NOTES: “Russia’s 300.” Also reminiscent of Ironclad, and perhaps Valhalla Rising.
See my other reviews here: http://akarlin.com/reviews/
The Legend of Kolovrat (English: Furious) is a reasonably faithful retelling of the Tale of the Destruction of Ryazan [in Russian; not aware of an English translation], a medieval chronicle describing the Mongol invasion of Rus in 1237-40. The story starts with a clumsy young Evpaty trying to join his Prince’s druzhinniks, when they are ambushed by a Tatar warband. The Russians are all killed except for Anastasia, the daughter of one of the knights, who manages to flee just in time, and Evpaty, who blacks out from a slingshot wound to the head and is left for dead. He is later rescued, nursed back to health, and married off to Anastasia, with whom he has two children. But even though he becomes a great knight, he continues to suffer violent, episodic bouts of amnesia upon waking up every morning, due to the inflicted trauma.
Twelve years pass. The Horde approaches from the East, making camp several leagues from Ryazan. Prince Yury of Ryazan sends his son Fyodor as emissary to Batu Khan with precious gifts. He is accompanied by Evpaty Kolovrat, other druzhinniks, a merchant who knows the Tatar language, and a young servant woman who tends to Kolovrat’s ailment. But the Khan becomes enraged by the Russian refusal to kneel before him, and treacherously attacks the delegation – only a timely warning from the Horde’s Russian slaves prevents a wholesale massacre. Prince Fyodor heroically holds off the Tatars long enough to allow them to escape.
While the decimated group struggles back through a blinding snowstorm, the Mongols sack Ryazan, putting most of its denizens to the sword. They come home to scenes of grief and devastation, including the corpses of Kolovrat’s own wife and two young children, and of Fyodor’s young wife and child, who had thrown herself off a high building to avoid capture. They destroy a Tatar warband that had lingered in the city, and gather the survivors. Some are sent off as emissaries to the other Russian princes, while the fighting men commit to fighting the Horde. They conduct a partisan campaign against the Horde, at one point disguising themselves as evil spirits to take advantage of Mongol superstitions and challenging their morale. Having successfully diverted the Horde away from other Russian cities, they take position on high ground and wait for help to come from the other principalities. But none is forthcoming.
In the heroic last stand, Kolovrat’s warriors fight off progressive waves of Mongols to buy time for the women and children to make a getaway on a sail-powered sanya. It takes a catapult barrage to finally bring down Kolovrat, who tricks Batu Khan into kneeling before him with his dying words.
In his comments on the film, which he watched with the director Dzhanik Fayziev, Putin said that it was “impressive,” and stated that he believed that most people would watch it with interest.
I agree. In my opinion, this is one of the best Russian films of the past decade.
As Egor Kholmogorov notes in his review, it is remarkably true to the source material, at least by the standards of this genre.
The major exceptions can be listed concisely, and there were good reasons for each of them:
1. Fyodor’s wife Eupraxia committed suicide with her infant child after hearing news of her husband’s death out of grief, whereas in the film she does it to avoid capture by the Tatars. This reason is more amenable to modern sensibilities.
2. Prince Yury ventures out to give battle to the Horde after news of the emissaries’ slaughter, where he is defeated. This battle is omitted, probably due to budget constraints.
3. Evpaty Kolovrat returns to Ryazan not from the Horde, but from the Principality of Chernigov, where he had been unsuccessfully negotiating for aid. This allowed the directors to show off the Horde’s camp.
4. Kolovrat’s forces numbered 1,700 men, not a couple of dozen as in the film. That made for a lower budget… and even greater heroism.
Otherwise, the Legend follows the Tale to the letter.
1. During the skirmish with the Tatar band in the ruins of Ryazan, Kolovrat uses the Tatar blades instead of his own twin swords. / “Evpaty fought so intensely, that even his swords grew dull, and he seized the Tatar swords, and slashed away with them.”
2. The heroes use special glowing paints applied to their faces to masquerade as evil spirits during one of their partisan raids on the Horde’s camp. / “The Tatars thought that they were the dead arisen… They fought the Tatars so courageously, that even Tsar Batu was struck by fear of them.”
