Ruslan and Ludmila/Ruslan i Lyudmila (1972) ***
Probably few other Westerners do these days, but fans of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” know well how loopy Soviet fantasy movies could be. They’ve seen The Day the Earth Froze. They’ve seen Jack Frost. Perhaps, inspired by the experience, they’ve made the leap to seeking out The Sword and the Dragon or The Magic Voyage of Sinbad on their own. And if they paid any attention to the credits while they were at it, they might also have noticed that all but one of the aforementioned films were the work of the same writer/director, the inimitable Aleksandr Ptushko.
Some have called Ptushko “the Russian Walt Disney,” but to my mind, that doesn’t quite scan. Indeed, I’m not really sure there’s any Hollywood filmmaker who offers Ptushko an especially convincing parallel. Though he dabbled in animation (as in The New Gulliver), his work in that mode was more akin to the Rankin-Bass Puppetoons of the 50’s and 60’s than to the likes of Fantasia or Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. His live-action movies were, for the most part, aimed at a juvenile audience, but the respect traditionally accorded to fairy tales in Russian culture meant that they would appeal and be accessible to adults as well. Ptushko was also a special effects expert and a respected production designer, serving in the former capacity on Viy, or Spirit of Evil, one of the few true horror films to be produced during Russia’s Communist period, and in the latter on The Stone Flower, which made swiftly forgotten history as the Soviet half of a Russo-American cinematic cultural exchange in 1946, shortly before the battle lines of the Cold War were irrevocably drawn. Ptuskho’s final film was Ruslan and Ludmila, a grand, two-part adaptation of a lengthy 1820 poem by Aleksandr Pushkin. Pushkin’s Ruslan and Ludmila was a story of his own devising, although it incorporated elements of numerous authentic Russian folktales. It had been filmed twice before Ptushko tried his hand at it (first in 1915, then again in 1939), and has been adapted at least twice more since then. It has also served as source material for both stage plays and ballets, and the influence of those two formats can be plainly seen in Ptushko’s version. Audiences who come to this Ruslan and Ludmila from Ptushko’s earlier movies will see much the same sensibility at work, but on an almost megalomaniacal scale.
Given the story’s deep roots in Russian culture and history, Westerners who are not familiar with either are apt to find Ruslan and Ludmila almost incomprehensible. Some of it really is, but in order to make that stuff stand out the way it should, let me take some time now to provide a bit of background. For the Russians, “Once upon a time…” frequently has a fairly specific meaning, and most Russian fairy tales are set in the era of Kievan Rus. Before the middle of the 9th Century, the closest things to an organized state that existed in what is now European Russia were the Rus Khaganate in the north, and the Khazar Khaganate in the south. In both cases, loose confederations of Slavic and Finnic tribes were dominated and somewhat haphazardly governed by marauding foreign shit-kickers; the Rus were a Varangian (that is, Viking) tribe, while the Khazars were a Turkic people whose leaders, curiously enough, had converted to Judaism after coming into contact with the ancient cultures of the Middle East. In 862, Ryurik, the Khagan of the Rus, established himself in what is today the Byelorussian city of Novgorod with the intention of seizing a tighter hold on the tribes that paid him tribute, taking the first step toward the creation of a unified Russian state. (A process that incidentally entailed the fairly complete assimilation of the Varangian Rus to the culture and ethnicity of their primarily Slavic subjects— as one of my college professors [hey there, Dr. Majeska!] once aptly put it, the longer you’re away from home, the better the local women look.) For the next eighteen years, the Rus struggled with the Khazars for control of Kiev, then the richest and most strategically valuable city north of the Black Sea, to which Grand Prince Oleg (Ryurik and his descendants abandoned the borrowed Turkic title, khagan, in favor of the Slavic veliky knyaz following the move to Novgorod) transferred the seat of his government after the Rus emerged victorious in 880. Still the rivalry with the tribes of the southern steppes continued, and it wasn’t until the reign of Grand Prince Svyatoslav in the mid-10th Century that the Khazars and their neighbors, the Volga Bulgars, were finally overwhelmed and their lands incorporated into the realm of Rus. Then in 980, Vladimir the Great ascended the throne, and the Kievan state reached its apogee. Vladimir strengthened commercial and cultural ties with the rich and powerful Byzantine Empire, began the Christianization of his domain, and even entered into diplomatic relations with the kingdoms of Western Europe. The traditional mechanics of Varangian rulership were ill-suited to the creation and maintenance of a large, stable, centralized state, however, and with Vladimir’s death in 1015, the Kievan kingdom began devolving back toward a confederation of loosely aligned city-states. The disintegration was effectively complete by the early 1130’s, and when the Mongol hordes arrived in 1240, the divided realm of Rus was helpless against them. The Russians of subsequent ages (particularly those who lived during the period of Mongol suzerainty) tended to romanticize and idealize the time of Vladimir and his immediate successors, with the result that old Kiev became something very much like Russia’s Camelot, and the Kievan period an era of magic and heroism. It was this mythologized Kiev in which Pushikin set Ruslan and Ludmila.
