cast: Bogdan Stupka, Igor Petrenko, Vladimir Vdovichenkov, Magdalena Mielcarz, and Sergei Dontsov
director: Vladimir Bortko
125 minutes (15) 2009
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Metrodome DVD Region 2
review by Ian Sales
Why are historical films – especially European productions – released on the UK market with titles better suited to PlayStation games? We’ve had Barbarossa: Siege Lord, known simply as Barbarossa in other countries (but, bizarrely, released as Sword Of War in the US). And now we have Iron & Blood: The Legend Of Taras Bulba – or, as it’s known on the continent, Taras Bulba.
It is as Taras Bulba that Iron & Blood was also released in its country of origin, Russia. And, as a title, the Russian fits much better because the film is an adaptation of the novel Taras Bulba by Nikolai Gogol – but not the 1835 edition of the novel. Iron & Blood is adapted from 1842 version, which Gogol had amended after complaints that the book was too Ukrainian.
Taras Bulba (Bogdan Stupka) is a Cossack chieftain, living on the steppes of the Ukraine. He has two sons, Andrey (Igor Petrenko), and Ostap (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), both of whom have been studying at a seminary in Kiev. This is the 17th century, and the Ukraine west of the Dnieper River is ruled by the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth. Rumours have been circulating of Ottoman attacks on Cossacks, and so Bulba decides to head for Zaporizhian Sich, the Cossack fortress capital. His two sons accompany him.
Bulba helps orchestrate the election of a new ataman as the present one is unwilling to break treaty with the Sultan. However, before a force can be raised against the Ottomans, news reaches Bulba that his farm has been attacked, and his wife killed by Poles. Further news comes in: the Catholic Poles have attacked Eastern Orthodox Cossacks in many places, aided and abetted by Jews. The Cossacks rampage throughout the Sich, killing all the Jews they find.
Except one, Yankel – he pleads with Bulba, claiming to have provided the money to pay the ransom on Bulba’s brother, years before. The Cossacks mobilise, and head for Dubno, to have their revenge on the Poles. They attack the city’s walls but are repulsed, and so settle down for a siege.
While in Kiev, Andrey had fallen in love with the daughter, Elzhbeta (Magdalena Mielcarz), of a Polish nobleman. That man is now governor of Dubno. Andrey only learns this when the daughter’s Tatar serving woman comes to him at night in the Cossack camp. There is a secret tunnel out of the city, but Andrey does not tell his father of it – even when his father wakes up and sleepily asks what is going on. Instead Andrey takes food into the besieged city for the woman he loves, and ends up fighting for the Poles against his father.
This is not the first time Taras Bulba’s story has been put on film. Perhaps the best known was the 1962 Hollywood version with Yul Brynner and Tony Curtis. Vladimir Bortko’s version is considerably more faithful to Gogol’s novel – so much so, in fact, that it has upset both Ukrainian nationalists (because Gogol’s 1842 edition declared them all Russians), and Poles (because they’re the villains of the piece). There’s also a streak of anti-Semitism running throughout the story as the Jews are demonised and blamed for what is essentially a conflict between Eastern Orthodox and Catholics.
Bortko’s film, of course, also has the advantage over earlier versions in that it was filmed in the actual locations in which the story took place. It is, in all senses of the word, an epic movie. Perhaps it doesn’t boast the huge cast that, say, the 1956 Soviet film Ilya Muromets had (106,000 – a large proportion of the Red Army was roped in as extras), but these days it’s hard to tell given the use of CGI in crowd-scenes. Iron & Blood also impresses with its battle scenes, especially during the siege of Dubno.
In fact, there’s much to recommend in Iron & Blood. Perhaps Taras Bulba does not fit the Hollywood model of an historical hero – he is old and portly, though strong as a horse – but he is plainly the centre of the story. The two sons are a little interchangeable, but Mielcarz is good as Elzhbeta, the love interest. The Polish characters, incidentally, are played by Polish actors, and they speak in Polish, which is subsequently overdubbed in Russian – by the same voice-actor, irrespective of gender.
Russian history has been a fertile source of stories for the country’s cinema, and most such films have been produced on an epic scale often unmatched in the west. Iron & Blood is much the same. It is an entertaining slice of romanticised history, though it often strays into xenophobia – a situation not helped by Bortko’s own belief that the people of the Ukraine are Russians (he is himself Ukrainian). Gogol was forced to make his novel Taras Bulba pro-Russian by the government of the day, but Bortko has no such excuse. Iron & Blood is a film designed to stir the blood, much as the original novel was, and while its message needs to be considered with great care, it remains a film worth watching.