Accept no substitutes! Aleksandr Ptushko’s fairy-tale folk hero saga is the real deal in medieval spectacle. When the nation calls, warriors rise from the steppes to defend against invaders, even if they have to defy royal authority. The first Soviet film in anamorphic scope and stereophonic sound, Ilya Muromets is an eye-opening series of fantastic characters and storybook episodes, loaded with Ptushko’s amazingly beautiful special effects and jaw-dropping scenes with entire armies filling the scene. The capper is one hell of a fierce dragon — the fire breathing, three-headed Zmey Gorynych!
Deaf Crocodile / Seagull
1956 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 91 83 min. / Street Date May, 2022 / The Sword and the Dragon, The Epic Hero and the Beast / Available from Vinegar Syndrome / 34.98 & 39.98
Starring: Boris Andreyev, Shukur Burkhanov, Andrei Abrikosov, Natalya Medvedeva, Ninel Myshkova, Sergey Martinson, Georgi Dyomin, Aleksandr Shvorin, Nikolai Gladkov, Vladimir Solovyov.
Cinematography: Fyodor Provorov, Yuli Kun
Production Designer: Yevgeni Kumankov
Costume Design: Olga Kruchinina
Film Editor: Mariya Kuzmina
Special Effects / Visual Effects: Evgeniy Svidetelev, Aleksandr Renkov, Boris Travkin
Original Music: Igor Morozov
Written by Mikhail Kochnev
Produced by Damir Vyatich-Berezhnykh
Directed by Aleksandr Ptushko
Here’s a picture worth crowing about. . . Deaf Crocodile Films has already brought two rarities to CineSavant’s attention, worthwhile pictures we didn’t think anybody remembered. The Unknown Man of Shandigor is an obscure Swiss spy oddity from the ’60s, and Delta Space Mission a rare Romanian animated feature. This new release is not obscure, yet few of us have seen it in a respectable version. It’s a very different sentimental epic: an American equivalent would be a cross between The Alamo and Snow White. But with a fire-breathing dragon.
As a Soviet production produced when the Cold War was really frosting over, the epic widescreen & stereophonic Ilya Muromets hadn’t a chance of being distributed in the states. It also waited several years before reaching screens in Western Europe. When imported here it was retitled The Sword and the Dragon, dubbed and trimmed a bit, possibly with narration by newsman Mike Wallace. The releasing outfit was Valiant Films, which imported an interesting variety of marginal arthouse and exploitation fare. Sources continue to reprint the information that Roger Corman was involved in the re-dub, which seems dubious considering the English-language producers and companies credited. Although stranger things have happened, I can’t envision Roger Corman hiring Mike Wallace.
We didn’t read many movie reviews at age twelve but one for The Sword and the Dragon stood out: eager to slam the Mosfilm production as shoddy Russky claptrap, the reviewer said it looked as if it should have carried the credit, “COLOR BY CRAYOLA.” Missing the movie in theaters, we nevertheless were impressed by a glimpse of pan-scanned TV prints on the syndicated ‘Million Dollar Movie.’ Even in B&W there was something special about the show. Back then it reminded me a little of the Czech The Fabulous World of Jules Verne: highly artificial, but absolutely fascinating. Another memory comes to mind. We smiled at the little puppet bird at the finale of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet: its artificial quality served to reflect the characters’ newly-recovered innocence. We immediately thought of the little mechanical animals that serenade the princess in Sword and the Dragon. Their very artificiality communicated innocence, magic, storybook wonder.
If you’ve seen the RusCiCo DVD release (2004) you’ve technically seen the original Ilya Muromets — but not really. The new Deaf Crocodile disc feels like an entirely different picture. With a proper resolution of detail and a restored color palette, it’s a different movie with a rich new integrity of design. The episodes now seem like new pages in a marvelous storybook. We no longer become impatient when widescreen vistas hold for more than a few seconds — they’re feasts for the eyes. Aleksandr Ptushko adapts a revered legend, in his own ‘legendary’ form.
A Great Hero just ‘is,’ you know.