The Pechenegs (the fiercest and most savage of the 10th-Century steppe nomads) have risen against Rus, but the attack has been thwarted by an army from Kiev. Leading this army is a knight called Ruslan (Valeri Kozinets), the lover of Princess Ludmila (Natalya Petrova), daughter of Grand Prince Vladimir (The Sword and the Dragon’s Andrei Abrikosov). (Incidentally, this almost has to be Vladimir the Great. By the time another Vladimir sat on the throne of Kiev, the Pechenegs had long been neutralized and swallowed up by another steppe tribe called the Cumans.) With the invaders bested, Ruslan hurries back to Kiev, where he and Ludmila are due to be married amid tremendous pomp.
Ruslan is not alone in seeking Ludmila’s hand, however. The princess had three other suitors, and in a remarkably ill-advised gesture of magnanimity, Vladimir has invited the lot of them to the wedding celebration. Least consequential among Ruslan’s rivals is Farlaf, the Varangian (Vyacheslav Nevinnyy, from The Wizard of Emerald City). Farlaf is a slob and a drunk and a coward, and Ludmila does not find any of those qualities appealing, let alone all three of them at once. Ratmir the Khazar (Ruslan Akhmetov) has more to recommend him. Passionate, loyal, good-hearted, and a capable fighter, it’s actually sort of hard to understand what Ludmila’s complaint with him is, unless she just has a thing against Turks. If so, that might also explain her rejection of Rogdai (Oleg Mokshantsev), who is of uncertain, though once more plainly Turkic, ancestry. Then again, since Rogdai is also a haughty, cold, arrogant bastard, it’s not like he really needs a disfavored parentage to make Ludmila decide against him. The three men all sit together at the wedding banquet, in visibly foul moods. Consequently, they’re on the scene immediately after the ceremony, when Ludmila is abducted right out of the marital chamber by something neither we nor Ruslan are able to see clearly. Ruslan rushes out to spread the horrible news, and the three rivals don’t hesitate to volunteer for the mission when Vladimir, in a rage, disowns his new son-in-law, and offers both Ludmila’s hand in marriage and half his own lands to whichever hero has what it takes to rescue the princess and bring her safely back home. Ruslan, too, steps forward to undertake the quest— but having failed to save Ludmila from being kidnapped in the first place, he does so decidedly as persona non grata.
So who is this fiend who has stolen Ludmila away from her father, home, and bridegroom? His name is Chernomor (Vladimir Fyodorov, of Humanoid Woman), and he’s every bit as nasty a piece of work as you’d expect a wizard whose name means “Black Plague” to be. He lives in a hollow mountain, in a forbidding land where the force of his evil prevents just about anything from growing. The foundations of his home are supported by a team of enslaved mud-titans— think Atlas by way of Robert Maplethorpe. And although he’s a bald, lumpy-headed dwarf, he wears his beard 20-odd feet long, requiring a team of servants (who resemble Saracens made up to play demons in a Japanese noh play) to follow him around carrying it. Oh— and that beard of his is enchanted, rendering him invulnerable to any form of attack so long as it remains uncut. Chernomor, in true fairy-tale villain style, wants Ludmila for his bride, and to that end, he determinedly woos her with magic tricks and fine hospitality, even as he makes it abundantly clear that she is his prisoner. Ludmila understandably finds his approach to seduction somewhat wanting. When her “host” finally gets close enough to her to touch, she entangles him in her bedding, steals his Turban of Invisibility right off his head, and runs away into the depths of Chernomor’s mountain stronghold to make as much mischief as possible.
