The Handsome and the Stupid: ‘The Tartars’

This historical epic takes place in the 10th Century on the Russian steppes, as doubled by Yugoslavia with the cooperation of Zagreb Studios. The drama cuts back and forth between two enemy camps, the Vikings and the Tartars, who face parallel crises with female hostages. It all started because the wily Tartars wanted to pressure the Vikings into routing another group of immigrants, the Slavs, but the honorable Vikings have a brotherhood with the Slavs (who don’t even show up in the picture) and this leads to carnage and brouhaha.

Axes are thrown! Spears are launched! Catapults are catapulted! Flaming arrows arrow aflame!

The Vikings live in an Apache-ready wooden fort that doesn’t look expansive or much above poverty-stricken, nor do they visibly do anything to subsist. They’re uniformly blond and clothed in leather shirts and trousers, except for leader Oleg (Victor Mature), a dark changeling whose hair has enough grease to service a Chrysler. His authority is signaled by his black cape and absence of pants. Why he goes through the movie in swimming trunks is among the mysteries here; perhaps it’s to blind enemies with his shining thighs.

The Tartars live in a splendidly colorful and imposing castle. It may be just a cheap exterior (or even a painting?), but the movie’s proud of it and spends many lingering widescreen shots thereon as people mass outside the walls. Inside it’s equally handsome and spacious, and the local Khan, Burundai (Orson Welles), serenely floats through the halls like a lavishly appointed armoire given the power of locomotion, or sits himself down on his raised throne overlooked by heathen idols. For the record, there really existed an Oleg and Burundai in these regions, but they were separated by almost 400 years.

Ensconced in his space and splendor, Welles counterplays by whispering and grumbling his lines, sometimes in his mocking air. As always, he’s riveting whenever onscreen, and director Richard Thorpe knows it. Welles gets many close-ups in which he merely shifts his glance, arches an orientalized eyebrow, or opens his mouth obscenely. (We’ll venture a guess that uncredited co-director Ferdinando Baldi handled scenes without the American stars.)

Welles was working for a paycheck while shooting his own unfinished Don Quixote, and he would return to Zagreb to begin filming The Trial. He’s sometimes accused of “overacting” or “hamming it up” or “chewing the scenery”, but I think he belongs to a small group of actors (including Charles Laughton, Laurence Olivier, and Marlon Brando) who naturally work at such a high level that they can’t help exposing the mediocrity around them. In this film, Mature is the one who acts broadly and petulantly.

The story’s conflict is driven by sex more than power. If the Trojan War could be caused by a woman, this invented clash uses two kidnapped women. After the opening consultation goes badly, the Vikings hold a Tartar princess (Bella Cortez) hostage. Initially appalled at finding herself surrounded by barbarian numbskulls, she falls for the blandishments of Oleg’s brother (Luciano Marin) and instantly conceives a child without benefit of wedlock.

Meanwhile, Burundai captures Oleg’s wife (Liana Orfei) and several other Viking women promptly forgotten by the story. He dresses her up like Jayne Mansfield and entertains her with a troupe of shirtless acrobats performing a modern ballet with scimitars. Who knew the 10th Century was foreshadowing Stravinsky? It culminates in a man and woman rolling over each other provocatively. The trailer refers to this as “Pageantry in the shameless revels of a pagan ritual”. (The same trailer is pleased to characterize the conflict in terms of “A man of the west, even as today, challenged by ravaging tribesmen sweeping out of Asia intent on destroying western civilization and enslaving its women”.)

When compared with Oleg’s comrades’ recreational mud-wrestling and hatchet-throwing, we must admit Burundai has a better notion of how to par-tay. However, the rascal has more up his capacious sleeve. He drugs the woman’s refreshment preparatory to imposing his loathsome will, which turns out to be even more loathsome than we suspected. This is heady stuff.

Mention must be made of the striking presence of Arnoldo Foa’ as the bald high priest who objects to all the tasteless goings on, of which there’s plenty; he and Welles have intriguingly restrained confrontations until Burundai finally gets fed up with his lip. The climactic battle, scored by Renzo Rossellini with more or less open cribbing from Gustav Holst’s “Mars, the Bringer of War”, aims for apocalyptic and settles for protracted and unconvincing (especially where Welles’ double is concerned). Aside from the tenuous redemption of True Love, the finale is curious for its vision of general devastation.

Shot by Italians in Yugoslavia, this is postdubbed with Mature and Welles providing their own voices, not always completely in synch. For other characters, we hear well-known voice actors like Paul Frees, or so I’m ready to swear. TCM reports that Welles wore a fake nose and Mature acted like a diva during shooting.

IMDB doesn’t claim there’s a longer version, but we must wonder how the Italian version plays; this 83-minute film shows signs of truncation with its use of fade-outs. Speaking of fading out, the Technicolor print on this on-demand disc from Warner Archive could have used burnishing and de-blemishing. There are also odd indications that the original Totalscope ratio is wider than the 2.4:1 allotted here, such as when the Khan introduces his daughter and the film indulges in an artificial pan to the left so that she’s not cut lengthwise.

This is a handsome, stupid movie, too extravagant and silly to be dull, though not as clumsy and reductive as its own trailer. It’s in love with spectacles such as screaming hordes charging their horses hell-for-leather across the screen, especially when Burundai leads his forces to attack the Vikings. You’d think they’d wait until they got closer so as not to exhaust the horses (especially the poor steed under Burundai), but these rival resorts seem to be just over the hill from each other anyway.

As has been well said, they don’t make ’em like this anymore. Frankly, that has its good points and bad points.

RATING 4 / 10