DirectorAleksandr Ptushko, Risto Orko
Release Date(s)1959 (August 30, 2022)
Studio(s)Suomi-Filmi/Mosfilm (Deaf Crocodile Films/Vinegar Syndrome)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: B
Alexandr 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. He followed that with an equally epic examination of Finnish mythology, Sampo, which was a co-production of Russia’s Mosfilm and Finland’s Suomi-Filmi.
In Finnish folklore, the Sampo was a magical device, forged by the legendary blacksmith Ilmarinen, that could bring wealth and good fortune to anyone who possessed it. The story became the centerpiece for Elias Lonnrot’s epic poem Kalevala in 1835, and that provided the source for Ptushko’s film. The screenplay by Viktor Vitkovich, Grigori Yagdfeld, and Vaino Kaukonen follows the contours of the poem closely, and even quotes from it in the final film. It’s an expansive tale of good vs. evil, with the former represented by the heroic Lemminkainen (Andris Osins), and the latter represented by the nefarious witch Louhi (Anna Orochko). Louhi craves the riches that the Sampo can provide, and when the people of Kalevala resist her, she uses her control of the weather to plunge their world into eternal darkness. Since she’s invulnerable to the instruments of war, the forces of good must find another way. Sampo also stars Urho Somersalmi, Anna Orochko, and Ivan Voronov.
Befitting such a grandly operatic story, Ptushko’s adaptation is driven by a marvelous score from Igor Morozov. His music is a constant presence throughout the film, both in the background and in the foreground as well, but it serves a thematic purpose. The people of Kalevala pass their folklore down from generation to generation through song, and so that’s where they find their true strength. As a result, it’s entirely appropriate that Louhi is finally defeated not by the art of war, but rather by the art of song.
Ptushko’s imagination was virtually limitless, and he brought a remarkable number of visual effects techniques to bear in Sampo, including makeup, miniatures, matte paintings, multiple exposures, and much more. He wasn’t trying to achieve a conventional kind of realism, but instead wanted to visualize folklore using storybook techniques. It’s easy to see the influence that he had on filmmakers like Terry Gilliam, who borrowed many techniques from Ptushko to bring his own fairy tales to life.
Like Ilya Muromets before it, Sampo never appeared in North America in anything even remotely resembling its original form. It was finally released by AIP and Renaissance Films in 1964, shorn of thirty minutes and re-edited, under the improbably deceptive title The Day the Earth Froze. That’s the version that was later riffed by Joel and the bots in the fourth season of Mystery Science Theater 3000. (“Oh cripes, I remember dat day. Girl had to jump start da Chevy dat day.”) Unfortunately, that’s the way that most English language audiences have experienced Ptushko’s work. Yet it’s no exaggeration to say that if you haven’t seen Sampo or Ilya Muromets in their uncut forms, then you haven’t really seen them at all. Thankfully, they’ve both been restored to all of their original glory, and there’s no better way to learn about the delights that Ptushko has to offer.
Cinematographers Gennadi Tsekavyj and Viktor Yakushev shot Sampo on 35 mm film using Sovscope anamorphic lenses, framed at 2.35:1 for its theatrical release. They actually shot four different versions simultaneously: Finnish 2.35:1, Finnish 1.37:1, Russian 2.35:1, and Russian 1.37:1. The Academy aperture versions were backups for theatres that weren’t yet equipped for anamorphic projection, but Sampo was definitely intended to be seen in all of its widescreen glory. This Finnish Sovscope version was restored in 4K at the Finnish National Audiovisual Institute (KAVI), using the original Sovcolor nitrate negative. The results are very similar to the Mosfilm restoration of Ilya Muromets. Opticals such as the opening titles and visual effects composites were derived from dupe elements, so they naturally look a bit softer than the surrounding material, but the rest of the film looks as clear and sharp as the early Sovscope lenses would allow—though the whole film may still look a little soft to contemporary eyes. (It’s possible that some noise reduction may have been applied, but the lenses themselves limited the maximum levels of sharpness.) There are a few cases of Cinemascope “mumps,” with the image appearing horizontally stretched in places, but that’s how the film was photographed. There’s an occasional faint scratch visible in places, so it doesn’t look quite as pristine as Ilya Muromets, but there’s no speckling or other signs of damage. The stylized color design favors muted earth tones in the naturalistic settings, to provide better contrast with the more vivid colors of some of the fantastic elements such as the glowing reds of the forge, or the kaleidoscopic look of the Sampo itself. There are a few scenes that have a somewhat yellowish cast to them, but that appears to be an intentional golden-hued effect. Overall, it’s a beautiful presentation of a remarkable film.
