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Sunday, February 8, 2015

TARAS BULBA (1962)

Though not particularly associated with historical epics, Tony Curtis paired up nicely with Kirk Douglas for zesty, tongue-in-cheek fun in THE VIKINGS/’58 and then, a bit flat-footed on the more serious SPARTACUS/’60. In his own shot at the form, he tries keeping one foot in each camp . . . and falls on his face. Taken from Gogol’s tale of freedom-loving Cossacks and Polish oppressors, it's certainly quite the show: battles, immense squads of horsemen, forbidden love, lusty campfire pep songs, the works. And no costs spared. (Kino Lorber’s restored DVD is a revelation after decades of color-starved knock-offs.) But, except for a perfectly parted Yul Brynner (in an admittedly very broad perf) and Franz Waxman’s equally perfectly pitched music score*, everything else in the film is either miscast or off the beat. Curtis only looks comfortable in a brief scene at the very end of the film, when he’s disguised as an enemy warrior, and shows little chemistry with teenage leading lady Christine Kaufmann whom he’d soon marry. Director J. Lee Thompson, a talented hack with a surprisingly strong CV (he’d just done GUNS OF NAVARONE/’61 and CAPE FEAR/’62) is wildly out of his fach, and seems to know it. Things start well enough, with a handsome credit sequence and an opening battle that boasts unusually clear delineations of allegiance, alliance & action. But once Curtis hits manhood and heads off to UoK (University of Kiev), we might well have clicked ruby heels and landed in a land of touring operetta. Lots of singing, which isn’t bad, it’s just that the slick studio look of the town might be Old Heidelberg with Tony playing Student Prince. And the wacky tone never quite straightens itself out when things need to get serious again.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *One of Franz Waxman’s last scores, and one of his greatest even if he does write Cossack folk tunes that all sound like Austro-Hungarian Csárdás. But who cares when the tunes and the craft are this good? Here’s the Credit Sequence/Overture from a City of Prague recording of the complete score played loud, fast & splashy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q17N_HQbWQQ And here’s the full Gathering of the Cossack Clans' 'Ride To Dubno’ music cue, performed with mounting tension by John Wilson and his HUGE symphony orchestra as an encore at the 2013 BBC London Proms. How many French Horns did Waxman ask for? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=asoLIJpvb_w

DOUBLE-BILL: For a look at what TARAS BULBA was aiming at, try Anthony Mann’s EL CID/’61.

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