E1 Entertainment // 2009 // 133 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Roman Martel (Retired) // July 26th, 2011
"They would not have earned an honorable death, for they are little men."
The Russian story of Taras Bulba by Nikolai Gogol was last brought to the screen in 1962 with Yul Brynner in the lead role. Director Vladimir Bortko and the Russian Ministry of Culture decided this very Russian story needed a proper non-Hollywood version. The result was The Conqueror.
Taras Bulba (Bogdan Stupka) is one tough Cossack. Sure he may be a lordly farmer, but you know the old man's got moxie when he challenges his two sons, Ostap (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) and Andriy (Igor Petrenko), to a fist fight after they return home from an Orthodox seminary.
Taras soon reveals that he is bored with the farmer's life and takes his sons to the rollocking town in the Sich. There they meet with other rough and rowdy Cossacks. After enjoying the manly life for a bit, Taras engages in some rabble rousing to stir up the Cossacks into a good old fashioned battle.
Sadly, he doesn't have to work too hard. Polish soldiers have devastated Taras' farm and killed his wife and servants. Fueled by this as well as additional atrocities committed on them, the Cossacks take up arms and besiege Dubno castle. But fate tips her fickle hand when the youngest son, Andriy, discovers that the Polish noblewoman he fell in love with is trapped in the castle. Quicker than you can say star-crossed, he turns traitor.
Now Taras must come to grips with his son's decision, as well as face the recently fortified Polish army. Will this grizzled old farmer become The Conqueror?
Gogol's story provides an excellent backdrop for a historical epic. It has a full blown castle siege in addition to the your typical clash of armies. The battles are waged with muskets and swords. The setting in the early 1600s allows for some wonderful costumes. There's a bit of romance, a bit of betrayal, and a rousing dose of courage.
Bortko and his crew take the story and, with some excellent production values, turn The Conqueror into a true spectacle. Shot on location in the Ukraine and Poland with a cast of hundreds, the movie pulls out all the stops for visual scope and splendor. The costumes, armor and amazing hair (Cossacks had a very distinctive look) provide a fully fleshed out world. Lush cinematography manages to capture the surrounding country and makes the whole film look beautiful.
The cast is also up to the task. Stupka plays Taras as man who knows what he is and makes no apologies for it. He's a fighter through and through. He's proud of his Cossack heritage and is willing to do anything to protect his land and his people. He expects nothing less from his sons. So the moment he learns of Andriy's betrayal provides Stupka with some great material. Its a juicy part and the actor makes the most of it.
I also thought Petrenko as Andriy was very good. His infatuation with the lovely polish noblewoman is handled quickly, but he does a good job making it believable, and his ultimate confrontation with his father is even more interesting.
Finally, the battle scenes in The Conqueror are fairly impressive. The castle siege is a visual treat with the Polish soldiers using all the classic tricks, including boiling oil, to repel the Cossacks. With hundreds of extras running around, these scenes are frenzied and intense. The movie does not shy away from bloodshed either. Combatants are shot, stabbed, hurled and crushed, and you get to see plenty of it. There's even some brutal torture if you were missing the Braveheart vibe.
E1 presents The Conqueror with a nice clear print. The detail in the costumes and sets are presented beautifully. The surround track in Polish, Russian and Ukrainian sounds great. The cannons and fisticuffs get some bass. There is also an English dubbed track. The subtitles come in only one flavor: English SDH. This means you get not only the translated dialogue, but sound effects as well. The Cossacks burned and pillaged the extras from this disc.
Unfortunately the movie ends up missing the mark. The major reason is that Taras is not the most engaging of characters. He comes across like a whiny trouble maker in the beginning, saying that his Cossack blood keeps him from enjoying his happy life with his family. Even when he is vindicated in his decision to wage war, he's still not a likable man. Stupka does a great job providing charisma and gravitas to the character, but I never was fully engaged.
Another problem was that the story is very much rooted in Russian nationalism. Not being Russian, I didn't feel the swell of national pride that I'm sure the movie was attempting to inspire. To do this, it makes everyone who isn't Russian either a villainous monster or a whimpering coward. I can take a little of this, but when you're killing your cast off, and each of these good Russians dies a martyrs death -- complete with speech about how they are happy to have died for their country, people and religion -- it gets to be a bit much. Especially when it happens about six times in a row.
Tied to that is the fact that both the Poles and the Jews aren't shown in the most positive light. Most of this comes right from the novel, written in 1842. Again, it's understandable, but some viewers may take issue with it.
Finally the music is lacking. I'm guess that the mostly electronic score was going for a Vangelis-type feel. Instead the score to The Conqueror sounds like something from a Playstation 1 game. A few of the simpler moments at the beginning of the film work OK, but when it tries to be epic it's only distracting in its anachronistic sound and lack of power to match and enhance the images.
The Conqueror has a lot of great visual elements to it, but the scarcity of engaging characters and the sledgehammer approach to the nationalism makes this tough to recommend.
Guilty, with time served.
Review content copyright © 2011 Roman Martel; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: E1 Entertainment
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Russian, Polish, Ukrainian)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 133 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Wikipedia: Taras Bulba