Sadko (1952)

Sadko

Aleksandr Ptushko’s Russian fairy tale spectacular Sadko (1952), recipient of the Silver Lion for Best Director at the Venice International Film Festival, has a purity of purpose, a grand vision, and a childlike innocence – this is the sort of film where someone might burst into song, without the film ever qualifying as a musical. It is, in fact, very much like a Walt Disney animated fairy tale, which is one of the reasons why Ptushko was considered the Russian Walt Disney. It reached America in a somewhat abbreviated and badly dubbed form as The Magic Voyage of Sinbad in 1962, ten years after its production, and this is its best known incarnation in the U.S. to this day, thanks to its inclusion in the classic years of Mystery Science Theater 3000. As MST3K points out repeatedly, the hero of the film can’t possibly be Sinbad (anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of international cultures ought to be able to figure that out by the set design and costumes; and “Sinbad” would be quite overdressed for Baghdad). The title was chosen as a cash-in on The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), and there was a greater chance of box office success if claiming to be an Arabian Nights fantasy, as opposed to an import from the USSR (the film was distributed in the U.S. the same year as the Cuban Missile Crisis). But if audiences were duped, at least they were duped into watching a good film – albeit one buried under confusing references to the Arabian Nights. Ptushko’s film was a major accomplishment in Russian cinema, and it toured the world for years before reaching the States. Many of the scenes involve teeming extras, crowded so thickly that you can’t see the ground; and, typical for animator Ptushko’s live action fantasies, hardly a moment goes by without some kind of special effect. Sure, there’s no Harryhausen-style stop motion animation, but Ptushko, as usual, blends many different effects, from one shot to the next or overlapping in the same scene: an effective way to fool the eye. Even when you catch the trickery – for example, a model miniature of our hero, replete with fluttering cape, playing his instrument on a storm-tossed miniature raft – it’s hard not to admire the amount of detail and effort that went into it.

Sadko (Sergei Stolyarov) finds the gold-finned fish with the aid of a princess of the sea.

Sadko (Sergei Stolyarov) finds the gold-finned fish with the aid of a princess of the sea.

The hero’s name is actually Sadko, and he derives from Russian oral narrative, a “bylina,” or epic poem. The setting is not Baghdad, but Novgorod, a metropolis on Lake Ilmen and the Volkhov River in the northwestern and Scandinavian-influenced corner of Kievan Rus’, the Russia before the Tsars. Novgorod was a city of minstrels and merchants, and Sadko was both. In the story, he is an Orpheus figure, playing his maple gusli (a Russian harp) to magical effect. He travels to an undersea kingdom where he’s offered the hand of one of the three hundred daughters of the King of the Sea, but rejects them all for the love of a servant girl. Nonetheless, he rises from poverty to become the wealthiest merchant in Novgorod thanks to the wealth acquired from the sea kingdom, and he builds a great cathedral in the city. The bylina ends, “Sadko no longer traveled to the blue sea; Sadko started living his life in Novgorod.” Rimsky-Korsakov adapted the bylina into an opera called Sadko in 1898, and it is this work upon which Ptushko’s Sadko is principally based. To fill out the film’s 85 minutes, he expands the plot to include a quest for the Bird of Happiness. Sergei Stolyarov plays Sadko, looking very much the Errol Flynn and introduced singing “Farewell, farewell, O Volga River,” as he travels to Novgorod. In the city he finds a man so poor that he sells himself into slavery. The streets are filled with misery, but in a great hall, the wealthiest merchants boast of their riches. Sadko suggests that the merchants gather ships and travel the world to bring glory to the city, but his suggestion is flatly rejected. In anger he declares that he will strip them of their wealth: “I’ll carpet the streets with your silks! I’ll dress the poor in your brocades!” At night he plays his gusli, wondering how he’s going to gather ships; the enchantment of his playing catches the attention of Vasya (Ninel Myshkova), daughter of the King of the Sea. Falling in love with him, she says that if he fishes the next day, she will guide his net to the rare gold-finned fish. With this promise made, Sadko announces to the downtrodden citizens that he will catch gold-finned fish to bring glory to Novgorod. After this miraculous accomplishment is achieved, Princess Vasya transforms the last of his fish into a stack of gold coins, which he uses to purchase a fleet of ships. He embarks with a crew, including the wily Trifon (Mikhail Troyanovsky), the apprentice minstrel Ivashka (B. Surovtsev), and Hercules-like strongman Vyshata (Nadir Malishevsky), to find the Bird of Happiness and return it to the city. (This legend bears a strong similarity to the Greek myth of Jason and the Argonauts.) Meanwhile, his one true love, the humble Lyubava (Alla Larionova), looks out toward the sea month after month, awaiting their reunion.

