This is the second recent pick-up of a Russian historical biopic by the UK distributor Revolver for a DVD release, following Admiral which we reviewed a few weeks ago. Both films were released in Russia by 20th Century Fox. As with Admiral, the film appears to be an ideology-driven film celebrating one of the first leaders to unite the principalities that would eventually become Russia. In some respects therefore the premise for the film recalls that of Zhang Yimou’s Hero about the king who first united China – though the actual narrative is quite different.
1010, the steppes of western Asia/Eastern Europe. The central character is Yaroslav (hence the Russian title of the film) son of Vladimir, ruler of what was in the early eleventh century, Rus’ or Kievan Rus’, with its capital in Kiev. Yaroslav is given the task of ruling the furthest territory controlled by his father, the wild lands of the North East around Rostov. Kievan Rus figures in Russian history as a ‘medieval polity’ that saw a concentration of power amongst the ‘Eastern Slavs’ before the invasion of their lands by the Mongols in 1230. Kiev is the capital of present-day Ukraine and Rostov is a city in modern Russia some 200 km North-East of Moscow. Rostov is a key city in Russian history and this film celebrates the founding of the city of Yaroslavl, now the major city of the region, 1,000 years ago.
Yaroslav has to find ways of gaining the trust of the local tribes (so that they will pay ‘tribute’) and fighting off marauding bandits who take prisoners to sell as slaves after being taken down the Volga River. Yaroslav has a central plan to build a fortress in the new territories. The local tribes are pagan but Yaroslav is a Christian and the fortress will also represent the solidity of Christianity. This narrative focuses specifically on a tribal group who worship a Bear god (veles) – a symbol of later Russia? The control of the area is further complicated by the actions of the Varangian (Viking) mercenaries who act as Yaroslav’s personal guards.
In Hollywood terms, this might be a ‘sword and archery’ type of film or a medieval epic – the time period is similar to that of Robin Hood and the Crusades. The presentation of Yaroslav is not unlike that of the Russell Crowe character in Gladiator, especially with the (rather confusing) references to his family. However, the strategies adopted by Yaroslav are also similar to those of a ‘liberal’ commander of the US Cavalry attempting to establish order in ‘Indian Country’, i.e. an imperial mission. Intellect’s Directory of World Cinema: Russia (ed Birgit Beumers, 2011) suggests that the ‘historical film’ has always been a major genre in Russian Cinema in both Soviet and pre- and post-Soviet periods. A second key genre is the action film which the Directory terms the ‘Red Western’ – an allusion to the way in which popular Russian films have borrowed aspects of Hollywood genres extensively since the 1920s. Iron Lord can be seen as an attempt to use these two genre repertoires as the basis for a conventional biopic about an important historical Russian figure.
A handsomely mounted film in CinemaScope, this would make a visual spectacle of the plains and forests on a big cinema screen. The visual quality is diminished on a TV screen. There is certainly plenty of action with up to four sets of combatants at different times fighting with swords, arrows, a variety of ingenious booby traps and even a bear or two – but these are all relatively small-scale skirmishes. I was most interested in the historical references and the construction of Yaroslav as an almost saint-like figure. There is a smidgeon of romance and one or two comic characters for light relief but on the whole the film is a relatively straightforward. The performances are fine and the combat scenes are well-handled. The weakness for me is in the script which I found confusing. Without recourse to Wikipedia and other sources I would have struggled to understand who the characters were and why they were acting in the ways they did – I’m still not sure that I fully understood the narrative. (The subtitles are OK but some Russian intertitles are not translated.)
Re-branding the film Iron Lord strikes me as misleading. Yaroslav is almost the opposite – he is ‘wise’ not brutal in this narrative and he spends much of the time in captivity or negotiation. Of course, few people outside Russia will know who Yaroslav was so the Russian title probably wouldn’t work either. The film was released in Russia on 550 prints and also has had a release in Ukraine and Germany. It lasted only one week in the Russian Top Ten so presumably audiences are too engaged with Hollywood product to lap up this kind of patriotic film. Revolver announce that the film is “from the same studio that brought you Black Death“. I’m not sure what this means – I couldn’t find any link between the two films. On the other hand, there has been a recent cycle of UK/Nordic/German films of this type (the most recent being Ironclad, 2011).
I couldn’t find much about any of the cast and crew. Most seem either to have come from TV or to be new to the industry according to IMDb. What I did find, however, was that a Soviet era version of the story was adapted as a 156 mins film in 1983. I’d like to see that for comparison. I wonder what happened to all those popular genre films made by Soviet era studios?
Revolver release the DVD on August 1 via the usual retailers. There is a website at http://ironlord.co.uk complete with a clip from the film. Or see it on YouTube at: