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The Tale of Tsar Saltan

by Glenn Erickson Jun 06, 2023

A stunning movie that conveys the pure spirit of a vintage fairy tale, Aleksandr Ptushko’s story of royal intrigue is charming to the Nth degree, with pure-hearted characters and as many ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ moments as a classic Disney picture. It’s suffused in magic, not the show-off kind, but the deep-spirit visual wonder found in Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast. The Russian sense of humor can be puzzling, but not their love of beauty and loyalty. The key extra is an hour-long video conversation with Russian fantasy authority Robert Skotak.


The Tale of Tsar Saltan
Blu-ray
Deaf Crocodile
1967 / Color / 2:20 widescreen (70mm) / 85 min. / Street Date June 27, 2023 / Skazka o tsare Saltane / Available from Deaf Crocodile / 39.98
Starring: Vladimir Andreyev, Larisa Golubkina, Oleg Vidov, Kseniya Ryabinkina, Sergey Martinson, Olga Viklandt, Vera Ivleva, Nina Belyayeva, Viktor Kolpakov.
Cinematography: Igor Gelein, Valentin Zakharov
Production Designers: Konstantin Khodatayev, Aleksandr Kuznetsov
Special Effects: Zoya Moryakova, Aleksandr Renkov
Costume Design: Olga Kruchinina
Film Editor: N. Belyovtseva
Original Music: Gavril Popov
Written by Igor Gelein, Aleksandr Ptushko from the poem by Aleksandr Sergeyevich Pushkin
Directed by
Aleksandr Ptushko

Aleksandr Ptushko’s time has finally arrived on home video; older Ruscico DVDs of his Soviet masterworks were quite nice, but Deaf Crocodile’s superb Blu-rays of Ilya Muromets (Sword and the Dragon) and Sampo (The Day the Earth Froze) play as dazzling fine art, colorful storybook epics with a unique approach to the notion of spectacle. We’re still waiting for the company’s presumed release of Ptushko’s amazing Sadko, from earlier in his career.

The Tale of Tsar Saltan is taken from a famous fairy tale by Aleksandr Sergeyevich Pushkin, a literary master so romantic, he was actually killed in a duel. The simple story has emotional depth; the main characters are impossibly foolish (the Tsar himself) and impossibly pure-hearted (the other key principals). It’s also lighter in tone than we expect, with very little bloodletting. Even the nasty villains are reprieved, if not exactly forgiven.

Ptushko’s film was a Mosfilm production, with no credited producer. By the mid-’60s, many Soviet films were being filmed in Sovscope 70mm. This was the director’s penultimate feature, using the oversized format. Ptushko’s final picture, the unusually lengthy Ruslan i Lyudmila (1972) was apparently filmed in standard 35mm.

 

‘The Tale of Tsar Saltan, of His Son the Renowned and Mighty Bogatyr Prince Gvidon Saltanovich and of the Beautiful Swan-Princess’

The storybook picturization of the Pushkin tale is spoken in rhyme; the amusing English subtitles retain that charm by being translated in rhyme as well. The young, impetuous Tsar Saltan (Vladimir Andreyev) picks his bride-to-be from three sisters. Two are are selfish and boastful, but the third (Larisa Golubkina) states only that if she were Tsarina, she’d give her husband a hearty, brave heir. The new royal couple couldn’t be happier or more deserving, but the sisters, their wicked mother and a couple of schemers at court connive to ruin everything. Saltan must leave to fight against an incursion by a tribe of grotesque, impish cannibals, and his son and heir is born in his absence. The boy (who grows amazingly fast) is healthy and strong, but a treacherous false message tells Saltan that the Tsarina has given birth to a horrid monster. Without confirming the news personally, the impulsive Saltan orders both mother and child to be killed in secret.

Saltan’s obediant servants instead cast the Tsarina and her son into the sea in a barrel. They wash up on an uninhabited isle. Only a few weeks have passed but the heir Gvidon (Oleg Vidov) is now fully-grown. He saves a swan from a hawk, an act which becomes an unending blessing: the swan is actually the Fairy Princess ‘Tsarevna Lebed’ (Kseniya Ryabinkina), who falls in love with Gvidon and works her magic in the castaways’ favor. The Swan Princess reveals that the island is home to a ‘frozen kingdom’ called Buyan: Gvidon’s touch brings it back to life and becomes its ruler. Will Gvidon and the Swan Princess marry?  Will the faithful Tsarina ever reconnect with her beloved Saltan?  Will her wicked relatives get their comeuppance?

 

The film’s stylized characterizations bring smiles to our faces. Tsar Saltan is sincere but gullible, and prone to hasty decisions; he’s an amusing critique of great men in power. He at one point consults a witch (Baba Yaga?), but the meeting is interrupted before he can learn what really happened to his beloved wife. Larisa Golubkina’s Tsarina has a loving, honest face. Too virtuous and obedient to challenge the death sentence delivered by messenger, she remains dignified as she walks her son to what she thinks will be an execution. True to nationalist sentiment, she takes a handful of Russian soil with her into the execution-barrel. This is the kind of traditional tale in which women must wait a lifetime just to receive some basic respect; in true fairy tale fashion the Tsarina bears no bitterness, neither to her rotten relatives or her air-headed Tsar husband.

Fairy tales make their own logic. Gvidon grows to toddler-hood within a day of birth, and to adulthood after only a few days in that barrel. He and his future bride the Swan Princess are idealized to the nth degree, like storybook gods. Actress Kseniya Ryabinkina is an actual Bolshoi ballerina. Her mime when waxing magical-beautiful is quite something, and she’s granted a showcase dance at the finish. We’re told that Russian critics thought her acting was stiff, but phooey to that — the poised Swan Princess  is no less ideal than anything else in the story.

