For many minutes of the two hours it takes director J. Lee Thompson to put Gogol’s tale of the legendary Cossack hero on the screen, the panorama of fighting men and horses sweeping across the wide steppes (actually the plains of Argentina) provides a compelling sense of pageantry and grandeur.
As powerful as they are, the spectacular features of Taras Bulba do not quite render palatable the wishy-washy subplot, seemingly devised to give Tony Curtis as much screen time as the far more colorful title-role of Yul Brynner.
Curtis, an excellent actor when properly supervised or motivated, was seemingly neither inspired nor irritated sufficiently by his talented credits-sharer to do more than kiss and kill on cue.
Brynner’s Taras Bulba is an arrogant, proud, physically powerful Cossack chief. Even though the actor follows the habit of running his lines together, his actions are always unmistakably clear. He’s allowed plenty of space in which to chew the scenery and there’s precious little of it in which he doesn’t leave teethmarks.
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The battle sequences and, to a lesser extent, the Cossack camp scenes, are the picture’s greatest assets. Some of cameraman Joseph MacDonald’s long shots of hordes of horsemen sweeping across the plains, as countless others pour over every hillside, are breathtakingly grand and fully utilize the wide screen. Franz Waxman’s score, Russian derived, for the battles and his czardas-like themes for the Cossacks are among his best work.
1962: Nomination: Best Original Music Score