…and speaking of Polish history! Hats off to brother Wally for motivating me to dig deep into the files for this one.
Directed by J. Lee Thompson and featuring Tony Curtis, Yul Brynner, and Christine Kaufmann
United Artists, 1962, 122 minutes
“Taras Bulba” is the entertaining film adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s famous 1835 historical novella. The story is loosely based on the revolt of the Zaporozhian Cossacks against their Polish overlords, which began in the early 17th century.
The Cossacks of the Pontic-Caspian Steppes live under Polish rule but pine for their independence. Cossack leader, Taras Bulba (Brynner), desires that his sons, Andriy (Curtis) and Ostap, receive an education so he sends them to the Polish-controlled city of Kiev where Andriy falls head-over-heels for a beautiful Polish damsel (Kaufmann). The Polish nobility of Kiev don’t appreciate a Cossack peasant making overtures to one of their young ladies and the brothers are forced to flee the city.
Bulba leads a revolt against the Polish magnates, besieging the fortified city of Dubno. When Andriy realizes his love interest is behind the walls, he sneaks into the city and switches his allegiance to the Poles. With all of the city’s food gone and the population facing starvation, the Polish knights stage a last-ditch, desperate sally against the Cossack forces. Bulba confronts his disloyal son and kills him. The Cossacks occupy Dubno and Ukrainian peace and benevolence reign supreme.
Yul Brynner is simply outstanding as the Cossack hetman (military and political governor). He was born for the part. Tony Curtis is a bit stiff as the son who turns against his father and his people for a Polish
damsel. A Ukrainian Cossack with a thick Bronx accent? Ridiculous. German actress, Christine Kaufmann, plays the love interest, Polish noblewoman, Natalia Dubrov. In real life, 37-year-old Curtis divorced his wife, actress Janet Leigh, to marry his 17-year-old co-star. Oy vey!
Director J. Lee Thompson does a decent job on this film, one of those Hollywood blockbuster historical epics of the late-50’s and early 60’s. The scene where Brynner breaks into song is a bit annoying but par for the course for Hollywood films at that time. Another scene, where Curtis and a rival Cossack jump their horses over a narrow chasm in an equestrian duel, is an absolute hoot.
This movie was one of my favorites growing up in the 60’s. I wouldn’t miss it whenever it came on television. But, being Polish-American, I was a bit annoyed that the Poles were cast as the bad guys.
Like most films based on historical events, “Taras Bulba” takes some liberties. The Ukrainian conquerors enter the Polish city of Dubno at the end of the movie promising a reign of magnanimity and liberty for all. However, history records that the Zaporozhian Cossacks slaughtered 100,000 Jewish men, women, and children during the most famous of the revolts, the Chmielnicki (Ukrainian: Khmelnytsky) Uprising (1648-1654). A large number of Jews had worked as agents of the Polish magnates and were deeply resented by the Ukrainian peasantry.
For the Polish perspective on the Chmielnicki Uprising, read “With Fire and Sword” by Henryk Sienkiewicz or see the same-titled 1999 Polish film, available on DVD starring Michal Zebrowski and Izabella Scorupco.
Additional thoughts from a believer
The centuries-old conflict between Poles and Cossacks/Ukrainians was not just about ethnicity and self-determination, it was also about religion. Poles were Roman Catholic while Cossacks were Eastern Orthodox. The Cossacks resented being ruled by Romanists. But just as with the Poles, religion for the Orthodox Ukrainians meant participation in the sacraments and much ritual and ceremony. Their religion did not teach the Gospel of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone.