There is no doubt that my love of all things bizarre, unusual, and other-worldly was influenced to some degree by viewing at an early age Forbidden Planet, This Island Earth, The Wolf Man, I Married a Witch, The Wizard of Oz and Walt Disney animated films such as Pinocchio and Fantasia. But Hollywood films weren’t the only ones to fire my imagination and, thanks to some adventurous distributors in the fifties and sixties, I was exposed to a number of offbeat international features that were circulated in English-dubbed versions for kiddie matinees. Some were completely re-edited for American audiences but still cast a strange spell, regardless of their quality.
Among these were Rene Cardona’s Santa Claus from Mexico (1959, released in the U.S. in 1960), Pietro Francisci’s Le Fatiche di Ercole from Italy (1958, released in the U.S. in 1959 as Hercules), Karel Zeman’s Vynalez zkazy from Czechslovakia (1958, released in the U.S. in 1961 as The Fabulous World of Jules Verne), Ishiro Honda’s Sora no daikaiju from Japan (1956, released in the U.S. in 1957 as Rodan) and the amazing Ilya Muromets from Russia, directed by the great Aleksandr Ptushko (1956, released in the U.S. in 1960 as The Sword and the Dragon). According to some sources, The Sword and the Dragon was later re-released in 1964 and in some markets it was distributed as The Epic Hero and the Beast or as The Executioners. The version I saw was promoted as a Valiant Release produced by Joseph Harris and Sig Shore (of Superfly fame). But I have seen references to Roger Corman releasing an English dubbed version through Filmways, Inc. I have yet to see conclusive evidence of this but perhaps the fact that Filmways released Ptushko’s Sadko as The Magic Voyage of Sinbad in 1926 and American International released Ptushko’s Sampo in 1964 as The Day the Earth Froze accounts for this rumor.
I first saw The Sword and the Dragon at the Capitol Theater across from the train station on Broad Street in Richmond, Virginia. It quickly became one of my favorite theatres because of the fare: William Castle’s Zotz!, Mothra, Ski Party, Go! Go! Mania! (aka Pop Gear), Hercules and the Captive Women, House of Usher and The Horror of Party Beach…plus they sometimes showed trailers to coming attractions that weren’t really appropriate for kiddie matinees such as White Slave Ship. From the moment The Sword and the Dragon begin to flicker on the big screen I knew I wasn’t in Richmond anymore…or anywhere familiar. This was uncharted territory. I was swept away to a strange place and time. The characters might have been speaking in English but their behavior, their dress and the events that unfolded before my eyes were unlike anything I had ever seen before. Certain images still stand out after all these years, some magical, some disturbing such as
The wind demon capable of hurricane-like gales
Vasilisa, Ilya’s fiancée, weaving a magic tablecloth with help from a chorus of birds, squirrels, hedgehogs and rabbits
The human mountain formed by the forces of the barbarian warrior Kalin so he can ride his stallion to the top for a strategic viewpoint
An endless battlefield littered with the corpses of dead soldiers
The flying, triple-headed fire-breathing dragon (a possible inspiration for Ishiro Honda’s Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster?) The relentless destruction of wheat fields and sailing ships by the dragon’s flaming breath
And the giant crossbow arrow that pierces the serpent’s wing.
Based on a popular Russian legend, Ilya Muromets was immortalized in a famous 1898 painting by Viktor Vasnetsov that positioned him between two other mythic figures from Russian folklore, Dobrynya Nikitich and Alyosha Popovich (who appear as supporting characters in The Sword and the Dragon). According to various sources, Ilya Muromets was the only fictional hero canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church. According to Aleksandr Ptushko in an article on the making of the film (translated by Alan Upchurch and published in Video Watchdog No. 9/Jan. Feb. 1992), the reason he was so loved by the Russian people was “because he is a hero who comes from the people. He’s the son of peasants. But this isn’t the only reason he is loved. He embodied the conscience of our people, he was an expression of our best aspirations, hopes and deeds. Ilya is a patriot who loves his country immensely and is devoted to it.” Should America be afraid?
Ptushko’s film version faithfully follows the well-known exploits of this nationalist folk figure – Russia’s own superhero – from his crippling illness as a youth to his miraculous healing and acquired supernatural strength which he uses to help defend the city of Kiev from invading barbarians, identified as Tugars, and led by the demonically evil Kalin. Like a lavishly illustrated book of fairy tales and myths come to life, The Sword and the Dragon features a color palette that varies between intense hues and muted, dreamlike tones, the set design often has a sense of scale and design that approaches the fantastic (DeMille-like crowd scenes, battles scenes that recall Sergei Einstein’s Alexander Nevsky, cavernous banquet halls and throne rooms) and the whole theatrical approach is much closer to opera than cinema.
Of course, The Sword and the Dragon is better known today as one of the unfortunate victims of the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 TV franchise where it was ridiculed in the expected style by comic host Mike Nelson and the Bots in season six (1994-1995) and, as usual, it was represented by a lousy looking English dubbed print. I admit to laughing at some of the MST 3000 presentations (The Pod People, Time of the Apes) but the novelty can wear off pretty quickly and some so-called bad movies like Village of the Giants and Kitten With a Whip are much more entertaining and funny without their wisecrack commentary. As much as I hated to see The Sword and the Dragon being ridiculed on MST 3000 – and they also trashed Ptushko’s The Day the Earth Froze and The Magic Voyage of Sinbad – I realize now that it may have revived some interest in Ptushko’s work among the viewers who were curious enough to search out the originals.
Although I haven’t seen The Sword and the Dragon since 1960, I recently viewed the Ruscico DVD of the original version again which is the recommended way to see it. Not only is it presented in the widescreen format but the language options allow you to hear it in Russian with English subtitles. And I’m happy to say the movie is still remarkable on multiple levels from the how-did-they-do-that special effects to the film’s dark, Brothers Grimm-like approach to good and evil. The violence and cruelty can at times be a little jarring. It certainly was for children in the early sixties. By the way, Dell Comics even published a comic strip version of the movie which I still have somewhere. Most importantly, Ilya Muromets was the first Soviet movie shot in Cinemascope and featured a four-track stereo sound mix. The film also earned a mention in Patrick Robertson’s The New Guinness Book of Movie Records for the number of horses used – 11,000 – and extras (over 106,000) and it’s all up there on the screen. It’s also not a perfect film. The episodic storyline tends to meander at times and Ilya, despite his Hercules-like strength and valor, is too stolid a hero and lacks the dynamic presence of his evil rival Kalin. Even though he is supposed to be in his early thirties when he is first introduced, Ilya looks old enough to be his own grandfather, which was a great source of amusement for MST 3000. Still, there will be some viewers, young and old, who will love being transported to the land of Nightingale the Robber (the wind demon) and Gorynych the Serpent.
When distributors Joseph Harris and Sig Shore bought the U.S. rights to Ilya Muromets, the movie was cut down from 95 to 83 minutes, given its new title, dubbed into English (with Ilya voiced by Marvin Miller and Kalin dubbed by Paul Frees) and the multi-channel soundtrack was lost. Yet, this was the version I saw and it still had a mesmerizing, exotic appeal. I would like to see it again someday to compare it against the original. And I have to say that I feel lucky to have lived at a time when exposure to films such as Ilya Muromets on the big screen – even in its crudely dubbed American version – opened up a window into international fantasy films, something that is simply not happening today in our cineplex world.
Other links of interest: