Set in 16th-century Ukraine, this dazzling action spectacle was based on the classic Nikolay Gogol story with Polish overlords and Ukrainian Cossacks fighting for control of the land while also having to defend against frequent Turkish invasions.
Taras Bulba (Yul Brynner) is a Cossack chieftain – fierce, proud, arrogant and fearless – who bides his time for several years, waiting for the right moment to strike for freedom from the hated Poles.
He sires two sons, Andrei (Tony Curtis) and Ostap (Perry Lopez) and sends them to a Polish university to learn the ways of the hated enemy.
But the handsome Andrei and the daughter of a Polish nobleman (Christine Kaufmann) fall in love, and Andrei develops a softness towards the Poles.
In the title role, Brynner swaggers and swashbuckles all over the place, and very effectively too. He is splendidly at home in the saddle and when he cries with hearty relish, “I love the steppes” he gives the impression that he means it.
On the other hand, Curtis doesn’t belong on those steppes at all, behaving uncomfortably out of his element most of the time. Costume adventure, one tends to conclude, is not his forte.
Christine Kaufmann is a lovely heroine who manages to emerge from the Black Death, starvation and other disasters as spotlessly radiant as ever.
Filming took place in the rugged foothills of the Andes to duplicate the steppes of southern Russia and 10,000 Argentine Gauchos were trained to play cossacks in the gigantic battle scene.
The vistas are sweeping and the clashes and revelries by day and by night are magnificent to behold. Director J Lee Thompson and his crew inject an air of fierce savagery into the battles, while the art director and costume designer have contributed admirably.
Production ran more than $2 million over budget, resulting in United Artists taking a loss of $4.5 million at the box office.
J. Lee Thompson