My journey to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church began when I was nine years old, the year I was Confirmed as a Roman Catholic. Although I didn’t know it at the time, my journey began when the mother of one of my classmates at St. Mary’s Catholic School in Alexandria, Virginia, took a group of us to the movie “Taras Bulba” in 1962.
In some ways “Taras Bulba,” based on the short novel by Nikolai Gogol and starring Yul Brynner and Tony Curtis, probably wasn’t the best film for nine year old boys to see, with its scenes of drunken and boisterous Cossacks and the suggestion that something more might be going on between the men and the wild-eyed and wildly dancing women.
At the same time, the film was a very good one for young Catholic boys to see. Despite its imperfections and its Romeo and Juliet love story between the son of Taras Bulba and daughter of a powerful Pole, there are no sex scenes, and while there’s some violence it doesn’t even come close to what we see today.
At its core, “Taras Bulba” is about a man of courage, strength, loyalty, and honor. Taras Bulba, a Zaporozhian Cossack, is a man who loves his family, land, and his people, a man whose faith is central to his being, a man willing to die for his ideals. He is surrounded by men who hold the same values and who would do no less. And he passes on these values to his sons.
Some today might find him repelling and see the character as a representative of ignorant and nationalistic values that cannot be tolerated in our enlightened times. Some, too, might equate his views with the hatred of terrorists.
But in the film Taras Bulba is neither. He is a man like any man through the ages who has taken up the fight against tyranny. He knows who he is and why he lives, although he is a romantic figure, more romantic than the character in Gogol’s book* and, perhaps, not as Russian, since he seems somewhat like an American frontiersman.
As a nine year old I identified with Taras Bulba because of his virtues, and because of his willingness to give everything he had in his fight for freedom. “Taras Bulba” helped teach me what it means to fight for your beliefs. The film also taught me about the virtues held by good men. Besides this, my grandfather had emigrated to America from the Western Russian Empire, Ukraine, and the film put me in touch with a part of my ethnic heritage.
Something else about my heritage became embedded in my mind, which I realized when I watched the movie recently for the first time since I was nine.
Early in the movie, after the Cossacks have fought for the Poles and then against them, the Cossacks in unity kneel in prayer. This, as a good Catholic, I surely noticed as a boy. But I doubt that I noticed that when they make the sign of the cross they make it like good Orthodox (or Byzantine rite Catholics): they touch the forehead with the right hand, then the stomach, then the right shoulder, and then the left. Roman Catholics touch the left shoulder before the right.
Watching the movie as an adult, I also was struck by how reverently Yul Brynner, who is of Russian ethnicity and Russian Orthodox, makes the sign of the cross.
Not long after, when Taras Bulba’s sons are attending school in Kiev, they join the call to Vespers. The choir is already chanting, and the chant that is presented is the same we use in our liturgy. We watch as the brothers and others move into the church, and, with icons and candles and everyone standing, the scene is perfect in its beauty and authenticity.
The movie overall, however, is somewhat flawed in its presentation of religious life. The priest who takes the Bulba brothers to Kiev appears to be Orthodox, but the abbot and monks at the Kievan monastery school appear to be Franciscans and so Roman Catholic. The Poles are Roman Catholic and responsible for Latinization in Ukraine, but they are seen attending an Orthodox Vespers service.
Yet, even with these weaknesses, faith and religion are central to the lives of the characters in the film in a way that we seldom see today.
Stories and images of films work on our emotions, our passions, which is why movies touch us so deeply and stay with us even when we don’t realize it.
When I began attending Ukrainian Greek Catholic liturgies in 2007, I felt that I had returned to my spiritual home. Something deep within my heart connects with our liturgy, and part of the reason for this I now believe is the impression the scene of a Vespers service in the movie made on me when I was nine.
To me, that’s reason enough why the young need to see images of men of Christian faith and manly virtues in popular culture and in life.
More on film adaptations of Gogol’s book:
Including the 1962 film, directed by J. Lee Thompson, Nikolai Gogol’s “Taras Bulba” (1835/revised 1842) has been adapted as a film at least five times during the past 100 years.
The earliest adaptation is Aleksandr Drankov’s 1909 silent film, “Taras Bulba.” Other adaptations include Joseph N. Ermolieff’s “Taras Bulba,” 1924, and Alexis Granovsky’s in 1935.
The most recent adaptation is Vladimir Bortko’s 2009 “Taras Bulba,” starring the Ukrainian actor and minister of culture Bohdan Stupka. The movie was filmed for Russian state television and released in the United States as “The Conqueror” (2010).
Filmed in Ukraine and Poland, Bortko’s adaptation is more faithful to Gogol’s 1842 revision of his short novel, which is considered pro-Russian and less Ukrainian than the 1835 edition. The film also is more authentic than the 1962 adaptation in its depictions of Russian Orthodox faith. The movie, however, has been controversial in Poland, Russia, and Ukraine for arousing historical tensions between these nations.
*Note: Watch for an article on Gogol’s book “Taras Bulba” in coming weeks.