Audio is offered in Finnish 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, with removable English subtitles. Sampo was released with a four-channel magnetic stereo mix on some theatrical prints, and unlike Ilya Muromets, the original magnetic sound elements have survived. KAVI digitized those tapes, cleaned them up, and then created a 5.1 master that maintained the original sound design. Unlike modern mixes, which usually keep the dialogue anchored to the center channel, early widescreen productions used directionalized dialogue, with the voices spread across the screen. Thankfully, that effect has been preserved here. There are also plenty of directionalized sound effects across the front soundstage, although the mono surrounds are rarely used, and they only provide limited reverberations for some of the score. It gives the music a lovely presence, though. The overall fidelity is a bit limited, and there’s not much depth to the low end, but at least there’s some clarity to the treble. There’s a little distortion audible in the vocals for a few of the songs, but everything is otherwise clean and clear. It’s wonderful to have vintage mixes like this as they were originally intended to be heard, and KAVI deserves full credit for resisting the temptation to modernize it in any way.
The Deaf Crocodile Films Blu-ray release of Sampo 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 30-page booklet that contains a reprint of a 1992 Video Watchdog article on Ptushko, written by Alan Upchurch, as well as reproductions of various original publicity materials. There was a 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, all of them in HD:
- Audio Commentary by Stephen R. Bissette
- Theatrical Trailer (3:32)
- Interview with Michael J. Nelson (71:39)
Bissette is a film historian, author, cartoonist, and artist, and he brings the weight of that experience to bear for this commentary track. He feels that Sampo is the equal of any biblical epic from the era, and explains that the influence that it had in other media, such as in Marvel’s Infinity saga. He provides details about the production of the film, and gives some biographical information about the actors, comparing it to the phony biographies created by AIP for its publicity materials. He also sorts out the differences between the original film and the AIP re-cut, noting that among other things, all of the songs were removed. It’s an enthusiastic commentary, and Bissette keeps the momentum going at all times (when he catches himself stumbling on the pronunciation of The Silmarillion, he just keeps soldiering forward). He closes it with the same wish that Ptushko offered in the film: peace and harmony for everyone.
The interview with Michael J. Nelson (of MST3K and RiffTrax fame) was conducted via Zoom by Deaf Crocodile co-founder Dennis Bartok and artist Bob Fingerman. They talk about the genesis of MST3K, the process by which the episodes were written, and how both The Day the Earth Froze and The Sword and the Dragon ended up being riffed on the show. They spend some time discussing the nature of the humor and the references, with Nelson explaining that he never tried to be clever for clever’s sake; the driving principle with all references was that they had to be funny. The writers also tried not to get bogged down by topicality, but it was impossible to avoid it completely. Nelson also covers his experiences with RiffTrax. It’s an amiable chat that never loses sight of the fact that Ilya Muromets and Sampo are great films, regardless of any riffing. (Best moment: Nelson’s story about meeting Lloyd Bridges, which didn’t go very well.)
2022 continues to be a banner year for fans of fantasy cinema. Warner Archive has already released their wondrous restoration of George Pal’s Cinerama classic The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, and now thanks to Deaf Crocodile and Vinegar Syndrome, it’s been joined by two classics from the Russian George Pal, Aleksandr Ptushko. Sampo and Ilya Muromets may not be familiar to western audiences, especially in their original forms, but they’re crying out for re-discovery. If your only exposure to Ptushko has been via MST3K, you’re in for a treat with these Blu-ray editions of two of his greatest films. They get the highest possible recommendation.
- Stephen Bjork