Deaf Crocodile Films: Ilya Muromets (1956) - Reviewed

Courtesy of Deaf Crocodile Films
Vinegar Syndrome and partner label Deaf Crocodile Films have made it their mission to unearth obscure (in the United States) French, Romanian and Russian films dabbling in science-fiction fantasy in lavish new special editions that finally allow western audiences to see them as their makers originally intended.  

Between their releases of Delta Space Mission and The Unknown Man of Shandigor in both limited deluxe blu-ray disc as well as 4K digital releases, Deaf Crocodile with its official third release presents distinguished Russian director Aleksandr Ptushko’s 1956 CinemaScope fantasy epic classic Ilya Muromets. 
The first Russian film shot in the then-revolutionary widescreen film format yielding breathtaking results, this mammoth visual-effects heavy costumed period fantasy based on the bylina or Old Russian oral epic poem about the bogatyr Ilya Muromets of Kievan Rus is at once a sweeping widescreen phantasmagoria, an answer to western Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals and at times downright childlike in playfulness.  

Starring Boris Andreyev as Ilya, a man whose wife is kidnapped by Tugars during a brutal invasion that threatens his homeland and turns his own son against him, the film is a grandiose fantasy war epic replete with a flying three-headed dragon, a creature that can blow hurricane winds and a powerful lone heroic figure at its epicenter.  
Predating modern Russia and Ukraine with a majority of the film’s action taking place in Kyiv, Ptushko’s gargantuan cinematic undertaking boasts thousands of extras including a striking image of a pile of gold being guarded by a mountain of bodies piled on top of it and from top to bottom is a dazzling feast for the senses.  

Shifting freely between adult fantasy epic with touches of the musical to the horror film, the war movie and heroic journey story, Ilya Muromets is something of an action adventurous smorgasbord that skirts between Walt Disney, Robert Wise and Byron Haskin while being through and through a Russian picture.  Mostly though it is a big playful dose of escapism that's startling relatable despite some of the dialogue being a little dated.
The ensemble cast is great with Andreyev giving Ilya a mightiness as well as gentle giant tenderness while invading Asian Tugars led by the evil Tsar Kalin (Shukur Burkhanov) exudes a reptilian quality, exacerbated by the film’s wild costume design.  Still, this Mosfilm superproduction’s real star is the film’s director who lavishes such intense visual command over the imagery you feel as if you’re being guided by the invisible hand of the realisateur.  

Though shot in 35mm, the footage when rescanned in 4K looks incredible, shot ornately by two cinematographers Yuli Kun and Fedor Provorov.  So beautiful from top to bottom is this picture it rivals some of the grandest and most expensive Hollywood fantasy epics of the 1950s.  One of those movies where the depths to which the camera can see far armies and mountains off in the distance is staggering to see unfold onscreen.
Sadly for years, American audiences were only familiar with a heavily truncated and English dubbed version overseen by Roger Corman, retitled The Sword and the Dragon featuring narration from eventual 60 Minutes reporter Mike Wallace and dubbing from voice actor Paul Frees.  At one point the film even appeared on Mystery Science Theater 3000, further tarnishing the film’s legacy and overshadowing its virtues. 

Thankfully now, decades later, that has been changed in the best way possible.  Officially releasing on blu-ray and 4K digital tomorrow, Ilya Muromets irrespective of language or country of origin is a sumptuous widescreen fantasy with dazzling images and arresting cinematography cementing Aleksandr Ptushko as one of the greatest fantasy filmmakers who ever lived, period!

--Andrew Kotwicki