Monday, October 17, 2011

THE SWORD AND THE DRAGON (aka ILYA MUROMETS) (1956) (shown September, 1993)

     Since our July show of THE DAY THE EARTH FROZE (aka SAMPO) had been so well received, I thought it would be fun to revisit the magical films of Aleksandr Ptushko and show his magnum opus, ILYA MUROMETS. Like SAMPO before it, this film was heavily truncated and changed from it's original form (again by B-movie maven Roger Corman) to become the version most American audiences are familiar with, THE SWORD AND THE DRAGON. With a garish poster design reminiscent of bug-eyed monster artist supreme Reynold Brown, and a blitzkrieg advertising campaign, every red-blooded kid wanted to see this film ... and when they did, were AMAZED at what they saw! I'll be going back and forth on names between the two versions, but will be discussing the American version for this review.

     The hero of the story is Ilya Muromets (Boris Andreyev), a great bear of a man who spends his days brooding and watching the world pass him by. Crippled since childhood, he can only watch helplessly when the savage Tugars and their leader, the Tsar Kalin (Shukur Burkhanov) raid their small Russian village and kidnap Ilya's wife, Vassilisa (Ninel Myshkova) (aka Vilya in the re-dubbed American version).

     While this is happening, a band of traveling pilgrims meet one of their demi-gods, a giant knight named Svyatogor (renamed Invincor in the American version) and his equally giant horse, who have come to the end of their travels after many battles defending Mother Russia. The knight puts down his magic sword, charging the travelers to give it to another of strong heart who can take up the fight ... then he and his steed proceed to turn to stone and become part of the mountain chain (as seen below).
The thirsty travelers arrive at Ilya's village and ask for water (thanks to some poor editing in this part, no one seems TOO broken up that they were just raided by bloodthirsty Tugars!) - Ilya invites them in, apologizing that he can not serve them himself due to his useless legs. They see in him the hero that he could be and invite him to drink deep from a flask of magic dew grass (?) ... which promptly restores his mobility. They them give him the magic sword to go forth and smite Tugar ass with, which he proceeds to do with his mother and father's blessing.

     On the way, he first encounters a wind demon (known as Nightingale the Robber in the original version) and defeats him with a well-thrown gourd to the head; never one to throw away a perfectly good goblin, Ilya ropes him up and carries him off to the Prince in Kiev, where he offers his services against the Tugars. While at the Prince's court, another noble brags that HE confronted the Wind Demon; Ilya promptly denounces him and calls him a liar. When the Prince asks what proof does he have, his response? "Because I have him outside!"

     The entire palace unloads to see this marvel, with the Prince demanding a demonstration of the creature's power. Ilya warns him to use only half-power in summoning the Wind; but even at that, the entire court and anything (and everyone) not nailed down goes flying (in a neat piece of special effects of the time; namely running the film backwards!) - before more havoc ensues, Ilya places his hand over the Demon's mouth to stop him.

     Kalin's representative arrives at the court and demands tribute; Ilya 'tributes' him in half with his sword and sends his soldiers fleeing back to the Tugars telling them there's plenty more where that came from! Unknown to Ilya, however, is Kalin's secret weapon: after Kalin had kidnapped Vassilisa, she gave birth to Ilya's son - a boy who Kalin raises as a Tugar, renaming him 'Little Falcon' and training him for the express purpose of killing his father and conquering his people. A montage shows the boy growing up and learning all the martial and fighting skills he will need for the job, until the day arrives for the showdown.

     Ilya has come upon hard times himself: from being the hero of the people, he is now a prisoner of the Prince, who has taken the false word of traitors in the realm that Ilya is plotting to take over the kingdom. They would have the Prince believe that Ilya's growing popularity is just his way of planning a coup - nothing could be further from the truth and Ilya warns the Prince that one day he will come to him in his prison cell and beg for his help. Everyone, from the Princess on down, warns the Prince he is making a terrible mistake, but he refuses to listen to them and lets Ilya stay in prison for many years, telling his jailers to feed him well. Instead they steal the food and send a secret message (a bundle including the key to the prison) to the Tugars that the time to attack has arrived.

     Kalin and his troops lay siege to Kiev and orders the Prince to send them ten wagons of tribute within three days time or prepare to die. Not a one of the Prince's nobles will go out to face the Tugars, and the Prince, finally seeing the error of his ways, goes to beg Ilya for help. When the noble who was in charge of overseeing his time in prison says he believes Ilya has died, they rush to the cell ... to find him alive and well, thanks to a magic tablecloth that Vassilisa had woven for him, which when spread upon a flat surface brings forth a feast. Ilya proves that his jailer was the traitor all along (and he is led off to be boiled in oil), and the Prince begs for forgiveness and for Ilya to save them all. Ilya agrees to do so; not for the Prince's sake, but for the sake of the land.

