundered over the opening credits which were emblazoned upon a variety of Technicolor tapestries depicting stars Yul Brynner and Tony Curtis in the garb of Ukraine’s mighty warriors of the steppes.
This screening and the overwhelming feelings infused in those who were there could only be described as an epiphany. Like me (and ultimately, my kind), I can only assume there wasn’t a single Ukrainian alive who didn’t then seek each and every opportunity after their respective virgin screenings to partake – again and again and yet again – in the staggering and overwhelming cinematic splendour that is – and can only be – Taras Bulba.
All this having been said, barbaric garlic-sausage-eating Ukrainian heathen are not the only people who can enjoy this movie. Anyone – and I mean ANYONE – who loves a rousing, astoundingly entertaining, old-fashioned and action-packed costume epic will positively delight in this work of magnificence.
The source material for this terrific picture is the short novel Taras Bulba by Nikolai Gogol, a young Ukrainian writer of Cossack stock who is often considered the father of Russian fiction. He was a contemporary of Pushkin and the two of them were both friends and leaders of the Russian literary scene in St. Petersburg over 150 years ago. Prior to writing Taras Bulba, Gogol (this is the popular Russified version of his name which, in the original Ukrainian would actually be Hohol) dabbled in narrative poetry, held some teaching positions and worked in the Russian bureaucracy.
Gogol’s early fictional works were short satirical stories steeped in the rural roots of his Ukrainian Cossack background. Evenings On A Farm Near The Village of Dykanka (Vechera Na Khutore Blyz Dykanky) was full of magic and folklore in the rustic, yet somewhat mystical world of simple peasants and Cossacks. The material is, even today, refreshing – sardonically funny, yet oddly sentimental. It even made for an excellent cinematic adaptation in Alexander Rou’s early 60s feature made at the famed Gorky Studios and a recent Ukrainian television remake starring the gorgeous pop idol Ani Lorak. Gogol’s vivid characters, sense of humour and attention to realistic detail all added up to supreme suitability for the big screen.
Taras Bulba is no different. The material is made for motion pictures. Alas, several unsatisfying versions pre-dated this 1962 rendering. Luckily, this version is the one that counts thanks to the team of legendary producer Harold Hecht (Marty, The Crimson Pirate and Sweet Smell of Success in addition to being Burt Lancaster’s producing partner), stalwart crime and action director J. Lee Thompson (Cape Fear, The Guns of Navarone) and screenwriters Waldo Salt (who would go on to write Midnight Cowboy, Serpico and Coming Home) and the veteran Karl Tunberg (Ben-Hur, Down Argentine Way, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and fifty or so other scripts).
This, then, was the dream team who were finally able to put Gogol’s Taras Bulba on the silver screen where it ultimately belongs.
For Gogol, Taras Bulba (in spite of the aforementioned literary qualities attributable to his rural stories) took a decidedly different turn than anything that preceded it or followed it in his career as a writer. Bulba sprang, not only from Gogol’s Cossack roots and familiarity with the dumy (songs and ballads of the Cossacks), but interestingly enough, he was greatly inspired by the great Scottish author Sir Walter Scott, of whom he was a big fan.
This, of course, makes perfect sense since Scott’s swashbuckling adventures often dealt with Scottish pride and history at odds with the ruling powers of England. And so too with Taras Bulba.
The film (while deviating slightly from the book) maintains much of the structure, characters and spirit of Gogol’s work. It tells the story of Cossack chieftain Taras Bulba (Yul Brynner) and his desire to make Ukraine free from the oppression of the ruling nation of Poland. Though the Poles subjugate Ukraine, the Cossacks are willing (for a price and booty) to fight alongside the Poles against Turkish invaders. In addition to the pecuniary rewards, the Cossacks also get to use the Poles to help fight one of their enemies. When it comes to paying allegiance to the Poles, Taras steadfastly refuses to do this and, after committing a violent act against one of the Polish generals, the Cossacks all scatter into the hills to regroup and prepare for a time when they can go to war again – but this time, against the Poles.
