Originally shot as Ilya Muromets, Ilya Muromets: The Sword and the Dragon is probably best known as simply The Sword and the Dragon from its decades of play in a dubbed and re-edited version on American television. That was also the version featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000, introducing it to a new generation.
Now, sixty-six years later the original version is coming to America in a version restored in 4K from the film’s original 35mm negative. And while Mosfilm participated in Ilya Muromets: The Sword and the Dragon’s restoration they may be having second thoughts. The film’s plot about an unlikely hero rising up to defend Kiyv from barbaric foreign invaders is just a little too ironically timed.
Ilya Muromets: The Sword and the Dragon opens with a band of minstrels invoking the spirit of a great knight to defend the country only to be told they must find a new, young hero and presented with a sword to give him when they find him. They find Ilja Muromets (Boris Andreyev, Treasure Island, Aladdin and His Magic Lamp) a giant of a man but unable to use his arms and legs. A dose of a magic herb solves that problem and soon he’s on his way to fight the evil Tsar Kalin (Shukur Burkhanov).
Director Aleksandr Ptushko (The Day the Earth Froze, Sadako) and writer Mikhail Kochnev took ancient folk tales and added a dose of Soviet Era nationalism and capped it all off with what were amazing special effects for the time. The result is a film that’s fascinating to look at but whose relentless propagandizing can be hard for a non-Russian viewer to take. It’s no wonder the distributor had it completely rewritten when he imported it to the US in 1960, even without Cold War tensions, it wouldn’t have been well received by American audiences.
Without it, Ilya Muromets: The Sword and the Dragon would play much more like a lavish historical epic. Apart from a dragon, Ilya has to face down a wind demon and human enemies. Tsar Kalin and his army kidnap his wife and even train his son to fight against him. And, of course, he faces enemies within the Prince’s court as well.
But as an exercise in pure spectacle, Ilya Muromets: The Sword and the Dragon is hard to fault. Apart from the massive crowd and battle scenes, there are some inventive settings such as the bone-littered forest where Ilja faces off against a wind demon. Obviously built on a sound stage the forest even has trees that bend when the creature unleashes its fury. There are also Disney-styled musical numbers complete with birds, foxes and other wildlife. Granted the mechanical woodpecker and rabbit are a bit obvious among the real animals, but the results are still impressive for their time.
The dragon that has made Ilya Muromets: The Sword and the Dragon stay in people’s memories so long doesn’t show up until the last few minutes. A massive three-headed, fire-breathing creature it was built to scale and operated as a puppet with a flame thrower in each head. Unfortunately, it was a bit too unwieldy to do much more than stand there and breathe fire before being killed.
While Ilya Muromets: The Sword and the Dragon has its moments where its nationalism overwhelms its entertainment value it’s still a film worth watching for those with an interest in the history of genre film and of film itself. Ptushko built a reputation in the Soviet Union and Europe for his spectacular fantasy films but is still virtually unknown in North America. This and the restored version of Sampo, aka The Day the Earth Froze, should help to change that.
Ilya Muromets: The Sword and the Dragon is available on Blu-ray from Vinegar Syndrome. Deaf Crocodile in association with Seagull Films will be releasing it digitally on June 28th. You can check their website for details.