"The Wizard of Oz" meets "The Thief of Bagdad"
Benoit Racine | Toronto, Ontario Canada | 12/02/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This film (the original Russian film) has been completely restored by Mosfilm and is available on DVD in North-America from the Ruscico label, in most major outlets. The film restoration is incredible, the colours are vibrant and not a single frame is missing from the original elements. Furthermore, the Rimsky-Korsakoff musical score has been completly re-constructed and re-recorded in stereo and the sound is in 5.1 Dolby with lots of atmospheric foley surround effects (also redone). It comes with many extras, including two interviews with Stolyarov's son, who is not too kind to Francis Ford Coppola, who took part in the butchering of his father's film for American consumption. I knew there was a masterpiece under all that grime and that bad sound. It just needed a lot of work. It's just too bad the release of the original did not receive one fifth the publicity of the Coppola atrocity ("The Magic Voyage of Sinbad").
I first saw "Sadko" on television in French-speaking Quebec barely four years after it had been honoured at the Venice Film Festival. I was six years old at the time and the film was in French and in black and white. In those days of the Cold War, the French had no compunction about distributing Russian films and translating them into French and Canadian television had no compunction about showing this one to the very impressionable children it was meant to be shown to. This film was Russia's attempt to create a children's colour classic that would be on a par with "The Wizard of Oz" and "The Thief of Bagdad". I think they succeeded admirably even though there is no denying its profound 'russianness'. "Sadko" is based on a Russian fairy-tale that also inspired the opera of the same name by Rimsky-Korsakoff and it incorporates the opera's ballets and melodies in its action. The acting is exemplary of the Romantic operatic tradition somewhat tempered by the more realistic method acting of Stanislavsky. The hero is the very prototype of the rugged yet sensitive and (extremely) handsome peasant-poet who wants to bring happiness to the people of his city despite the active opposition, greed and selfishness of the fat, rich merchant capitalists who run the city of Novgorod. To achieve this, he goes searching for the legendary 'bird of happiness' but only finds, after many adventures, an Indian 'bird of forgetfulness', religion being the opium of the people, as Marx would have commented. He eventually comes to the same conclusion Dorothy comes to, 'There's no place like home'.
The only way Americans have ever seen this film, for decades, is through the emasculated version called "The Magic Voyage of Sinbad" which, for purely exploitative reasons, turned this art film intended as a goodwill gesture for the world's children into a commercial adventure film by robbing it of its context (Sinbad was substituted for Sadko and Arabia for Russia), of its moral (all political speeches were mollified), of its characters (the love story was truncated), of its poetry (through a very bad translation) and of most of its glorious establishing shots. The original runs for 85 minutes and the Russian songs, music and acting (of the restored version) make even the 'octopus's garden' scene palatable for adults. I thought I would have to spend a lifetime retracing this film in order to relive a very precious childhood memory. It took me months just to find out what the film's Russian title was and years to get my hands on two very bad VHS copies of "The Magic Voyage of Sinbad" (the truncated, unrestored version with bad English dubbing) which have been bootlegged from television and which were offered by quite a few American distributors of offbeat cinema. I then made inquiries in the Russian gift shops of my city (Toronto) and eventually found a Mosfilm-approved PAL-to-VHS transfer of the original in Russian only without subtitles. This was no great loss in itself as the images and the music speak for themselves and the Russian speeches have a charm all their own. The strangeness of watching a Russian film without subtitles is also very liable to recreate in the viewer the very sense of wonder which children were supposed to experience when they first see this film. Unfortunately, even this 'official' video version was a poor transfer (although infinitely better than the American bootlegs), especially lacking in definition and solid colour and its hi-fi soundtrack suffers from a continual hiss.
Now both versions are available on DVD (the Copppola atrocity "The Magic Voyage of Sinbad" and the original, restored "Sadko"). The restoration shows that this film can boast great direction, magnificent composition, photography and lighting, elaborate art direction, massive sets, impressive handling of crowd scenes, great costumes, evocative special effects (the bird of forgetfulness is a particularly powerful and memorable image) and a general poetic tone that is its reason for being and the first casualty of its American 'adaptation'. In every respect, this film surpasses in imagination and poetry the best efforts of Powell and Pressburger and is an invaluable addition to the human heritage of folk-inspired fantasy and poetry."
Still a stunning experience
David C. Lewis | Brisbane Australia | 09/20/2005
(4 out of 5 stars)
"I first saw this beautiful film with subititles in 1954 in Melbourne and it has left a trace of enchantment in me ever since. I was sixteen that year. Fifty odd years later it was not quite as I remembered. The costumes and scenes were and remain just stunning, the special effects certainly tolerable and frequently very effective. The Novgorod and Indian scenes exceeded my memories of them. The confrontation with the Varangian Vikings was an umistakeable precursor of The Lord of the Rings. But at the same time everything seemed now a little rushed and the story at times disjointed and inconsistent to the adult mind. I suppose that children would be less worried by this - Sadko is such a boaster and he leads the poor princess of the sea on even as his heart has just been given, rather impulsively, to Lyubova. And just how did the crews survive those dramatic shipwrecks to come home to port? So the adult asks. Well it is a fairy tale and does not pretend to be something else. But I wanted to linger and savour while the action dragged me on. The comic dialogue between the Tsar and Tsarina of the Sea was a fresh discovery that appealed to the adult in me though the English subtitles generally were more often distracting, occasionally quaint, and I think most of the story could be followed without their help at all, the Russian dialogue easily imagined or construed and the magic of the film sustained for the non-Russian speaker [though I do have a little Russian] by the semi-mysterious tongue. Overall I was still delighted and will watch it again and again, testing the Russian language version on both myself and my grandchildren. The Russian Cinema re-issue is clear, the colour perhaps only a little subdued here and there, the whole probably as good a reproduction as can be achieved."
Lyrical Russian fantasy film based on classic tale
Brian Camp | Bronx, NY | 07/30/2005
(3 out of 5 stars)
"SADKO (1952) is a live-action fairy tale film directed by the Soviet Union's preeminent fantasy filmmaker Alexander Ptushko (ILYA MUROMETS, aka SWORD AND THE DRAGON). This one doesn't have much in the way of action, but it is beautifully mounted and lavishly filmed with gorgeous cinematography and great effort taken with the studio sets, location work, costumes, props and special effects miniatures, not to mention the rousing music taken from Rimsky-Korsakov's opera version of the tale.
The story's pretty simple, detailing the efforts of a wandering minstrel, Sadko, to recruit sailors and build ships for a round-the-world mission to find the legendary Bird of Happiness in order to help out the suffering peasants of Novgorod. The mission takes years but we actually only see them go to a Viking coast, India and Egypt (courtesy of rear screen projection of the Sphinx and the pyramids). Not a lot happens on the voyage other than a brief skirmish with Vikings and an encounter with a mystical phoenix (with a female human head) in India. Sadko's biggest adventure actually occurs at the bottom of the sea near the end of the film where he meets the king and queen of the sea and the lovely princess who's helped him out from the start. He rides himself a mean sea horse in this scene. Overall, the film is not quite as grandly entertaining as ILYA MUROMETS and some of Ptushko's other films, but it is a beautiful work and should be seen by fans of non-Hollywood fantasy.
When this film was picked up for distribution in the U.S. in 1962, it was taken by producer Roger Corman (working with a young film student named Francis Ford Coppola), cut by about 13 minutes, dubbed into English, and retitled THE MAGIC VOYAGE OF SINBAD, with its credits changed to hide its Soviet origins. I saw the movie as a child and I could tell there was something odd about it. It wasn't a real Sinbad film like THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958), nor was it a cool Italian spectacle like the Steve Reeves version of THE THIEF OF BAGDAD. Years later I saw SADKO at a revival theater in its original Russian version and when Sadko holds up the gold-finned fish to win his bet with the merchants, my memory was jogged and I silently blurted out, "Holy [BLEEP]. This is MAGIC VOYAGE OF SINBAD!"
The extras on the disc include a half-hour TV special called "The Fairy Tale World of Alexander Ptushko," which intercuts a couple of dull modern-day Russian children into various clips from Ptushko's films. It would have been nice if the DVD had bothered to add identification of the clips for us non-Russians who wouldn't recognize them since we haven't yet seen the other DVDs in this collection just yet. There are also two short interviews with Kirill Stolyarov, the son of the star of the film, Sergei Stolyarov. He talks about how his father was blacklisted in the 1940s when he defended a cameraman who'd been purged (and shot) and was henceforth banished from the "social hero" films he'd been starring in and consigned to fairy tale films. The second interview details the making of SADKO and its enthusiastic reception at the Venice Film Festival in 1953 and around the world, including a cute story of star Stolyarov meeting Juan Peron in Argentina. The son laments the treatment of the film by the American distributor and singles out Coppola for his "dirty work."
Eastern Bloc Fantasy
Warren | California | 07/03/2006
(3 out of 5 stars)
"There aren't that many sci-fi or fantasy films from behind the iron curtain. Ptushko's Ilya Muroments (The Sword and the Dragon) and Sadko (Magic Voyage of Sinbad) are two of the best. They are based on authentic Russian folktales, and their cinematic style was inspired by Alexander Korda's highly-regarded Thief of Baghdad. Watch the original versions with subtitles, then see the dubbed, edited versions for laughs. It's not that the films themselves are ridiculous, but the 1950s efforts to make them palatable to English-speaking audiences result in MST3K-quality products."