I had never read the novel, but only 10 years old, I went to the cinema with my parents to watch the epic film based on the book. I was obviously very young. I wanted action, and got it. I wanted stars, and got them. I wanted a big screen cinema-experience epic, and got that too.
Yul Brynner, Tony Curtis, Christine Kaufmann, (She later married Curtis) Sam Wanamaker. They all lined up for this huge film from director J. Lee Thompson. When it hit the London cinemas, I was more than ready for this historical epic looking at the conflict between the Don Cossacks and their Polish masters, during the 16th century. I couldn’t have cared less if it was historically accurate. It had sieges, hundreds of extras, combat, and cavalry. Even before I got to the cinema, I was already over-excited at the prospect. For me at the time the plot was secondary to the action, and there was plenty of that.
In the late 1500s, the Turks were threatening Europe; and as far as this book and film was concerned, the empire of mighty Poland, one of the biggest players on the European stage at the time. Poland had the benefit of an alliance with the Russian Cossacks; a fierce and warlike group of men who owed allegiance to their clan leaders, as well as to Poland. But the Cossacks were also devout Christians, and feared the expansion of the Muslim Turks. So, they were happy to fight as mercenaries for the Polish empire, and answered the call to defeat the Turkish invasion.
Once they had helped the Poles defeat the Turkish army, they were betrayed. Fired upon by their Polish allies, who feared the power of the Cossacks, the tribes were scattered back to their traditional nomadic lifestyle. Living under Polish rule, Taras Bulba (Yul Brynner) decides to send his two sons to be educated by the Poles in Kiev. They are cruelly treated there, but one of them, Andriy, (Tony Curtis) falls in love with the local Polish Princess. (Kaufmann)
Meanwhile, the Poles call the Cossack army to assemble at Dubno. But Taras suspects them, and besieges the city instead. Inside, Andriy is besotted by his love for the Princess, and agrees to betray his father, by leading the Polish Army in an assault out of the city, against his fellow Cossacks.
With great set-piece battles, authentic locations, and serious performances from the cast, (though Curtis looks like a 1960s pop star) this is an old-school epic of the highest order. Brynner is just right as Taras, Sam Wanamaker is great in a supporting role, and the battles are well staged, with lots of extras. This was 1960s big-screen cinema at its best. Though it will now be showing its age, it is still stirring stuff, and worth your time for a slice of little-known history.
Here’s a great old-fashioned trailer.