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Bortko’s Taras Bulba: A Clash of Visions

Bortko’s Taras Bulba: A Clash of Visions

by Binoy Kampmark

Nikolai Gogol’s Taras Bulba, a bloody story of a Zaporozhian Cossack, has received much attention over the years. A continual sticking point lies in which version the reader chances upon. Two are in circulation – the earlier 1835 piece and another, much longer version from 1842 heavily egged with pro-Russian imperial tendencies. On the latter, the Russian literary critic Vissarion Belinsky would describe as ‘that marvelous epos… that huge portrait in a small frame, worthy of Homer.’

In 1962, J. Lee Thompson furnished an interpretation for Western audiences in taking Gogol and Taras Bulba to Hollywood. Yul Brynner and Tony Curtis fronted the main roles. Three other adaptations exist in addition to this, including Aleksandr Drankov’s 1909 silent film version.

The 1842 version captured the imagination of director Vladimir Bortko, who decided to snub Gogol’s earlier manuscript, rich in Ukrainian sympathy and folkloric warmth. For him, there was ‘no separate Ukraine… When two drops of mercury are near each other, they will unite.’ The Russian Ministry of Culture was evidently pleased with the decision, underwriting much of the 500 million rubles needed to cover the project. Given the icy relations between the Ukraine and Russia, the reception since the film’s release last year has formed along predictable lines. The Ukrainian response has savaged Bortko’s interpretation as Russophile gibberish; the Russian response has been almost exuberant, delighted by the nationalist context.

The story itself features Taras Bulba (Bogdan Stupka) engaging in warrior exploits alongside his sons, Adriy (Igor Petrenko) and Ostap. Their enemy is the Rzeczpospolita, a Polish-Lithuanian combine of stated viciousness. Adriy tends to be more voluptuary than patriot, and proceeds to fall for the striking Polish princess (Magdalena Mielcarz), daughter of Dubno’s governor. In epic tales of masculine valor, the appearance of a woman can only mean one thing: the ample spilling of blood.

There is an element of exotic stage drag in the film, an almost anachronistic awkwardness about the adaptation. Costumes are extravagant. There is much patriotic hamming. The Poles are portrayed as grim savages with particularly fine clothing. Then again, Gogol was describing a particularly brutal world in which rival faiths and polities sought, not to seek an accord with each other, but to subjugate and exterminate.

Off the screen, the battles have been no less intense. Culture is a currency that, if not kept in circulation, retreats. This is the fear of such bodies as the Ukrainian Stepan Bandera Centre for National Revival. On the film’s release, the organization busied itself with sending an open letter to the Ukraine Minister of Culture Vasyl Vovkun. It chided the ministry for not being diligent about its cultural responsibilities in producing ‘domestic cultural product’ (Zik, Apr 24). ‘The highly questionable interpretation of the Ukrainian history by the film producer who based his film on the Russia-censored novel and openly pro-Russian affiliation of the film’s characters have turned the original novel describing the historic struggle of Ukrainian Cossacks for liberation into yet another manifestation of Russia’s imperial assertions.’

So, we are talking about clashing loyalties to the text. Bortko shows a certain high fidelity to the later impression, and he can’t be castigated for that. In truth he shows loyalty to the point of perversion. (There is no room for variations in accent – the Ukrainians speak Russian through and through, unencumbered by nuance.) There is a boorish sequence of salutes to the Russian motherland as the heroes near death. At stages Taras Bulba becomes a clownish, ideological mouthpiece. The war scenes are no nonsense affairs of unadulterated brutality, and the stage setting is commendably rich for those who like a good old slaughter and a heavy dose of villainy.

This is true agitprop and Ukrainians looking at it have had good reason to be peeved. Yet many will feel comfortable with calls for a pan-Slavic unity. This remains a film that can stand on its own in the style Bortko has attained over the years.

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Binoy Kampmark was as Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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