Deaf Crocodile Films: Sampo (1959) - Reviewed

Courtesy of Deaf Crocodile Films
Three years after becoming the first Russian filmmaker to shoot in CinemaScope with his lush fantasy epic Ilya Muromets for Mosfilm, Aleksandr Ptushko set his sights on Finland with what would become a most unique continuation of his distinctive and enchanting sense of cinema magic.  

Bringing Soviet production company Mosfilm into collaboration with Finnish company Suomi-Filmi and based upon the 19th century Finnish national epic poem Kalevala (influential on Tolkien for instance), what would become known as Sampo was a loose smattering of key events of the Kalevala text as a broadly appealing widescreen fantasy epic suitable for all audiences.  The end results of Ptushko’s film co-directed by Finnish filmmaker Risto Orko are phantasmagorical if not breathtakingly beautiful beyond words.

In Kalevala in a medieval period, the residents of the village have all of life’s necessities at their fingertips, namely generated by a Sampo or this magical mill that can create grain, salt and gold for anyone who obtains it.  Attracting the unwanted attention of an old witch named Louhi (Anna Orochko) who tries to steal it from Kalevala by kidnapping the wife of blacksmith Ilmarinen (Ivan Voronov).  

Soon the son of Ilmarinen (and film’s hero) Lemminakainen (Andris Oshin) tries to intervene, cheating death and a few deadly obstacles including a viper pit with a red horse, boats of fire, water walkers and a brutal winter followed by the witch Louhi quite actively stealing the sunlight and plunging Earth into permanent darkness.
Spoken of the same breath as Ilya Muromets while being far more kaleidoscopic in the set pieces designed by Aleksandr Makarov (filmed on Mosfilm soundstages) and spectacular camerawork lensed by two cinematographers Gennadi Tsekavyj and Viktor Yakushev, Sampo from top to bottom is a staggeringly beautiful burst of cinematic energy of a most playful kind.  

Expanding the sound field from mono to 4-track magnetic stereo surround this time around, rendered beautifully on the newly 4K restored Blu-ray from Deaf Crocodile Films, Sampo is the kind of film the likes of Mario Bava or Dario Argento would’ve been smitten by.  To call this a work of sheer sensory overload would be putting it mildly.

Performances by the ensemble cast of Finnish-Russian actors across the board are solid with Ivan Voronov’s blacksmith reminding viewers of the hero of Ptushko’s last movie, though let it be said the real star of this show is the director himself.  So confident and assured in his vision, you know from the opening credits and song playing over widescreen vistas of Finnish landscapes that you’re in the hands of a master gleefully hurling gallons of multicolored paints across his panoramic canvas.  

Even without the sound on, Ptushko’s such a visual filmmaker whose works are so fun to look at it is dazzling to behold firsthand.  Few directors of Russian, Finnish, Italian, or any descent of the world made gargantuan special-effects that looked anything remotely like Ptushko’s filmic pop-up storybooks.

Tragically, as with Ilya Muromets, the film was savaged in the editing room upon international release when picked up by AIP and redubbed over in English now with the tacky title The Day the Earth Froze, replete with a fake press kit of “American” actors and their resumes taking the places of the Finnish-Russian cast.  

Thankfully now, with Mosfilm and Suomi-Filmi remastering and revitalizing their libraries of films compounded by renewed interest in the art of Aleksandr Ptushko who is easily one of the world’s greatest filmmakers who ever lived of any nationality, audiences today can witness the grandmaster of Russian fantasy films flexing his creative muscles before swinging hard at unquestionably yet another cinematic home run!

--Andrew Kotwicki