The Maharaja, riding an elephant, and his great entourage in India.

The Maharaja, riding an elephant, and his great entourage in India.

If you watch Sadko in the innocent frame of mind that is necessary for Russian fairy tale films – which were a major genre in Soviet cinema – you’ll find a satisfying, sometimes delightful fable told with a surprising amount of splendor. If there’s a key flaw, it’s that the film is mostly set-up, with the adventure itself being a little too brief. Sadko and his crew make only two stops on their voyage for the Bird of Happiness. First they visit a land of Norsemen, and engage in a battle on the steep crags overlooking the sea. Ptushko shows us black cliffs with Vikings clinging to the sides of rocks like spiky-headed sea anemone. At one point, Sadko becomes cornered at the edge of a cliff, and boy minstrel Ivashka tosses him his sword from across the expanse; then Sadko begins cutting his way back down through the Norsemen. The scene looks like an N.C. Wyeth illustration. But the film’s centerpiece moment of spectacle comes when Sadko anchors in an Indian port. The Indian city has vast, ancient architecture, and hundreds of extras crowd the streets. A procession emerges from the palace gates, the Maharaja riding in a palanquin atop an elephant. Sadko learns that the Maharaja keeps a phoenix, which might be the Bird of Happiness, so he offers the prince a trade: his magic horse for the phoenix. Unwilling to give up his prized possession so easily, the Maharaja challenges him instead to a game of chess. When Sadko wins, he is allowed access to a secret chamber in the palace, high up a winding stair. The phoenix sits on her perch; she has the head of a woman. She sings the men to sleep, which Ptushko depicts using rear projection to toss and turn the background. Only Sadko’s magic gusli can stop her spell, and he carries her out of the city; when he’s threatened by the prince’s army, he has the phoenix sing them to sleep, and the hundreds of extras – and an elephant! – collapse at once. I would argue that this entire passage ranks among the most beautifully realized fantasy setpieces of the 1950’s. The phoenix itself is a stunner, convincingly realized, gorgeously photographed.

The Phoenix (Lidiya Vertinskaya).

The Phoenix (Lidiya Vertinskaya).

Realizing that the somewhat sinister phoenix (when he tries to touch it, it hisses at him) can’t possibly be the Bird of Happiness, Sadko travels on – but by the time they reach Egypt, he and his crewmates are too weary to continue. They turn back toward Novgorod, but on the way, the King of the Sea, angry that they haven’t paid proper tribute, strikes at them with a tempest. Sadko travels beneath the waters to visit the King and Queen directly. Here, Ptushko’s special effects show their limitations; the royal court looks like it’s been decorated for an undersea-themed high school prom, and the octopus hanging overhead like a twitching chandelier, its glowing eyes blinking in and out, makes one wonder if this is what the “borrowed” octopus in Bride of the Monster would have looked like if Ed Wood had remembered to steal its motor. If the tableau is reminiscent of the “Under the Sea” number in The Little Mermaid, it only serves as a reminder of why some ideas are best left to animation. Sadko is assisted in his escape by Princess Vasya, who gives him a seahorse that he rides out of the Sea King’s domain. Here it’s easy to see why the Americanized, “Sinbad” dub of the film became an MST3K favorite. In The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Amazing Colossal Episode Guide, Kevin Murphy (Tom Servo) describes the film as being “in some places unbelievably well shot and beautiful, as with the scenes in India; in others, such as the underwater musical number with Neptune, you could shoot whole popcorn kernels out your nose laughing.” This can be a very silly movie. But watch the film without the silhouettes on the bottom of the screen and take off your irony hat, and the film’s storybook qualities shine through. By the time Sadko returns to Novgorod without his Bird of Happiness and declares, “There is nothing fairer than our native home. Here is happiness!”, you might discover the appeal of Ptushko’s pure-hearted imagination.

Sadko poster

 

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Sampo (1959)

Sampo

Longtime readers of this website (are there such things?) may recall that I have reviewed several Soviet-made fairy tale films in the past. Well, hoist your shields, lift your swords to the air, and invoke the firebird, because we’re about to dive into a whole new batch. To start off we’re going to look at some Russian (Mosfilm) and Russian-Finnish (Mosfilm/Suomi-Filmi) productions made famous stateside by their inclusion in Mystery Science Theater 3000 – appropriate, I think, to welcome the return of the cult TV show as new episodes will soon be airing on Netflix, produced by series creator Joel Hodgson. Remember Joel intoning the word “Sampo” with awe on the mid-90’s episode The Day the Earth Froze? In fact Sampo is the original title of the 1959 film, before it was dubbed and re-edited to silly mush, the version that Joel and the Bots riffed. “TV’s Frank” Conniff reflected in his 2016 book Twenty Five Mystery Science Theater 3000 Films That Changed My Life in No Way Whatsoever: “I kind of love this movie…There’s a lot of weird, goofy, surrealistic stuff in The Day the Earth Froze that might have appealed to me had I happened upon it in the middle of the night while stoned out of my mind…I was still struck by this film’s somber, hallucinatory charm. It might have even been too good for MST3K, but that could just be all the pot I smoked in the 1970’s talking.” Actually, it’s impressive how much of the unique quality of Sampo holds up even when silhouettes at the bottom of the screen are poking fun at it nonstop (and wondering endlessly what a “Sampo” is). In 2013 the film underwent a 4K restoration, and it was subsequently released on a Finnish DVD. The difference is striking. With its rich colors, compositions that bring to mind Maxfield Parrish and Frank Frazetta, and, yes, “somber, hallucinatory charm,” it becomes obvious that the film is altogether remarkable.

Lemminkäinen (Andris Ošiņš) plows a field of vipers with the aid of the blacksmith Ilmarinen (Ivan Voronov) and his horse forged in fire.

Lemminkäinen (Andris Ošiņš) plows a field of vipers with the aid of the blacksmith Ilmarinen (Ivan Voronov) and his horse forged in fire.

The film was directed by Aleksandr Ptushko, a Soviet Walt Disney who started in animation and came to specialize in elaborate, special effects-driven fantasy spectacles. Among his ambitious films are The New Gulliver (1935), Sadko (1952, absurdly rebranded in America as The Magic Voyage of Sinbad), Ilya Muromets (1956, which became The Sword and the Dragon), The Tale of Tsar Saltan (1967), and my personal favorite, the visually stunning Pushkin adaptation Ruslan and Ludmila (1972); Ptushko also contributed to the chilling horror fable Viy (1967). Really, it’s a compliment to the director that some of his films found there way to the U.S. at all, given that, by the time they reached our shores, it was the height of the Cold War. Not that the distributor, Roger and Gene Corman’s Filmgroup (calling this “A Renaissance Films Release”), played up the Russian connection. The press materials emphasized its Finnish roots without mentioning the Soviet Union at all, and many names were Americanized: lead actor Andris Ošiņš was now “Jon Powers,” and Ptushko became the mysterious “Gregg Sebelious.” Still, it’s easy to see why the Cormans decided to acquire the film. Sampo has much higher production values than anything to come out of the Corman factory: it has a cast of hundreds, ingenious special effects, and even some first-class log-riding.

Lemminkäinen's mother (Ada Vojtsik) mourns his drowning.

Lemminkäinen’s mother (Ada Vojtsik) mourns his drowning.

