Ilya Muromets (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Stephen Bjork
  • Review Date: Jun 08, 2022
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Ilya Muromets (Blu-ray Review)

Director

Aleksandr Ptushko

Release Date(s)

1956 (June 28, 2022)

Studio(s)

Mosfilm (Deaf Crocodile Films/Vinegar Syndrome)
  • Film/Program Grade: B+
  • Video Grade: B+
  • Audio Grade: B-
  • Extras Grade: B-

Ilya Muromets (Blu-ray)

Buy it Here!

Review

Alexander Ptushko is a name that may not be familiar to western fans of fantasy filmmaking, but he’s one of the unsung heroes of the genre. While there have been other noteworthy Russian fantasy filmmakers, if anyone deserves to be called the Russian George Pal, it’s Ptushko. Like Pal, Ptushko started by creating stop-motion short subjects, and then graduated into making feature films. Ptushko blazed many trails in Russian cinema, including directing their first feature-length animated film The New Gulliver (aka Novyy Gulliver) in 1935. He also directed Russia’s first color film with The Stone Flower (aka Kamennyy tsvetok) in 1946. Ten years later, he delved deep into Russian mythology to make their first anamorphic widescreen film in color, Ilya Muromets.

Ilya Muromets was a famous hero in Russian folklore, one of the bogatyrs (knights) in their bylina (epic poetry). The son of peasants, he escaped crippling paralysis to gain superhuman strength and become a knight who defended the land. To bring the story of Muromets to the screen, Ptushko turned to writer Mikhail Kochnev. In their version, Muromets (Boris Andreyev) fights on behalf of Prince Vladimir (Andrei Abrikosov) to repel the Tugar invaders led by Tsar Kalin (Shukur Burkhanov). While the Tugars are a fictional creation, they’re clearly coded as Mongolian in the film, and they do verge on being walking caricatures. On the other hand, everything in Ilya Muromets is larger-than-life, so it’s not surprising that the racial types are painted with an equally broad brush.

Befitting a Cold War-era Soviet film, there’s some strong nationalism on display in Ilya Muromets. The land itself is idealized, even anthropomorphized, and the people are encouraged to unite together against a common enemy. Some of the speeches in the film border on being propagandistic, but it’s worth noting that the nationalism inherent in the Muromets legend long predates the existence of the Soviet Union. The love of Mother Russia as presented in Ilya Muromets is of a far more universal sort, and Ptushko’s interest in the material was too deep to be dismissed as mere propaganda.

Of course, it’s the fantastic elements that were near and dear to Ptushko’s heart. He brought a remarkable number of visual effects techniques to bear in Ilya Muromets, including makeup, miniatures, full-scale animatronics, matte paintings, multiple exposures, and much more. None of it looks particularly realistic, but verisimilitude wasn’t Ptushko’s goal. Instead, the stylized effects techniques suit the dreamlike, fairytale nature of the story. Yet there’s often more than meets the eye in even the seemingly simplest of the effects. For example: when the giant Tugar emissary arrives to meet with Prince Vladimir, the long shots utilize an oversized dummy, puppeteered from within by multiple performers, but the closeups feature a man in makeup, shot from low angles in forced perspective. Again, none of it looks realistic, but most people probably wouldn’t ever notice that different techniques were used to create the same character.

And then, there’s the dragon. Ilya Muromets concludes with a suitably epic battle in which the Russian forces repel the Tugar invaders once and for all. When the conflict doesn’t go Tsar Kalin’s way, he unleashes the mighty three-headed dragon Zmey Gorynych, forcing Muromets, his son Sokolnichek, and the rest of the Russian bogatyrs to defeat this fearsome beast. Ptushko combined miniature work with a huge full-sized mockup for his actors and stuntpeople to interact with—when they get up close to Gorynych as he spouts great jets of flames past them, it’s an impressive sight. Is it realistic? Of course not, but it’s spectacular nonetheless. It’s no accident that when Valiant Films released a revised version of Ilya Muromets in the United States, they retitled it The Sword and the Dragon. The character of Muromets would have been meaningless to American audiences, but a fascination with dragons is truly universal. (It’s probably not a coincidence that Toho would introduce a three-headed dragon of their own just a few years later.)

Cinematographers Fyodor Provorov and Yuli Kun shot Ilya Muromets on 35 mm film using Sovscope anamorphic lenses, framed at 2.35:1 for its theatrical release. This 4K restoration of Ilya Muromets was performed by Mosfilm using “the original 35 mm picture and sound elements.” While that carefully worded phrase doesn’t indicate if the original camera negative was the primary source, it’s nevertheless an impressive restoration. The optically printed opening titles look soft, as do the abundant optical effects throughout the rest of the film, but everything else is sharp and nicely detailed. Any damage that was on the film elements has been meticulously cleaned up, so everything looks as pristine as it can. The only real flaws are some Cinemascope “mumps” from the Sovscope lenses, with many shots looking horizontally stretched, but that’s how the film was photographed. The color grade is interesting, and it’s somewhat difficult to describe. Ilya Muromets is a colorful film, with gorgeous costumes and sets, but the overall grade is relatively muted—there’s no exaggerated faux-Technicolor look here. Yet it’s not entirely naturalistic, either. Perhaps the best comparison would be to watercolors, or to Japanese wood block printing. While there’s no way to determine how accurate that this timing is compared to the original theatrical release, it seems appropriate for the storybook nature of the film.

Audio is offered in Russian 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with removable English subtitles. Ilya Muromets was released with a 4-track magnetic stereo mix for some 35mm prints, but it appears that none of them have survived. The only source available to Mosfilm’s restoration team was the original mono optical tracks. As a result, the overall fidelity is somewhat limited, and the lively score by Igor Morozov sounds a little thin. There’s also a touch of excessive sibilance in some of the dialogue, though it’s still clear enough. While it’s a shame that the multichannel magnetic mix no longer exists, this is a satisfactory audio presentation for the film.

The Deaf Crocodile Films Blu-ray release of Ilya Muromets is packaged in a clear amaray case that displays production artwork from the film on the reverse side of the insert, which is visible when the case is opened. It also includes an impressive 28-page booklet that contains a reprint of a 1991 Video Watchdog article on Ptushko, written by Alan Upchurch, as well as an article on the making of the film written by Ptushko himself (translated by Upchurch). There was an embossed slipcover designed by Tony Stella available directly from Vinegar Syndrome, but that was limited to 2,000 units, and it’s already sold out. The following extras are included:

  • Audio Commentary by Stephen R. Bissette
  • Restoration Trailer (HD – 3:27)

Bissette is a film historian, author, cartoonist, and artist, and he brings the weight of that experience to bear for this commentary track. He brings western viewers up to speed on the special place that Ilya Muromets has in the history of Russian folklore, as well as the character’s impact on Russian popular culture. (Muromets is the only epic hero to be canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church.) Bissette describes variations of the tale, and how they relate to the story as presented in Ptushko’s film. That means that he occasionally falls into describing the action as it happens, but in this case, it’s to compare it to what happens in other versions. Bissette also talks about the production and exhibition of the film, including biographical information about the key players, and details about how The Sword and the Dragon was exhibited stateside.

2022 continues to be a banner year for physical media releases. The comparison between Ptushko and George Pal is entirely apt, as Warner Archive just released a wondrous restoration of Pal’s Cinerama classic The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, and now Deaf Crocodile Films and Vinegar Syndrome have responded with this lovely restoration of Ptushko’s Ilya Muromets. It’s a great year to be a fan of epic fantasy films.

- Stephen Bjork

(You can follow Stephen on social media at these links: Twitter and Facebook.)

 

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