     He directs the bravest soldiers to accompany him and bring the ten carts, loaded with rags and papers to make them look full, and to drop a pittance of coins and jewels along the way from Kiev to Kalin's court. When Kalin demands the tribute be piled up before him, Ilya pretends amazement and tells him in the rush to meet the deadline, the bags must have ripped and all the tribute spilled out along the way. He then asks Kalin if he would like him and his men to go back and pick them all up, or if he should send his OWN trustworthy troops back. Kalin wants to take no chances and orders his men to backtrack to Kiev and bring back all the treasure (which was Ilya's plan all along, knowing they will steal and hide as much of it as they can). When they return saying they could only find a few coins and jewels, Ilya denounces them, saying they are liars and thieves and, grabbing one man, turns him upside down and shakes him, making all the hoarded treasure come out. Kalin is so mad he threatens to kill them all if they don't bring EVERY SINGLE PIECE OF TREASURE THEY HAVE before him immediately; so they have to forfeit all their personal loot from previous sackings just to stay alive.

     Ilya returns to Kiev, but he has only delayed the battle. Kalin's greed knows no bounds - he still wants the treasure in the town and orders an attack.  Ilya and his soldiers meet them on the plains before the city in battle (including the infamous three-on-one-spear impaling scene - heady stuff for a little kid in the '60s!), with Ilya having a showdown with Little Falcon. Ilya gets the best of Little Falcon (it IS his movie, after all), but before dispatching him sees the ring he is wearing - the same ring he had told Vassilisa to give his son to remember him by.  When the truth comes out, Little Falcon changes sides and vows to fight beside his true father, but first must go back to the Tugar stronghold and free his imprisoned mother.

     We FINALLY get to the payoff of the film; so far it's been a LOT of swords and NO sign of a dragon! Kalin sees his battle is going south (by building a MOUNTAIN of men that he rides his horse atop to spy on the enemy) and tells his lackeys to release the dragon (named Zmey Gorynych in the original and Zuma the Fire Dragon in the American version) from its cave - Zuma proceeds to toast everything and everyone in sight (in some impressive special effects for the time) until a well-placed spear from a giant crossbow brings him to earth (shades of 7th Voyage of Sinbad)!

     Father and son fight side by side in the climactic battle, with Little Falcon on the beast's back, plunging a spear into it, and Ilya in front, lopping off each of the three heads with a single stroke of Invincor's magic sword. Three heads ... three strokes! There's a bit of unintentional humor here as Ilya is bellowing for his men to throw buckets of water on him as he battles Zuma (to keep from being roasted alive by the dragon's flames): to say they do their job enthusiastically is an understatement! They finish that off by mopping up Kalin's troops and they proceed to Kalin himself. He begs for his life and Ilya orders him thrown into a burlap sack and taken to the Prince, for him to decide the Tugar leader's fate.

     For his service to his people and his country, the Prince offers Ilya a place at court, promising he will always live at the castle and be given every honor. Ilya, now the happy family man again, reunited with his wife and son, solemnly refuses the offer, saying that his destiny lies outside of the castle walls and that his days of serving Mother Russia are far from over. He insteads begs the Prince the boon of letting Little Falcon serve in his place, a wish the Prince gladly bestows. As he says, if he can not have Ilya Muromets at his side, then he will happily have his son instead. The film ends on an odd note: you would think that after so many years apart from the love of his life, Ilya would like some time to settle down, but no: the final shot is him hitting the road on his horse, riding into a blood-red sunset ... with a crow on a branch balefully watching him pass by.

     Aside from the Roger Corman release in the '60s, most people today are aware of this film as one that was lampooned on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Like most of their shows, it is fun to watch their riff on the film, although someone forgot to tell them the film takes place in Russia ...they go on and on cracking all sorts of FINNISH jokes about the movie, even though it has NOTHING to do with Finland! For once, the joke is on them.

     In addition to the huge publicity budget the film had, it also has a rare collectible: it was one of the few Russian transplant films to have it's own tie-in comic: part of the Dell Movie Comic series, THE SWORD AND THE DRAGON tells the story of the (American version of the) film faithfully; no better or worse drawn than any other like comic of it's time, it is a nice memento of the film if you can find it. These comics were originally sold in the lobby of the movie theatres showing the films, and to a kid like me back in that time period, they were the neatest thing on Earth; you could go and see the film and have this to take home with you to relive the scenes over and over again - they were the DVDs of their day.

     Amazingly enough (speaking of DVDs), this film is available in two formats: in it's uncut full version with English subtitles (in a gorgeous widescreen transfer, as you can see from the screen shots above) and the Americanized Roger Corman 1960's release - the MST3K version has not received an official DVD release yet, but it is just a matter of time.

     So the choice is yours: the serious, lyrical fantasy or the stilted, dubbed Americanization ... to be fair, unlike a number of these Corman remixes, this one does keep a good portion of the main plot and the dubbing tries to keep (more or less) to the original story. if you're in the right mood to see how old-school epics were done in other countires, THE SWORD AND THE DRAGON is worth a look.

Next Time: The film that started it all! The very first film I ever saw as a child ... and the one that is responsible for Conjure Cinema and everything that came after ... wait and see!

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