The story of the mighty ‘Bogatyr’ Muromets has been carried down through the ages; the film plays his fantastic legend straight, with an extra measure of nationalist glory. Paralyzed since childhood, Ilya Muromets (Boris Andreyev) sits in a hut while his fellow villagers labor, including the beautiful Vassilisa (Ninel Myshkova). When a scurvy band of Hun-like Tugars raids the village, kidnapping its women, Ilya can do nothing. Vassilisa is seized as a potential ‘gift’ for a Tugar superior, something that keeps re-occurring (and accounts for her continued inviolate state). The cowardly Russian nobleman Mishatychka (comic Sergey Martinson) saves his skin by promising to be a double agent in the court of the Prince of Kiev, Knyaz Vladimir (Andrey Abrikosov).
Ilya Muromets is happy to learn that his destiny is to become a mighty Jedi Bogatyr warrior. Some minstrel-peasants arrive with the sword of the giant demi-god Syvatogor, with instructions to give it to the next mystical Bogatyr when they recognize him. Thus begins Ilya’s magical life. The sword cures his paralysis, revealing him to be an ox-like force of good. He’s given a newborn horse, which grows to mighty proportions in just three days. And with that Ilya is off to expel those hated Tugars.
The political side of the story promotes Russian unity against foreign foes. Prince Vladimir is basically an okay guy who sometimes takes bad advice. He wisely promotes a peasant who earnestly wants to make weapons for defense. Ilya shows up and bulls his way about, being a rough manners-challenged peasant. But he proves his mighty stature by showing that he’s captured ‘Nightinggale the Robber,’ a forest demon whose breath can blow up a storm, bending big trees. Ilya must be entreated to make friends with other boastful Bogatyrs. When a Tugar emissary — who’s almost as creepy as Nightingale — arrives with insults and demands, Ilya simply slays him — the hell with negotiating with pagan scum. But Ilya can’t convince Prince Vladimir that Mishatychka is a scheming turncoat . . . who later on convinces the Prince to imprison Ilya for ten full years.
‘Epic’ events — Time and Torment make the Hero.
Ilya rescues Vassilisa and they have a boy, who Ilya never sees as he’s off on his adventures, or locked up by his own Prince. She’s recaptured again, this time becoming the property of the almighty Tugar Tsar Kalin (Shukur Burkhanov). Never having seen his father, the son Sokolnichek (Aleksander Shvorin) is raised by Tsar Kalin to think himself an enemy of Kiev. He grows to adulthood, trained as a Tugar warrior.
The final third of the movie is a mighty siege of Kiev. Although augmented by visual effects, thousands of extras flood the screen for shots of the Tugar horde crossing the vast plains to threaten the proud city. ‘Resurrected’ from presumed death in the Prince’s dungeons, Ilya comes forth as strong as ever, ready to lead his nation into battle. Not revealing his identity, Ilya buys time by negotiating with Tsar Kalin, before the final series of battles.
Besides the staggering mass action scenes on the steppes, the most memorable spectacles are marvels of fantastic exaggeration. The Khan orders his army to form a literal hill of bodies, so he can see his enemy over the horizon. When Ilya fights, realism is ignored in favor of legendary prowess — he swings his sword, and an entire group of enemy soldiers are slain, felled by the gesture itself. Nightingale the Robber becomes a secret weapon, blowing the enemy away as if they were tumbleweeds. The Russian equivalent of ‘Release the Kraken’ sees the terrifying dragon Zmey Gorynych freed from its Tugar prison, flying to attack Kiev with its fiery breath.
The Stalin-era Alexander Nevsky by Sergei Einstein is a masterpiece with a completely political purpose — Russia never lacks mighty warriors to unite and inspire the nation to smite the Nazis Teutonic Knights. By stepping back into medieval storybook form Ilya Muromets is less pushy with its politics. [Being released in 2022, this disc carries an added emotional kick: the beloved city-state being defended from rapacious & implacable invaders is none other than Kiev.]
Ilya Muromets achieves a very special fairy-tale charm. Its episodes are one delight after another, illustrated with some of the most interesting special effects I’ve seen. Almost every shot has the feeling of a painting, as if we turned the page in a colorful storybook.
