Monday, 6 January 2014

The Tartars (1961)

The Tartars (I tartari) is a 1961 sword and sandal epic which was an Italian-Yugoslavian co-production distributed by MGM. It belongs to the historical rather than mythological peplum genre. There are no monsters but there are some pretty fair battle scenes and it does star Orson Welles and Victor Mature, which is more than sufficient reason to make it worth seeing.

The setting is the Russian steppe about a thousand years ago. The Vikings have settled here and are doing quite well but they are under pressure from their powerful neighbours the Tartars who have reached the same destination coming from the east. The local Tartar khan is trying to persuade the peace-loving (!) Vikings to join the Tartars in beating up on the local Slav tribes but the Vikings just want to be left alone to work their farms in peace. When the Viking Prince Oleg (Victor Mature) is presented with the khan’s proposal he stubbornly refuses. An altercation ensures, during which Oleg demonstrates his commitment to the peace process by putting his battle-axe through the khan’s head. Sometimes you have to put the case for peace rather forcefully. The Vikings make off with a Tartar princess, Samia (Bella Cortez) as a hostage.

The khan’s brother Burundai (Orson Welles) is not entirely displeased by these events. He is now the chief khan of the neighbourhood, answerable only to the Great Khan himself. And the Great Khan is a long way away. Burundai is intensely ambitious and he regards the opposition of the Vikings as a small matter. He soon has a hostage of his own, Helga (Liana Orfei), the wife of Oleg.

The natural expectation at this point would be an exchange of hostages but things have become complicated. Samia and Oleg’s brother Eric (Luciano Marin) have fallen in love and Samia has no wish to return to her people. Burundai meanwhile has raped Helga and in any case he had no intention of exchanging hostages. The life of a Tartar princess is of no concern to him if it stands in the way of his ambitions.

When the Vikings discover what has happened to Helga they start to get seriously annoyed. Even the most peace-loving (!) peoples can only be pushed so far. War is clearly going to ensue. The odds seem to be stacked against the Vikings but Oleg is now out for revenge.

There’s pretty much all there is to the plot. It’s a bit thin, but at 83 minutes this is fairly short for a peplum and the plot is enough to set up the climactic battle scene. The ending is rather unexpected but I won’t give anything away by saying any more about it.

The battle scenes are on a fairly lavish scale. There are either a lot of extras or some pretty clever camera tricks have been used to make it look that way. The action scenes are handled well and there are enough of them to compensate for the slightly threadbare plot.

These Vikings are strictly plains-dwellers but being Vikings they haven’t ventured too far from water. Their fort is on the river Volga and we do get to see an actual Viking longboat even if it plays a minor role in the action.

The palace of the Khan is impressive and looks suitably exotic and eastern. Orson Welles gets to wear some very cool eastern potentate costumes, and also sports reasonably effective makeup to give the impression of being an Asiatic warlord.

Orson Welles is in fact the chief reason for watching this movie. He’s delightfully debauched and evil (and lecherous) with a rather nice line in simmering malevolence. American actors didn’t always get to dub their own voices in Italian movies but there’s no mistaking that the voice you hear in this movie most certainly belongs to Welles. Welles even gets to do some action scenes, wielding a sword with some enthusiasm. Burundai mostly gets his henchmen to do his dirty work but you don’t get to be a khan unless you’re prepared to lead your troops in battle.

Victor Mature gets overshadowed a little by Welles, but then that happened to just about everybody who played opposite Welles. It’s not easy getting noticed when Welles is in full flight but Mature is a solid enough hero. Luciano Marin is adequate as Oleg’s basically loyal but trouble-prone brother. The two main female stars really don’t get much to do. Arnoldo Foà stands out in the supporting cast as Burundai’s chief henchman Ciu Lang. Looking oddly like a Buddhist monk Ciu Lang is an interesting character, a man who has too many moral scruples to be entirely comfortable serving a master like Burundai.

The Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD has no extras apart from the movie’s trailer but the anamorphic transfer is quite splendid, presenting the movie in its correct 2.35:1 aspect ratio and in all its Technicolor glory. Picture quality is sharp and the colours are vivid and there is no noticeable print damage. It’s very rare to see a movie of this genre looking this good.

The Tartars is worth a look just for Orson Welles’ magnificently evil performance. Apart from that it looks great and it’s perfectly decent entertainment and even if it doesn’t reach any great heights fans of the genre should be reasonably well satisfied. Recommended.

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