Monday, October 17, 2011
THE SWORD AND THE DRAGON (aka ILYA MUROMETS) (1956) (shown September, 1993)
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 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.
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!