 

Figuring heavily in the proceedings are beautifully realized elements of magic, starting with the gorgeous Princess, who walks on water and often appears wearing a glowing jeweled crown. Gividon touches the ‘frozen’ citizens of his kingdom-to-be, and they come to life, like an original folk version of the fable that became the modern tale Brigadoon. Gvidon’s castle is home to a magic dancing squirrel whose nutshells are solid gold, and the nuts within priceless jewels; a tree grows gleaming semi-transparent magic apples.

In lieu of an army or navy, the Swan Princess gives Gvidon a magical guard, thirty-and-three warrior giants that look to be about 15 feet tall. They march out of the sea every dawn to keep watch. Today’s viewers might be reminded of Tolkien’s ‘army of the dead’ in one of The Lord of the Rings features. To travel back to his father’s court, Gvidon is transformed into first a mosquito and then a bumblebee; he learns about the treachery of his aunts, and stings one of them on the eye.

‘Connection Shock:’ the classical musical composition The Flight of the Bumblebee was written by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov for his 1899 opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan.

Ptushko’s other more ‘epic’ pictures showcase magical monsters such as the bird-human hybrid creature in Sadko, one of the most amazing sights in fantasy film history. The Tale of Tsar Saltan features some wild monster-men — hopping goblins with faces on their torsos — but mostly accumulates more subtle effects that conjure the illusion of a coherent, self-contained fairy tale world. The handsome backdrops are often seen through smoke and mist, inviting comparisons with the paintings of Maxfield Parrish. The mattework for the isle of Buyan is flawless; the traveling matte composites for scenes with the giant warrior guard are of high quality as well. Many full-sized sections of castles and towns were constructed. Large miniatures for the Buyan palace show cannons firing. It’s as if Karel Zeman or Terry Gilliam were given unlimited resources.

 

Ptushko’s visual effect methods are so clever (and varied) that we soon stop trying to figure out how everything was done. The dancing squirrel appears to be a marionette in some shots, and stop-motion animated in others. Glows and other magic lights, like the Swan Princess’s gleaming crown, are beautiful animations. Tsar Saltan has a comic tantrum while in the field with his army — he strikes his own throne, causing its armrests — carved in the shape of lions — to come alive and flee. It’s a jaw-dropping bit of movie magic. Elsewhere we just admire the pictorial splendor, gorgeous color and superior graphic design on view.

The Tale of Tsar Saltan is played in very broad, stylized terms, especially its comic villains. Saltan and his Tsarina are pure-hearted but not really sophisticated. Their childlike attitude extends to their wedding night: after the palace staff express a leering interest in what will occur in the royal bed chamber, the couple’s most intimate act is to play a cutesy game of patty cake.

The conclusion is more of a ‘just so’ wrap-up than a heavy-duty dramatic finale. Although the story remains at a stylistic remove, we remain emotionally invested in the characters’ fates. The classic example of this kind of storybook bliss is the ‘garden scene’ in the English fantasy epic The Thief of Bagdad:  idealized lovers exchange adoring words, and the ‘rightness’ of the moment evokes a childhood view of how the world ought to be. This very pleasing emotion is present through most of Tsar Sultan — in terms of storytelling virtuosity, it is the best organized and told Ptushko fantasy we’ve yet seen.

Deaf Crocodile’s restoration trailer for The Tale of Tsar Saltan uses Tchaikovsky for a soundtrack, but the film’s actual music score by Gavril Popov is wondrous in its own right, adding greatly to the delightful fantasy.

 


 

Deaf Crocodile’s Blu-ray of The Tale of Tsar Saltan is a happy surprise, a full-on fairy tale masterpiece that underscores Aleksandr Ptushko’s greatness as a giant of film fantasy. The image looks like a moving fantasy painting, somewhere between photorealism and airy watercolors. The excellent transfer shows the filmmakers’ great control over color and filmic texture.

The stylization continues to the character makeups — Tsar Saltan has white cheeks and deep eyeshadow, like a figure in a folk art painting. The two sisters and wicked mother are comic inventions given goofy makeup — a large nose for one woman, and impish freckles for another. The three of them typically wail and moan about the latest tragedy befalling the Tsar and Tsarina — while giggling to themselves behind their robes.

 

The listing for The Tale of Tsar Saltan in Wide Screen Movies confirms its large-format origin, filmed in Sovscope 70. It also gives an original release length of 108 minutes. It’s just a guess, but the longer running time may have been for a musical overture, exit music, etc..

The new restoration by Mosfilm and Deaf Crocodile was probably mastered from a 35mm reduction negative, but the delicate color detail and the added image stability come through. The original reportedly had 6-track stereophonic sound, and the new disc credits DTS 5.1 Master Audio.

The extras begin with a full commentary by Stephen R. Bissette, who performed the same function for both of Deaf Crocodile’s previous Ptushko restoration Blu-rays. Sci-fi fans will want to hear the lengthy video interview with effects expert and film researcher Robert Skotak. He covers his own early interest in Soviet ‘fantastika,’ and the developments that eventually led him to make research trips to the Soviet Union in 1980 and to Russia in 2005. Skotak’s talk skips through the entire history of Soviet fantasies. The few that were imported at all to the United States were greatly altered. The sublime The Tale of Tsar Saltan was apparently never distributed here at all.

A brief insert pamphlet has an essay by Peter Rollberg, and the release’s handsome artwork is by Tony Stella.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


The Tale of Tsar Saltan
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements:
Commentary by Stephen R. Bissette
107-minute video interview with Robert Skotak
Insert essay by Peter Rollberg
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
June 3, 2023
(6938tsar)
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Text © Copyright 2023 Glenn Erickson

About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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