Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Sword and the Dragon; 1956 Russian Epic Fantasy Film

I greatly appreciate the Internet Archive, a vast storehouse of writings, video, audio and software materials that are uploaded by an eclectic community of contributors and collectors. Literally anyone can upload anything there provided the material is in the public domain. I frequent the audio archives and of late  have been listening to the E.R. Eddison Worm Ouroboros Librivox recording there, but in perusing the film collections, I stumbled across this interesting Russian film by director Aleksandr Ptushko from 1956, originally titled Ilya Muromets, renamed the Sword and the Dragon for the 1960 American release and The Epic Hero and the Beast in the UK. The film also showed in Japan.

 The central hero of this movie is Ilya Muromets, a hero of Kieven Rus whose exploits are featured in byliny, epic heroic poems of Eastern Slavic origin. Ilya was a disabled farmer who was healed by miraculous means and, according to the film version, then gifted with the magic sword of a giant that he might deliver his people from the Mongol hordes sweeping over their lands, referred to in the movie as the Tugars.

There are many interesting and fantastic cinematic moments in the Sword and the Dragon. Sweeping landscapes and the use of some interesting on location sets add grandeur to the epic tale, and the special effects range from clever puppetry and makeup to painted film cells. Obviously those spoiled to modern movie making and inured to these old fashioned methods will find the effects humorous, but I give this film respect for the mere fact that anyone during the fifties even attempted to make a fantasy movie. It is acted out in the highly dramatic and gestured punctuations of early cinema that evokes stage theatre, but archaic as it may be, it weaves a rich tale of rags to riches heroism, loyalty and conviction towards a personal warrior code, court intrigue and politics, magic items, mythical monsters, spells and mass warfare. A talking raven who pronounces omens and portents at a crossroads, a wind demon who can whip up tempests with only his breath, a fire breathing three headed dragon...pure goodness to your epic loving soul.


The movie has a few  holes and WTF moments but overall is really quite well done and must have cost a pretty coin in it's day to make. If you enjoyed Die Nibelungen by Fritz Lang, you will likely enjoy the Sword and the Dragon. The Khan of the Tugar is a delightful villain who gets plenty of screen time while Ilya Muromets cuts a heroic figure that epitomizes the later medieval Knight Errant.

You might find several useful devices in this movie for your game--one magic item I really liked was a tapestry of a fruit tree sewn using magic and real fruits by Ilya's beloved, which in his hour of need could be unrolled and yield up edible fruits from the embroidered tree on the tapestry face.

The film can be viewed at the Internet Archive if you are interested. Click the following link to view it and let me know what you think!


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