Turns out all the 50 and 60s-era paranoia about the oncoming Russian invasion was right - the Commies were insinuating themselves into our lifestyles!
No, we have not suddenly become a reactionary, revisionist website. But it's actually quite surprising how much Russian cinema was sneaked into American theaters during this time period, not to undermine our culture, but for a quintessentially American reason: to make a quick buck. Of course, no self-respecting American theater would show a commie film, so there were rewrites, re-dubbing, and new imaginary names applied to all production personnel. Thus were American children exposed to the marvelous fairy tale fims of Alexander Ptushko, and thus did Ilya Muromets become The Sword and the Dragon, Sampo turn into The Day the Earth Froze, and Sadko - which won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival - was shoved like an unruly square peg into the protesting round hole of The Magic Voyage of Sinbad.
Sadko's title character is actually a travelling minstrel who returns to his home town of Novgorod, to find the people oppressed by the merchant class and bitterly unhappy. Remembering an old man's tale of "the bird of happiness", Sadko sets out with three ships (bankrolled by a lovestruck Princess of the Sea) to travel the world, find the Bird, and return with it to his homeland. Though a typical American child was more or less familiar with the easily-marketable name "Sinbad", they would be taken aback by, at the very least, the apparent substitution of fur hats for turbans in this most un-Arabian Nights setting.
Allowed to stand on their own, without such unfortunate capitalist tampering, Ptushko's films are actually quite charming, creative and often gorgeous. Sadko was obviously conceived and produced as a prestige product, the sets and costumes showing such detail and opulent design that it even gave Joel and the Bots pause when Magic Voyage made its appearance on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Unfortunately, though beautiful and often spellbinding, it is far from Ptushko's best; an episodic storyline and a pat resolution keep it from hitting the satisfying heights of Muromets or Sampo. But any aficionado of fantastic film could do far, far worse than spending an evening with Sadko and appreciating the hard work of Ptushko and an army of Soviet artisans.
The restoration of Sadko bears a copyright date of 1986. The Gorky Film Studio did its work very well, and they apparently then sealed it in a vacuum, because this version is flawless, even, dare I say it, breathtaking. Colors are rich as a storybook illustration, the image crystal clear. The 4:3 format seems a little cramped, but the original film's aspect ratio is given as 1.37:1, so there's only a little information being scissored off at the sides. The production design on display just seems to beg for a 'Scope presentation.
The new 5.1 soundtrack does little more than enhance the Rimsky-Korsakov soundtrack. Although the Russian Cinema Council promises "Each film of the collection has, besides its original Russian version, no less than two (English and French) dubbed versions, made by professional native-speaking actors at European film studios," if there was an English - or even French - dub included on the disc, it was so well hidden I couldn't find it. The English subtitles, though, are very well done, with only the occasional typo slipping through.
There are two video interviews with the son of star Sergei Stolyarov, Kirill, who is now the head of the Sergei Stolyarov Foundation. Kirill holds forth at length on his father's career, the impact of the fairy tale movies, and the American mangling of Sadko, noting with surprise that the poor sap given that job was some youngster named Francis Coppola.
The Fairy-Tale World of Alexander Ptushko is a 30-minute Mosfilm short, apparently made for TV, in which two Russian children navigate the titular world via film clips. Though constantly teetering on the verge of incoherence, this does give a fair sampler of the more fantastic elements of many of Ptushko's films.
There are also a Photo Gallery and previews for other Ptushko films: Scarlet Sails, The Tale of Tsar Saltan and Ruslan and Ludmila. These are grouped under "Coming to DVD", though they are already available - doubtless a holdover from an earlier pressing (and it might be noted those last two apparently do contain the alternate soundtracks).
Visiting Ruscico's website is an interesting and sometimes upsetting experience - though many films in their catalogue are labeled "released", it's hard to determine exactly where - a glance at the subtitle listing to the left shows that they're not just concerned with Region 1 releases - and, sadly, there seems to be no current plan for restoring and releasing Sampo.
That said, seeing this gorgeous version of Sadko has prompted me to seek out and order a copy of Ruscico's Ilya Muromets. I'm going to miss Marvin Miller's voiceover for the title character, but sometimes that's the price you pay for good world cinema.
Dr. Freex, 9/30/2004