Color, 1956, 91 mins. 45 secs.
Directed by Aleksandr Ptushko
Starring Boris Andreyev, Ninel Myshkova, Shukur Burkhanov
Deaf Crocodile (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Ruscico (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
For decades the remarkable achievements of Russian fantastic cinema were hard to appreciate for English-speaking viewers, with the U.S. getting the worst of it thanks to heavily altered, dubbed designed for the kiddie matinee market. One film that really got the brunt of it was Ilya Muromets, a lavish epic (shot in scope, a rarity at the time) from fantasy film pioneer Aleksandr Ptushko, the genius behind such enchanting, ambitious films as The Stone Flower, The New Gulliver, Sampo, and Ruslan and Ludmila. In this case, Roger Corman recut the film, had it dubbed with extensive character and plot changes, and added narration by none other than Mike Wallace, with the end result shown as The Sword and the Dragon.
In its original form this adaptation of a famous Russian oral epic poem takes place during a medieval siege by the Tugars, an Asian invading force who kidnap Vassillisa (Myshkova), who's betrothed to warrior knight Ilya Muromets (Andreyev). Unfortunately he's paralyzed and can't defend her, but one secret deal and magical elixir later, he's up on his two feet and wielding a mystical sword. From there he embarks on a long, sprawling quest that involves a magical nightingale, the retrieval and second kidnapping of his wife, multiple massive battles, double crosses, a gigantic Tugar enemy, a son who might follow in his footsteps, and ultimately a fire-breathing dragon used as the ultimate combat weapon.
A truly impressive and engrossing film that packs an astonishing amount into just over 90 minutes, Ilya Muromets is much more than its fantasy label might indicate for most viewers. You get a huge-scale period war film, a love story, an occasional musical, and occasionally a creature feature with that three-headed dragon finally rearing up during the big, eye-popping climax. Along the way Ptushko demonstrates a vivid eye for widescreen composition and color, not to mention his rich ear for sound design with a bevy of layered audio effects creating a medieval environment that never fails to impress.
Ptushko's work was rarely written about in any significant way in English until the late Alan Upchurch devoted a two-part, groundbreaking study of him from 1991 to 1992 in Video Watchdog, a development followed by much of the director's work becoming available in English-friendly releases on DVD in 2004 from Ruscico (who licensed a lot of Mosfilm product for sale in lots of territories outside Russia). That release was officially imported by Image Entertainment as well and made for an eye opener after cruddy VHS and TV broadcasts of that U.S. version, which had also been degraded as an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.
In 2022, label Deaf Crocodile finally brought it back into circulation with a Region A Blu-ray release featuring a new 4K scan by Mosfilm of the original negative. It looks splendid with that unearthly color scheme kept intact and quite a bit more detail visible here, while the somewhat dodgy compression of the DVD is thankfully left far behind with a textured, pleasing appearance. The DTS-HD MA 2.0 Russian mono track is also in fine condition and comes with optional English subtitles. A new audio commentary by comics legend and eternal monster kid Steve Bissette is a welcome addition here as he enthuses about Russian fantasy cinema, the importance of that Upchurch scholarship, the backgrounds of the actors and major technical participants, the state of international '50s fantasy filmmaking, and the film's long path to international recognition. Appropriately, the hefty insert booklet features an overview of Upchurch's contributions to fantastic filmmaking (including Ptushko and Mario Bava) by onetime American Cinematheque programmer Dennis Bartok (now with Deaf Crocodile), followed by a reprint of that essential "Russian Fantastika Part One" article by Upchurch and his translation of Ptushko's fascinating "The Making of The Sword and the Dragon" complete with a wealth of info about his visual and aural artistry at play.
Reviewed on May 23, 2022