Even the dismissive U.S. reviews admitted that the movie’s trappings are multiple times more elaborate than contemporary Italian fantasies. Often filmed in a soft mist, interiors of throne rooms, prison chambers and Tsar Kalin’s camp with its dance entertainment ↑ use unexpected color palettes. The color is not the same as our Eastmancolor — I believe that Soviet color films ‘inherited’ the German Agfa process as a spoil of war. Tsar Kalin’s costumes are dazzling, especially when surrounded by such atmospheric interior design.
For an epic that spans thirty years we never have a chance to get bored. Everything about Ilya has the ‘Mighty®‘ seal of approval. He’s forever riding his mighty steed across staggering vistas of hills, mountains and rivers. Extras on the disc tell us that Ptushko had enormous government resources at his disposal, with entire armies to serve as extras. A twilight overview of an army’s hundreds of campfires was done for real, at the ‘magic hour,’ coordinating an impressive wide shot showing what looks like a couple of miles’ worth of fires.
Many daytime shots are also filmed at the Magic Hour just to obtain a picture-book balance between foregrounds and the sky. Other skies and backgrounds are painted, and beautifully composited. Smoky interiors have busy intricatedly designed backgrounds that also look like paintings. I thought the ‘back wall’ in one banquet scene was a painting — until people started moving through it. This show has some of the most active second-unit extra blocking I’ve ever seen — evoking a rich, full world with a minimum number of angles.
Ptushko is a genuine master of visual effects. Instead of going the Hollywood route with extensive matte paintings, the Prince’s ‘storybook’ palace at Kiev appears to be constructed large-scale in several versions, utterly brilliant ‘whole castles’ that work with live action. Although not full sized they’re very large and very convincing.
When we enjoy trick films by Mario Bava and Aleksandr Ptushko we’re always looking for the tricks — these guys did (almost) everything ‘in the camera.’ But no matter how smug we become there are always times that we must admit that we can’t say how a particular shot was done. Ilya Muromets must have a dozen shots like that: you think, ah, its a static matte, or a miniature, or . . . and then something happens that proves that it’s not.
Some multiple exposures multiply crowds of troops advancing, giving the impression of millions on the move. The single most memorable image from childhood is the mountain of Tugar bodies that enable Tsar Kalin to see over the horizon. ↑ It’s a perfect expression of the biased view that ‘life is cheap in Asia’ . . . even at ten years of age, we were impressed that Kalin was sacrificing thousands of warriors just to get a better look at the battlefield.
The up-close effects are just as magical. The Tugar emissary and Nightingale the Robber are ugly little rubber makeup jobs that seem perfect for the fairy-tale context. ↑ The Nightingale is a noxious little bastard, sort of an anti-matter Yoda. The disgusting emissary is rather monsterish as well — we wonder if his DNA found its way into George Lucas’s Jabba the Hutt.
Balancing the grotesquery is the lighter magic, mostly used to elevate Vassilisa as a storybook damsel worthy to stand alongside Snow White. Vassilisa weaves a magic tablecloth, which without explanation ends up feeding Ilya after that rat Mishatychka leaves him to rot in the dungeon. In other words, Ilya is sustained by the very memory of Vassilisa. Little forest birds and animals come to hear Vassilisa sing a sweet song. Ptushko’s ‘magical expression’ freely cuts between live animals and little puppets or robot copies, emphasizing the substitutions instead of hiding them. It’s a fairy tale, it’s supposed to be as artificial as a storybook page.
The Ilya-Vassilisa romance is as storybook stiff as they come, in that she’s sold on him long before he can walk, and he’s talking about children and a dynasty even as he’s saying he’ll be a 99% absent husband. Vassilisa has guts, there’s no denying it. She spends months tied up by kidnappers yet always looks dignified. She spends 20 years as the prisoner of Tsar Kalin and never loses an ounce of attitude. Since she has no subsequent children, perhaps Kalin is cowed by her Russian pride, and chooses to adopt her blonde son instead of taking her as his concubine.
