Inside the tremendous Soviet masterpiece MST3K got wrong

If movie fans recognize the title The Sword and the Dragon at all, they most likely associate it with the 1994 episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 where the crew hilariously riff on a tattered, blotched, badly dubbed print of the Soviet film. At first glance, this episode is an entertaining dissection of the many technical issues and poorly orchestrated production values of a classically ambitious failure. But as some MST3K fans have discovered, the film in its original form is a magnificent artistic achievement. In a new 4K Russian-language restoration, Aleksandr Ptushko’s 1956 epic — originally titled Ilya Muromets in its native Russian — gets the stunning polish it deserves. It’s a movie of grand imagination and epic sweep, with some of the most stunning visuals ever seen in a film of its time.

Ilya Muromets is an epic fantasy based on the legend of its mythical namesake, a knight who fights for the Kievan Rus kingdom (modern-day Ukraine, plus Northeastern Russia) against the tsar Kalin and his Golden Horde. The story goes that Muromets’ son is captured as a baby by one of Kalin’s soldiers and brought up as a warrior for the Horde. When Kievan Rus fights against the tsar for independence, Muromets is tasked with battling his own son to defend his country.

Ptushko’s film beautifully renders the legend’s valiant battles and conflicts. Incredible settings with lush colors and Elysian set designs make each scene look like it could be a framed painting in the Louvre. All these virtues seem hard to believe for those introduced to the movie through MST3K. But in spite of its notoriety, Ilya Muromets deserves to be seen and respected as a massive artistic achievement.

A striking image of a horseman holding a spear, silhouetted against a vast blue sky scudded with clouds Image: Deaf Crocodile

B-movie king Roger Corman became a key figure in bringing Ilya Muromets and Ptushko to America. Corman, a producer and filmmaker who was monumental in the importing of foreign cinema, brought classics like Federico Fellini’s Amarcord and Akira Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala to the States. In the 1960s, he also brought in Ilya Muromets, retitling it as The Sword and the Dragon.

Before release, Corman reedited the film, moving scenes around and adding a dubbed English audio track that was strangely synced together. The unfortunate result felt like one of those parody videos of Godzilla dubs, where the actors’ mouths are moving but the audience hears dead silence until a few seconds later, when a voice pops out of nowhere to deliver a line. It’s fair to say that much like the Godzilla and Gamera films MST3K riffs on, Ptushko’s epic became ripe for mockery mainly because of the dubbed, recut version. The original MST3K episode also features glaringly poor projection, with a washed-out film print that completely fails to serve the movie’s brilliantly decorated sets.

The film’s performances come in for most of the chiding from the MST3K crew. Often, American movie viewers who have grown up on mainstream Hollywood cinema wind up using it as a quality benchmark against cult films and movies made outside of the U.S. But the art of cinema isn’t homogenous, and cultural differences in theatrics and language play a large part in differentiating different national cinemas.

Complementary of its gargantuan scope, elaborate set designs, and fantastical plot elements, the acting in Ilya Muromets is appropriately theatrical. There are embellished monologues and melodramatic speeches. As Muromets, Boris Andreyev has a deep, commanding tenor that echoes on the screen like Zeus speaking from the heavens. In the original Russian soundtrack, Andreyev’s delivery sounds exaggerated, for sure. But this is a mythical film, and its hero is a legendary figure in Russia’s cultural history.

A vast field of warriors marching to battle, beginning to fade into a second army shot, in Ilya Muromets Image: Deaf Crocodile

The women in the movie can be considered to have antiquated personas by today’s standards: They’re weepy victims or pining lovers. But that dynamic isn’t any different in a lot of ’50s Hollywood epics, and here, it’s worth looking deeper for the value those characters bring to the narrative. One standout sequence features Sabrina, Muromets’ love interest and soon-to-be wife. A wonderful Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs-esque scene has her singing a love song while surrounded by forest animals. In the context of MST3K, it’s an easy target for its melodrama and mawkishness. But it’s also a wonderful, ethereal diversion in a story otherwise centered around male valor and conquest.

The movie’s violence and special effects are a common point of mockery as well. Special effects have improved so rapidly over the past few decades that modern moviegoers now have a harder time appreciating the stylization of older films — “unrealistic” has been equated with “unrefined and cheap.” But cult audiences still know how to appreciate things differently. Pulp and horror cinema’s prevalence on the internet through online forums, file-sharing communities, and repertory cinema programmers has let previously derided cult epics like Zardoz and Radioactive Dreams become appreciated for their unique visions and ambition, rather than their realism.

For cult fans, there’s a growing level of understanding that artistry isn’t limited to the technological prowess that comes with blockbuster budgets, and that historical technological achievements are worth appreciating for their own sake. While today’s cinema is obsessed with making the impossible look “real,” older movies display a charm through handmade craftwork, practical effects, and inventiveness that helped circumvent technological barriers.

And Ilya Muromets is an exemplar of that kind of craft. The background tapestries are hand-painted, the costumes meticulously detailed, and the shots lyrically composed to give the look and feel of a true epic in a fantasy realm. Yes, sure, the three-headed dragon is clearly being puppeted by a crew of people, and it looks pretty funny at first glance. But the painstaking efforts of creating the grand scenes with it descending on the Kievan Rus army in the middle of their kingdom is an act of cinematic genius. It’s the kind of artistry that tries bold gestures with few resources, to pull off a grand battle between swordsmen and a fire-breathing beast. It works marvelously.

A warrior in closeup in a vibrant red and gold headdress amid a fiery battle in Ilya Muromets Image: Deaf Crocodile

Whatever you may think of MST3K, the show’s popularity stems from comedic commentary on the more peculiar aspects of movies. Poor dialogue, overly dramatic acting, shoddy visual effects, and plot holes can all be mined for comedy. But there are gems in MST3K still waiting to be reassessed. Often, the show focuses on movies seen in their worst presentations: prints kept in bunkers or closets and left to die. But the trend toward restoration is focused on highlighting the best visual aspects of cinema and bringing it properly to the fore.

Ilya Muromets is a clear example of a previously derided film that in new light is actually a stunning, even landmark visual achievement. It’s no coincidence that the New York Times called creator Aleksandr Ptushko “the Soviet Walt Disney.” Ilya Muromets’ imaginative, inventive, and overall magical new 4K restoration should bring it new fans and cement it as a cinematic marvel that rivals and in many cases surpasses even the best of what mainstream Hollywood blockbusters have to offer.

The 4K restoration of Ilya Muromets can be rented or purchased directly at Projectr and is available on Blu-ray from Deaf Crocodile.