3. Kolovrat defeats the Horde’s champion Subotai in single combat, beheading him. / This is perhaps the one questionable deviation – Subotai was a fat, brilliant general who would neither have fought a duel, nor have been risked by the Mongols. I suppose this was on account of Subotai being better known than Khostovrul. “And Tsar Batu sent the son of his sister-in-law, Khostovrul, against Evpaty, and many Tatars went with him. Khostovrul boasted to the Tsar that he would capture him alive. And they were surrounded by the Tatar forces, who wanted to take Evpaty alive. Khostovrul engaged in single combat with Kolovrat, and was split in half. And he continued to kill many of the Tatar troops…”
4. Kolovrat is killed by catapults. / The image of Kolovrat getting taken out by a giant rock doesn’t look all that great or convincing in the film, to be honest, but that’s the price of accuracy: “[The remaining Tatar soldiers] aimed their innumerable catapults against Kolovrat, and fired them, and finally managed to kill him.”
The film was also impressively accurate at the more macro level.
In a bold decision to emphasize rootedness over revenue, both the Russians and Mongols speak in their respective contemporary languages (the latter are dubbed). Even scenes that many critics dismissed as fictional or made up had a solid or at least defensible basis on history:
1. There were criticisms of the neotenous facial features of Khan Batu, which would seem to be unbecoming of a Mongol warlord. But as Kholmogorov points, the only historical portraiture we have of him is from a Chinese engraving of the 13th century. It shows him to be beardless, somewhat womanly in face and manner, and dressed in luxurious Chinese robes.
2. The use of a sanya (ice sledge) with sails was likewise defensible – there were attempts to make such contraptions work along the icy rivers of medieval Russia, as well as in many other civilizations (e.g. Holland during the Little Ice Age). The modern version of this is called a boeier.
3. One scene features what sniggering liberals claimed was a potato at a dinner, whereas it was in fact a turnip-like vegetable common to medieval Russian dishes.
There were, of course, fully fantastical elements, but this sort of thing is inevitable in any film that doesn’t pretend to be a historical documentary.
Moreover, those fantastical elements that were present tended to be meaningful or highly aesthetic.
Saint Seraphim of Sarov feeding a bear (1903 lithograph).
1. At one point, Kolovrat is saved from a Tatar ambush by a massive bear with the dimensions of a bus. We had previously met that bear as the companion of a hermit priest who had given them refuge from the snowstorm in his cave. Consequently, one cannot consider this a deus ex machina, especially since it was not exploited again: As the priest told his bear after that fight, “Go on, this is not your fight.” This also taps into a Russian trope of hermits, such as Sergius of Radonezh and Seraphim of Sarov, making friends with representatives of the ursine race.
2. Kolovrat fights with two swords. Swordplay with two blades is something that only really happens on the silver screen. Then again, same goes for 95%+ of swordplay in general, and for good reasons – “proper” swordplay doesn’t look impressive at all. So in practice, double wielded swords are used to maximize aesthetics and underline the super-elite level of the swordsman in question (e.g. see Dayne in the Tower of Joy scene from Game of Thrones). It also doesn’t hurt that he carries his swords in parallel on his back like Geralt of Rivia from the Witcher video game series, which happens to be as popular as Russia as it is in its native Poland. I wonder, are any of the people who worked on the film gamers?
In a rare departure from standard Russian cinematography, this film is also unapologetically Russophile.
Medieval Russia is presented as a free, prosperous, and spiritual realm of individuals.
In stark contrast to the The Horde (2012), with its exaltation of the cult of Christian suffering, men and lords are masters of their own fate in The Legend of Kolovrat. The markets are thriving. The houses are clean, homely izbas for commoners, and more spacious terems for the nobles and rich merchants. Commoners are clothed in traditional embroidered garb, while nobles wear elaborate outfits adorned with gold, sable, and precious stones. But they attend Church together, and the Prince’s son trains and jokes with the soldiers.