After generations of ‘realistic’ heroes and villains, this return to storybook values is a real kick. We WANT someone true-of-heart to root for, not just some clown with kickboxing skills. These impossible characters soon get under our skin, even if they remain 2-dimensional ‘types.’ Ilya Muromets has some of the appeal of the 1940 Thief of Bagdad, with its delirious romance by the reflection pond. Vassilisa’s (folk?) song isn’t as melodic, but it’s very sweet in its own way. For a cut-out hero and heroine they’re much more than adequate.
Online criticism of the three-headed dragon doesn’t take into account the ‘artificial magic’ argument we’ve tried to sell here. It’s a huge prop when it flies and a gigantic construction when it fights at the gate of Kiev. Of course it doesn’t look as ‘real’ as Vermithrax Pejorative or Smaug. The CGI dragons of Game of Thrones shouldn’t dampen our appreciation of Ptushko’s fantastic beast, with its googly eyes, Nosferatu-like overbite and flame-thrower breath that sets the land ablaze.
The fair competition for Zmey Gorynych are filmdom’s other full-sized articulated dragons: Bert I. Gordon’s The Magic Sword and Byron Haskin’s Captain Sindbad. Ptushko’s behemoth easily trumps those stiff pretenders. And heck, it works in front of an enormous fake city, with an enormous real army battling all around it. The flame jets do indeed look dangerous; I wonder if this production racked up any fatalities. ↑
Ilya Muromets is very different, and requires some mental adjustments. It doesn’t hype its action through modern editing, but instead grabs us with a succession of powerful, almost dream-like images — the way Nightingale the Robber’s cheeks bulge out, and that colossal mound of crushed Tugars that form a viewing platform for the Tsar. Even the expected Father and Son reunion works like a great story book should.
Deaf Crocodile’s Blu-ray of Ilya Muromets is a much improved experience than the Russian DVD from 18 years ago. The recent restoration revives its breathtaking qualities, a special, sophisticated color scheme and design strategy. Deaf Crocodile’s disc promo doesn’t give away too much of the movie and hopefully demonstrates well what I’ve tried to communicate about the film’s look and appeal.
Alas, the original four-track stereo mix has not survived; the film’s audio with its powerful Igor Morozov music score is monaural. The disc is encoded for or domestic Region A only.
Artist and author Stephen R. Bissette provides the full-feature audio commentary. Along with the expected information he refers to a few other Russian fantasy films. He also relates a rather fractured history, taken from Variety clippings, of the film’s importation in conjunction with a State department exchange with the Soviets that included Ivan’s Childhood and The Snow Queen. An official government arrangement appears to have become a grab-bag for U.S. distributors. We aren’t told what we sold the Soviets, however.
The importing company is referred to in the commentary as Vita-Lite, as opposed to the name on final posters, Valiant. Either there was another importing entity or Variety got that mixed up. Bissette mentions contemporary reviews comparing the dragon Gorynych to Toho’s Ghidrah, another three-headed dragon. Ghidrah didn’t show up for another five years, so perhaps the reviews were contemporary with the Japanese film.
The illustrated insert booklet carries a reprint of a vintage Video Watchdog article by Alan Upchurch, the first in-depth writing many of us read about Ptushko and Russian fantasy filmmaking. Also present is a memoriam to Upchuch by Dennis Bartok and a reprint of an Aleksandr Ptushko article on his film.
The release comes in parallel editions, identical content-wise but using different cover artwork. Some of illustrator Tony Stella’s composite art has a prevailing ‘dark’ look, even though most major scenes take place in the sunshine. If you like your he-men with full facial hair and a long beard, with a physique like a Mack Truck, Ilya Muromets is your guy.
I’ve purposely left one fact out of the review. The movie may be now best known as a mangled and violated remnant heckled on a syndicated TV comedy program. Curse you Robot Roll Call . . .
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Region A Blu-ray rates:
Sound: Excellent Russian monaural
Audio commentary by Steve Bissette
Remembering Russian Film Scholar Alan Upchurch by Dennis Bartok
Russian Fantastika Part One by Alan Upchurch
The Making of The Sword and the Dragon by Aleksandr Ptushko
New restoration trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: May 19, 2022
Text © Copyright 2022 Glenn Erickson