Taras Bulba (1962): Historical Epic Starring Yul Brynner, Tony Curtis and Christine Kaufmann

Loosely based on Nikolai Gogol’s short novel of the same name, Taras Bulba is directed by J.L. Thompson (“The Guns of Navarone”), here aiming for but never really achieving epic scope, despite numerous battles, thousands of horsemen, and colorful vistas.

Adapted to the screen by Waldo Salt and Karl Tunberg , the story is set in the 16th century. Yul Brynner is well cast in the titular role, the leader of a Cossack clan on the Ukrainian Steppes, who makes a pact with the Poles to join forces against the Turks and drive them from the European lands.

But victory brings betrayal as the Poles then turn on their ally and force the Cossacks into the hills.

Taras Bulba decides that one of his sons, Andrei (Tony Curtis), will be sent to Polish schools to better learn the nature of their enemy.

While away from home, the adult Andrei falls in love with a Polish noble woman, Natalia (Christine Kaufmann).

The Cossacks grow bored with the inactivity of the siege and many of them depart for home. When the Polish commander realizes their weakness, he orders his whole army to attack.

Taras Bulba encounters his son on the battlefield and kills him for his betrayal. The Cossacks who left the siege to go home, rejoin the battle and large numbers of men, both Cossack and Polish, find their deaths in the river below.

The saga ends with the victorious Cossacks entering Dubno, where Andriy is to be buried, and we are led to believe that the Cossacks will not treat the Poles as badly as they treated them.

Thematically, the narrative deals with the tensions between father and son, loyalty and love, ethnic identity and assimilation, which steadily increase until they end in tragedy.

At the time, the film received extra publicity due to the romance between Curtis (who was then married to Janet Leigh) and Kaufmann, who would later wed.

Technically, the film’s most impressive element is Franz Waxman’s music, which was nominated for the Best Score Oscar.

Both a critical and commercial flop, Taras Bulba failed to recoup the large budget allocated to it by producer Harold Hecht (it was released by United Artists).

Running time: 122 minutes