Secured in their respective mountain hideaways, the Cossacks bide their time. Taras raises two fine and strapping young sons, Andrei (Tony Curtis) and Ostap (Perry Lopez). He sends his boys to Kyiv (the Russified spelling is “Kiev”) to study at the Polish Academy. The Poles wish to tame the Ukrainians, so they offer to educate them. Taras, on the other hand, orders his sons that they must study in order to learn everything they can about the Poles so that someday they can join him in battle against the Poles. At the Polish Academy, the young men learn that Poles are vicious racists who despise Ukrainians and on numerous occasions, both of them are whipped and beaten mercilessly – especially Andrei (because the Dean of the Academy believes Andrei has the greatest possibility of turning Polish and shedding his “barbaric” Ukrainian ways). A hint of Andrei’s turncoat-potential comes when he falls madly in love with Natalia (Christine Kaufmann) a Polish Nobleman’s daughter. When the Poles find out that Andrei has deflowered Natalia, they attempt to castrate him. Luckily, Andrei and Ostap hightail it back to the mountains in time to avoid this unfortunate extrication.
Even more miraculously, the Cossacks have been asked by the Poles to join them in a Holy War against the infidel in the Middle East. Taras has other plans. He joins all the Cossacks together and they march against the Poles rather than with them. The battle comes to a head when the Cossacks have surrounded the Poles in the walled city of Dubno. Taras gets the evil idea to simply let the Poles starve to death rather than charge the city. Soon, Dubno is wracked with starvation, cannibalism and the plague. Andrei, fearing for his Polish lover Natalia secretly enters the city and is soon faced with a very tragic decision – join the Poles against the Cossacks or go back to his father and let Natalia die.
Thanks to a great script and superb direction, this movie really barrels along head first. The battle sequences are stunningly directed and it’s truly amazing to see fully costumed armies comprised of hundreds and even thousands of extras (rather than today’s CGI armies). The romance is suitably syrupy – accompanied by Vaseline smeared iris shots and the humour as robust and full-bodied as one would expect from a movie about Cossacks. Franz Waxman’s score is absolutely out of this world, especially the “Ride to Dubno” (AKA “Ride of the Cossacks”) theme. The music carries the movie with incredible force and power – so much so that even cinema composing God Bernard Herrmann jealously proclaimed it as “the score of a lifetime”.
The movie’s two central performances are outstanding. Though Jack Palance (an actual Ukrainian from Cossack stock) turned the role down, he was replaced with Yul Brynner who, with his Siberian looks and Slavic-Asian countenance seems now to be the only actor who could have played Taras Bulba. Tony Curtis also makes for a fine figure of a Cossack. This strapping leading man of Hungarian-Jewish stock attacks the role with the kind of boyish vigour that one also cannot imagine anyone else playing Andrei (though at one point, Burt Lancaster had considered taking the role for himself since it was his company through Hecht that developed the property). The supporting roles are played by stalwart character actors like Sam Wanamaker as the one Cossack who gives Bulba some grief about fighting the Poles and George MacCready as the evil Polish rival of the Cossacks. Perry Lopez as Ostap is so obviously Latin that he seems a bit uncomfortable in the role of Ostap and Christine Kaufmann as Natalia is not much of an actress, but she’s so stunningly gorgeous that one can see why Curtis cheated on Janet Leigh and had a torrid open affair with Kaufmann during the shoot.
Taras Bulba is one stirring epic adventure picture. And yes, one wishes it took the darker paths that the original book ventured down, but it still manages to have a dollop of tragedy wending its way through this tale of warring fathers and their disobedient sons. And yes, as a Ukrainian, I do wish all the great Cossack songs had NOT been translated into English – especially since Yul Brynner would have been more than up to singing them in the original language. But these are minor quibbles. It’s a first rate, old-fashioned studio epic – big, sprawling, brawling and beautiful.
It’s definitely the cinematic equivalent of one fine coil of garlic sausage. So rip off a chub or two and slurp back the glory of Ukraine.
FEEL FREE TO ORDER THE FOLLOWING TARAS BULBA ITEMS DIRECTLY FROM THE LINKS BELOW AND YOU WILL BE CONTRIBUTING TO THE ONGOING MAINTENANCE OF THIS WEBSITE:
Here's the astounding "Ride to Dubno" sequence from TARAS BULBA with Franz Waxman's stunning score:
And strictly for listening pleasure, here's Franz Waxman's great "Ride to Dubno" theme from TARAS BULBA: