Sampo (1959) Review
Much like director Aleksandr Ptushko’s earlier film Ilya Muromets, Sampo may be familiar to viewers who saw it on television under the title The Day the Earth Froze. But that version, reverted to black and white from the original film’s colour prints, badly dubbed into English and cut from an hour and a half to just over an hour, is a pale shadow of the director’s vision. We won’t discuss the MST3000 version. Deaf Crocodile and KAVI, The Finnish National Audiovisual Institute, have restored the Russian/Finnish co-production and it’s been released on Blu-ray.
The people of Kalevala come to the blacksmith Ilmarinen (Ivan Voronov, On gde-to zdes, Naznacheniye) and ask him to build a sampo, a magic device capable of creating wheat, salt or even gold. He can’t because the witch Louhi (Anna Orochko, Khleb, Alye parusa) has stolen the heavenly fire he needs to forge it.
Louhi has problems of her own, she has the fire, but none of her minions have the skill to create the sampo. Realizing that Ilmarinen could do the job for her she kidnaps his sister Annikki (Eve Kivi, It Can’t Be, The Women’s War) to force him to do her bidding. Instead he and her beloved Lemminkäinen (Andris Osins) set out to rescue her.
Ptushko and writers Viktor Vitkovich (Attention! There Is a Magician in the Town!, Aladdin and His Magic Lamp), Grigori Yagdfeld (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and His Magic Lamp) and Väinö Kaukonen adapt the Finnish folktale Kalevala into something resembling a live action version of a Disney cartoon. When Annikki and Lemminkäinen gaze at each other flowers bloom and a bear cub dances. Birds fly to her hands and other forest creatures come to see her. When the witch kidnaps Annikki, she sends her cape flying across the ocean to become a sail on the girl’s boat and steer it to her icy lair.
Sampo however gets a bit darker, and more Pagan, than Disney tended to go back then, Lemminkäinen is actually killed by the witch and his mother (Ada Voytsik, A Gift for Music, Nine Days of One Year) has to walk over the ocean waters to retrieve his body and have him resurrected with the aid of a helpful nature spirit and a talking birch tree.
But Sampos’s real emphasis is on spectacular scenes such as the plowing of a field full of giant snakes by a red hot horse freshly forged out of iron, the forging of the sampo itself or the storm that ensues after Louhi steals the sun from the sky to freeze the villagers, (hence the American title), and force them to return the magic mill. The effects are impressive for their time and many of them hold up well now proving that even sixty year old practical effects can be better than CGI.
Not so surprising is how much more sense Sampo makes with the missing footage restored. Granted much of it, probably wouldn’t have appealed to the kids’ matinee audience Roger Corman imported it for. To be honest I could still do without the musical interludes, but it is good to be able to see the film the way it was meant to be seen.
Fantasy film fans and film historians are the most obvious audience for Sampo, but anyone who likes older movies and doesn’t mind subtitles should be Russian to get a copy and won’t leave their chair until they Finnish watching it.
Sampo is available on Blu-ray via Vinegar Syndrome. Deaf Crocodile had also announced plans to release it on VOD and Digital Platforms but that seems to have been quietly canceled. You can check with FilmTagger for some similar titles.