Russian cinema isn’t a well that most people in North America have dipped too deeply into, which is a shame given how rich and interesting it can be. Depending on how far back you’re willing to look, you can find stuff like a wonderful Soviet-era horror film called Viy, Timur Bekmambetov’s gritty urban fantasy Night Watch, or Russia’s recent home-grown superhero flick Guardians. Of particular note for those looking to get their feet wet with Russian cinema is the work of Aleksandr Ptushko, a filmmaker who was active from the late 1920s until the 1970s.
Ptushko began his career in film at Moscow’s Mosfilm studio, where he initially worked as a puppet maker on stop-motion animated shorts. He quickly graduated to directing his own shorts, ones which often combined stop-motion puppetry, live-action, and other techniques in new and cunning ways. It was here that he made a name for himself, and after World War II the young filmmaker moved on to live-action films, starting with a cycle of films based on Russian and Eastern European folklore. These movies are perhaps best known in North America thanks to stateside re-releases courtesy of Roger Corman, who re-edited and dubbed a number of them, versions that also later found themselves as featured movies on Mystery Science Theatre 3000. The original, un-edited versions can thankfully be found with relative ease these days, and we’ll be looking at three of them: 1953’s Sadko, 1956’s Ilya Muromets, and 1959’s Sampo.
While certainly of their time in terms of production values, Ptushko’s fantasy films are beautiful things to behold. They are all quite strongly influenced by Russian fantasy and Romantic art from the late 1800s and early 1900s, especially the works of painters like Ivan Bilibin, Viktor Vanestov, and especially Alfons Mucha’s The Slav Epic cycle. There is a strong trend of compositions in his work that emphasize perspective and landscape, to such an extent that you could call epic Russian and Finnish vistas the star of Ptushko’s films. Characters will often be set against coastlines receding into the distance, fog-draped mountain peaks, and seemingly endless fields and forests. The Sovcolor process, which was used to in color films in the USSR at the time, also lends the films a color palette distinctly reminiscent of classical artwork, simultaneously washed-out and vibrant.
There are compositions in these films that outstrip many contemporary films in terms of sheer beauty, and when combined with the filmmaker’s flair for special effects, the results are quite dazzling. Aleksandr Ptushko is often cited as a contemporary to Willis O’Brien or Ray Harryhausen, and his flair for combining effects certainly matches their western efforts. Ptushko made frequent use of optical effects, such as compositing and rotoscoping with effects like matte painting, which again contributed to the extremely painterly visual style of his work. The sets and costumes were also spared no detail, and were often extremely large and elaborate. Ptushko’s films are visual feasts, alive with light and color, with breathtaking imagery and effects that somehow still dazzle despite their age. There’s imagination on display that’s often hard to find, and an eye for composition that keeps the visuals consistently striking.
But for everything these films have in common, they’re also rather varied in terms of subject matter and tone. Ilya Muromets tells the story of one of the most famous of the Bogatyrs, a recurring character type that North Americans would most readily understand as a kind of knight-errant. A youth cured of paralysis by the stirring song of a minstrel, Muromets is a kind of Herculean figure, a warrior of incredible strength who led the forces of Kiev against the Tugars, a kind of subset of the Mongols. Sadko, meanwhile, features a skilled bard who leads a troupe of adventurers on a quest to find the mythical “bird of happiness.” While Muromets is very much a rough and tumble fighting man, Sadko is more of a romantic figure, one capable of wooing god and man alike with beautiful songs.
Sampo, which is based on one of the Finnish folktales that Tolkein used as inspiration for The Lord of the Rings, almost has no central hero or figure. While Ilya Muromets and Sadko are both anchored by charismatic leads, Sadko feels more decentralized, with action split between a small cast of leads. The focus of the movie is an object rather than a figure, in this case a mystical object that brings prosperity and wealth to its owner. The heroes range from a young warrior, a smith, the warrior’s mother, to an older man, all of whom take part in helping to move the film forward. This variety helps each of the trio of films feel distinctive; Ilya Muromets has the feel of an epic song or poem, Sadko a romantic ballad, and Sampo a fairy-tale.
To someone used to folklore and stories with a fairy tale-like quality, there’s quite a bit of familiar territory being trod. Noble heroes (either of the strong or dashing type), evil witches, and scheming royal advisers – you can see a lot of common threads from well-known fables and folktales, with perhaps a fresh dusting of anti-capitalist sentiment. Thanks to Ptushko’s style and the emphatic acting he coaxed out of his casts, however, these films seem to capture something essential about folklore that few other films manage to invoke: an innocence and enthusiasm that feels refreshing amidst the current trend of mythological revisionism. The heroes, while not especially complex, are boldly archetypal in a way that works with the visuals to help the films feel suitably mythic.
For the moment, there has yet to be a revival of interest in Ptushko’s work. There’s been no no critical re-evaluations or fancy Criterion Collection box sets, no midnight screenings of newly unearthed 35mm prints. Perhaps it’s time that changed. Aleksandr Ptushko was a filmmaker of wonderful vision and flair, an artist with an almost uncanny knack for breathtaking visuals and an earnest, classical fairy-tale sensibility. Rather than going out to the latest drab, grey mythological epic-gracing theater screens, perhaps now is the time for you to see what this lesser-known auteur has on offer.