Meanwhile, the four suitors have split up to undertake Ludmila’s rescue individually. Naturally, it is with Ruslan that we will mostly concern ourselves, and we will rapidly begin to suspect that the gods (the characters pointedly pluralize the word every time, despite the big honking Eastern Orthodox cathedral we see so much of in Kiev) have stacked the deck rather egregiously in his favor. You see, he keeps bumping into powerful beings who want to help him for no terribly convincing reason. First up is an old wizard from Finland (Igor Yasulovich, of The Witches’ Cave, who also appeared alongside Vladimir Fyodorov in Humanoid Woman), whom Ruslan meets in the mountain cave where he makes his hermitage. The old geezer understands all about the loony things a man might do for love, for that was actually how he got into the wizarding business. Decades ago, as a youth, the Finn fell in love with a girl named Naina (played in the ensuing flashback by Natalya Khrennikova), but she had her sights set higher than a mere shepherd, and rejected his advances. Taking the hint, the Finn went off to become a soldier of fortune, winning vast renown on the battlefield, and eventually rising to command his own company of mercenaries. Naina was still unimpressed, so the Finn went the dual-class route, quitting his life of swashbuckling adventure and turning to the black arts instead. Once he felt he had his mojo sufficiently honed, the Finn teleported Naina to his cave and cast a spell on her to coerce the love she would not give him freely. The joke was on him, though, for he spent rather longer on his studies than he realized. Naina now loved him, alright, but she was also a hideous, toothless old crone. Furthermore since the last time they saw each other, she had become a witch even more powerful than her short-sighted suitor, and when the wizard spurned the love he had gone so far out of his way to engineer, he made himself a deadly and implacable enemy.
Now perhaps you’re asking yourself right now why you ought to give a rancid rat’s ass about the old conjurer’s troubles with women— I certainly was. Well, as it happens, we— and Ruslan— need to know about Naina because she’s going to be the secondary villain around here, and Ruslan will have to face her sooner or later. So basically, the wizard in the cave just spent the last ten minutes or so casting a seventh-level Torrent of Exposition. (Characters with intelligence scores of nine or lower must make a saving throw versus wands; a “successful” roll means that they have failed to learn one goddamned thing.) Naina (played by Mariya Kapnist in her wizened present-day guise) first enters the story for real when she appears to two of Ruslan’s rivals to make various sorts of trouble. Farlaf she convinces to sit out the real hunt, on the assurance that he’ll have a chance to get Ludmila after the more credible would-be heroes have already done the hard work. Rogdai she incites to attack Ruslan directly. This is only the first of numerous occasions on which Naina will pit somebody or other against Ruslan, and the resulting confrontation is actually one of the more successful for the witch’s purposes. Rogdai gets his ass soundly kicked, and winds up being thrown off a cliff to his death in some large body of water, but at least he puts up a decent fight first. Realizing now what she’s up against, Naina pays a visit to Chernomor, and enters into a pact of alliance with the other sorcerer.
That takes care of two of Ruslan’s rivals— now what about Ratmir? Would you believe he gets more or less permanently sidetracked when he unexpectedly arrives at Castle Anthrax? Okay, so that isn’t actually the name of the place, but come on. It’s a castle in the wilderness, inhabited solely by beautiful girls who apparently have nothing to do all day but shower come-ons upon passing heroes, and Ratmir has no one on hand to play John Cleese to his Michael Palin. I find myself wondering how to say, “Yes— you must give us all a good spanking!” in Russian…
The next episode (which serves as the climax to part one) might honestly be the strangest in the entire movie. Riding along through a desolate tract of land, Ruslan encounters a gigantic head. As in, like, easily 40 feet tall. It’s alive, too, and it picks a fight with Ruslan when he disturbs its sleep. The head, in the film’s sole serious departure from Pushkin, is the one opponent against whom Ruslan proves absolutely powerless, but it’s a jolly sort of fellow, and it decides that it likes the questing knight’s attitude. This proves immensely helpful, for the head is actually— are you ready for this?— Chernomor’s estranged brother. For centuries, it’s been guarding the magic sword that the dwarf once used to sever it from its commensurately vast body, and the sword in question is probably the one weapon on Earth capable of trimming Chernomor’s protective beard. And because it’s still nursing a grudge over that decapitation business, the head is perfectly willing to lend out the mystical blade.
Ruslan’s quest now begins in earnest. Naina steps up her operations against him, besetting him with illusions, rockslides, wood imps, water nymphs, fire nymphs, and even an intelligent tiger. Chernomor, meanwhile, finally succeeds in recapturing Ludmila, snaring her in a golden net and putting her into a Sleeping Beauty-style magical coma. And as if that weren’t enough, Naina has Farlaf waiting in the wings to ambush Ruslan in the event that he succeeds in defeating Chernomor, and a traitor within Grand Prince Vladimir’s own court has sent word to the Khan of the Pechenegs, alerting them to the fact that Ruslan is away from Kiev on a mission of indefinite duration, and that the city consequently lies open to attack.
Ruslan and Ludmila is really quite astonishing, a film of often bewildering contradictions. Imagine a high school drama club with $100 million to burn, staging an intermittently musical and balletic adaptation of Jack the Giant Killer under the direction of Dr. Seuss. That would get you somewhere close to the mixture of lavishness and tackiness, ambition and ineptitude, imagination and sheer unbridled quirkiness that characterizes this movie. The sets, props, costumes, and special effects were all obviously made quickly and on the cheap, but there are so damn many of them that the total effect is immersive and overwhelming, in a way that many more technically accomplished movies fail to achieve. Although it never looks anything less than totally artificial, the world of Ruslan and Ludmila strangely starts to become convincing as a self-contained system perhaps 30 minutes into the film’s two-and-a-half-hour running time. Even the dialogue— which is made up of rhymed couplets delivered in a defiantly stilted and declamatory style— eventually begins to feel, if not exactly natural, then at least unnatural in a way that makes sense in context. (Whoever translated the dialogue for the subtitles has amplified the effect by making every effort to duplicate the original meter and rhyme scheme. Russian and English have such vastly different rhythms, however, that to do this entailed constant recourse to a sideways, backwards, and upside-down syntax that might best be described as Yodic verse.) The most important factor in the film’s paradoxical persuasiveness is most likely Aleksandr Ptushko’s complete fearlessness before the prospect of looking ridiculous. There is literally nothing about Ruslan and Ludmila that is not weird, illogical, or implausible, and yet Ptushko handles it all with the utmost sincerity, apparently without regard to any conventional standard of cinematic verisimilitude. Sometimes this does hurt the film, as with the casting of Ruslan and Ludmila themselves. Valeri Kozinets and Natalya Petrova look the part of a fairy-tale hero and heroine, so Ptushko puts them in the lead roles despite the fact that the entire concept of acting seems to be beyond their understanding. Sometimes it is merely mind-numbing, as with the song-and-dance numbers whereby the water nymphs and fire nymphs successively attempt to divert Ruslan from his mission. But usually, Ptushko carries it off. Take the scene with the big, giant head. It looks nothing like reality, but the director’s commitment to the image is such that for a moment there, you kind of wish reality looked like it instead. The same goes for the duel between Ruslan and Chernomor, which occurs hundreds of feet up in the air, in the middle of a storm, with Ruslan hanging from the wizard’s beard with one hand and wielding his garishly oversized magic broadsword with the other. Scenes like that, I think, are what makes people want to make fairy tale movies in the first place— to take on the challenge of creating an image that, almost by definition, cannot be rendered realistically, and finding a way to make it convincing on its own terms. And certainly that is what Ptushko has accomplished throughout Ruslan and Ludmila, even though nearly every directorial decision he made would seem on its face to have militated strongly against success.