Yes, there are modest differences in class and social status, but this does not preclude sobornost. There is no fawning or excessive bowing before nobles, or even Prince Yury himself. Ordinary people have a say in the running of Ryazan through the veche. Literacy is widespread, and commoners discuss politics. Nor is there any anti-bourgeois sentiment, as was frequent in Soviet films. Though outwardly very much concerned for his own skin, the merchant called upon to act as translator in the mission to the Horde goes along for the journey, providing comedic relief, and ends up dying a martyr’s death along with the rest of the band of brothers.
Every Russian is portrayed with a certain dignity. While there are some who might be described as “village idiots,” there are no thugs or gopniks. Conversations take place in proper language, with allusions to the Russian chronicles and Scripture. Even the Russian princes who refuse to send help are portrayed sympathetically – how could they justify doing so, when Kolovrat’s band numbers just a couple of dozen warriors?
Predictably, all this triggered the liberals, for whom any positive portrayal of Russia now or then is like a red rag to a bull. Their reviews dripped with elitist spite and unconcealed contempt. Now to be sure, the film does present an idyllic image of medieval Russia. But this is standard for its genre. In their seethist autism, the Russian liberals forgot that it’s not like 300 (2006) is an accurate presentation of Sparta, with its helot-based economy, nor did Beowulf (2007) depict Dark Age Denmark as it really was.
There were several other editorial decisions that failed to satisfy certain narrow demographics. For instance, Christian Rus and the Horde were presented as cardinally hostile, incompatible civilizations, with the latter constituting a foreign element in the Russian lands. This goes against Lev Gumilev’s “Eurasianist” interpretation of the Mongol invasion as the “union” of medieval Rus and the Great Steppe against the Western Crusaders.
Consequently, united in Russophobia, Eurasianists were no more happy with the film than the liberals. (One particularly demented neo-Stalinist even went so far as to condemn the Tale of the Destruction of Ryazan: “An non-objective work, filled with anachronisms, mistakes, and religious allusions”).
But as Kholmogorov put it, there can be no “unity” between victim and murderer, between the conquerors and the conquered. In the chronicles, the Horde is portrayed a barbaric, heathen entity led by an “evil Tsar,” out to punish Christian Russians for their sins. This interpretation is backed up by archaeology. The Mongol invasion constituted an unparalleled disaster for Russian civilization, resulting in the deaths of up to a third of its population and the near elimination of its advanced urban culture (at the time, Kiev was as big as Paris, the largest city in Western Europe).
It is to the credit of the half-Russian, half-Uzbek director Dzhanik Fayziev that he refrained from any Eurasianist editorialization. Nor did he even castigate the Horde any more than it deserved. They are credited with mechanical cleverness – in one scene, Batu Khan plays with some toy models of his devastatingly effective trebuchets. At the end of the film, the Khan pays his respects to a dying Kolovrat, just as he is said to have done in the chronicles. In at least one respect, the film actually spares Batu Khan’s reputation. According to the chronicles, the actual prompt for the massacre of the Ryazan mission was Prince Fyodor’s refusal to send his wife as a hostage to the Khan: “It is not fitting for us, Christians, to bring our wives to you, impious ruler, for lechery. When you conquer us, then shall you possess our wives also.” This is left out of the film.
At the very end, when Kolovrat wakes up for one last time after getting hit by rock from the catapult, he finds that he no longer experiences any amnesia.
I will end this with Kholmogorov’s point that this was deeply symbolic: “We have in Kolovrat a profound symbol of the Russian people and Russian civilization, who regularly forget about themselves, their past, their identity, and their pride due to various traumatic reasons. Several times in the past century our memory was scrambled so hard, that we could barely answer the question: “Who are we?” Just like Kolovrat, who forgets everything, except how to fight, so the Russian people too forgot everything in certain moments other than their exceptional fighting qualities. But in the end, Kolovrat manages to remember, and to become who he is. In this, he is helped by a book he carries with him – a symbol of the literary traditions of Rus, which preserves our memories. And there comes a point after the blow and loss of consciousness, when he remembers everything, and refuses to forget. This is Russia today, which after its last episodic bout of memory loss, it seems, has made a firm decision to never forget anything again and to always remain true to itself.“