So what is a Sampo? It’s a machine of sorts, a mill which must be magically forged and assembled with “the lid in many colors” before it begins spontaneously generating gold coins, salt, and grain (your basic necessities, really). It’s also the central MacGuffin of the epic poem Kalevala as retold by 19th century philologist Elias Lönnrot, a compiler of oral storytelling. At the start of the film, we’re treated to a neat little sequence: a statue depicts Lönnrot standing beside an ancient Finnish storyteller; then the two figures come to life, the old man plucking the strings of his kantele and singing the tale of Kalevala, while Lönnrot begins to transcribe. Our blond-tressed hero, Lemminkäinen (Ošiņš), learns that his lover, Annikki (Eve Kivi, Ruslan and Ludmila), has been abducted by the witch Louhi (Anna Orochko). Louhi accomplishes this with a handy trick: she throws her magical black cloak through the air, where it sails over the sea and attaches itself to Annikki’s raft to become a sail, bearing the woman away to Louhi’s desolate, rocky land in the far north. Because Annikki is the sister of the magical blacksmith Ilmarinen (Ivan Vornov), Louhi hopes to use her as a bargaining chip for Ilmarinen to forge the “lid in many colors” and thus the Sampo. The blacksmith, who travels to Louhi’s domain with Lemminkäinen, agrees to the exchange, but with Annikki safely returned, Lemminkäinen swims back to destroy the Sampo. Louhi makes a venomous snake bite the hero, and he is cast by her minions into the sea. Lemminkäinen’s distraught mother (Ada Vojtsik) crosses the sea on foot to recover his body. She restores him to life with the sap of a talking birch tree. (In this passage, she also consults with the sun and a mountain, which rises up to reveal itself as a gray woman.)

A living mountain speaks.

A living mountain speaks.

Further adventures result in the destruction of the Sampo and the wedding of Lemminkäinen and Annikki, but just when the story seems to be resolved, a vengeful Louhi locks the Sun deep inside a mountain and unleashes bitter, endless winter. (Thus, The Day the Earth Froze.) Although the blacksmith suggests that he forge a new sun – because sure, why not? – village elder Väinämöinen (Urho Somersalmi) suggests that instead he forge strings for magical kantele instruments, and that everyone march across the frozen sea and confront the witch with their music. By doing this, they are able to free the Sun, and Lemminkäinen cuts Louhi in two with his sword. Note that throughout this film, every few minutes Ptushko throws another special effect at you, some more subtle than others. Flowers bloom whenever Lemminkäinen and Annikki show their love (to the annoyance of Louhi’s henchmen, who stamp on them). To satisfy Louhi’s demands, Lemminkäinen plows a field full of serpents. In close-ups, Ptushko shows real snakes draped on rocks; for the long shots, he has giant snakes, operated like puppets, lunging at our hero while he drives forth the magical iron horse, glowing red from the fires of its enchanted forge. Reverse photography is used to achieve impossible effects, and optical mattes broaden the scale of Louhi’s island into the far horizon. At one point Ptushko, satisfying the Disney comparisons, sends a bird to alight on Annikki’s hand while she sings.

Annikki (Eve Kivi) discovers the weather chained up in Louhi's mountain.

Annikki (Eve Kivi) discovers the weather chained up in Louhi’s mountain.

The 2014 DVD, which contains the Finnish dub with optional English subtitles, provides reproductions of the Cormans’ ad campaign and pressbook for The Day the Earth Froze (released in the U.S. five years after its debut in the Soviet Union and Finland). They’re priceless. Here’s a sample of the pressbook’s suggestions to theaters to help promote the movie:

Popcorn machine to be decorated as a magic mill “Sampo.” Popcorn will be given free to those who bring “Magic Coin.” Magic coins will be distributed by a rider on a motorcycle dressed as one of the characters from the film “The Day the Earth Froze.” … Contest: Everyone who submits five names of the characters from “The Day the Earth Froze” will be eligible to receive a prize.

You mean some poor kids were expected to name five characters from the film? Even the publicity materials only name four, and let’s not forget the hero, as played by “Jon Powers,” is named Lemminkäinen. It was also recommended that The Day the Earth Froze balloons be distributed to patrons. I highly doubt any theater manager took up these optimistic suggestions. (If William Castle were involved and not Roger Corman, it would be a different story.) I wonder what unsuspecting filmgoers thought when they wandered into a matinee? Was anyone leaving a screening in 1964 chanting like the characters gathered round the forge? “Sampo, Sampo, Sampo…”

Sampo

 

 

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