Taras Bulba (Bogdan Stupka), a war hardened Cossack warrior in 16th century Ukraine, sees it as his duty to Christ and the church to wage war against the land of Poland. When his sons return home from studying, he is determined to train them as soldiers to fight along side him in his battle against the heathens. However one of them, Andriy (Igor Petrenko) is a gentle man, adverse to his father’s brutal way of life. He also hides a secret (his love for the beautiful daughter of a Polish nobleman) which will set him on a bloody collision course with his embittered parent.
One of the best aspects of Iron & Blood, based on the novel ‘Taras Bulba’ by Nikolai Gogol, though I suspect not the main one intended to attract its target market, is its beauty. Both in the countryside in which it has been shot, with its vast, unspoilt plains of which I expect there are still plenty across great swathes of eastern Europe, and which are captured majestically in the scene where Bulba takes his sons to Zaporizhia, where he hopes they will learn how to become true Cossack warriors. The grassy plains that stretch as far as the eye can see until they touch the horizon are breathtaking, the green fields and blue sky highlighting the earthy browns and reds of the men’s traditional Cossack clothing. And in the opulence of the fortified home of the Polish nobleman and his daughter, which the Cossack hordes attempt to storm before laying siege to, when they are beaten back from the ramparts by the nobleman’s army.
However for the all its stunning visuals, the film does not shy away from the brutality and harsh reality of these people’s lives. And not just with the battle scenes the strength of which is, after all, what the film is really sold on. One scene where a man who killed his comrade whilst drunk is shown no mercy by being buried alive beneath the coffin of his victim, is numbing, even more so as it comes without warning, like a sudden slap in the face upon the unsuspecting viewer. The spectacle is made all the more horrific by the fact that there is no delight shown by the men who carry out the punishment, as they seem just as upset for the murderer as for the man he murdered.
There are other equally disturbing, though perhaps more subtle, cruelties throughout the film. That of the early ‘Christian’ church and the atrocities of the wars and crimes perpetrated in its name. Or of the girl Andriy falls in love love with, as she mocks and laughs at his attempts to impress her when they first meet. She also displays a tougher side, appearing to show little fear when walking amongst the soldiers on the ramparts of her father’s embattled fortress. As this film shows women in the medieval period had to be as tough as their menfolk if they were to survive, and though their husbands may have ruled the battlefield, it was often the women who held the domestic power.
One of the only complaints I would have with the film is it’s length, running at just over two hours. There are some undoubtedly impressive battle scenes with enough extras to shame even the most lavish Hollywood production, and the storming of the castle belonging to the Polish nobleman is good enough to hold your attention for it’s duration. However these scenes are interspersed with long stretches of rhetoric amongst the various characters, which may prove of little more than passing interest, unless you’re into early Russian history and folklore.
Despite these shortcomings, I would say its good points far outweigh the bad, and Iron & Blood makes a welcome change from the often over sanitised depiction of medieval life seen in big budget, western cinema.