I’ve finally gotten to see the Russian fantasy flick Wolfhound, after a long time of searching for a DVD. I first heard of this movie on another gamer’s blog, and was intrigued enough to start hunting for a copy. Verdict: the search was worth it.
The story is very familiar territory for fans of classic sword and sorcery, with a beginning very reminiscent of the 1980’s Conan the Barbarian: The young Wolfhound is the son of a smith who is slain in a village massacre along with his wife and all his people, and Wolfhound himself is dragged off into slavery.
The movie picks up his story again as a grown man, sneaking into a castle with the apparent intent of assassinating someone. It turns out that this man was indeed The Maneater, one of the leaders of the raid, and Wolfhound takes him down in one glorious rough and tumble fight.
From there Wolfhound winds up guarding a caravan that is secretly bringing Princess Elen home to her city of Galirad, which is under a curse of perpetual winter. There he discovers that they have a common enemy in Zhadoba, a warrior-sorcerer who aims to awaken the dark goddess Moranna. Wolfhound takes the opportunity to confront his enemy by becoming Princess Elen’s bodyguard. The rest, as I said, is familiar territory for sword and sorcery fans.
Despite that familiarity of plot, I found this movie a refreshing take on fantasy. The character of Wolfhound is interestingly quirky, and differs from your standard S&S barbarian hero in some major points. Though quickly established as a formidable warrior, he’s injured almost to death several times. He’s also got a surprisingly humble touch of chivalry, as after rescuing Elen he gives her up to her betrothed Prince Vinitar despite being in love with her (and knowing she returns the feeling). He’s also got a quirky companion in a bat he calls Torn Wing, who seems to be more than just a bat.
The setting, replete with touches from Slavic myth and filmed on location in the majestic landscapes of Slovakia, is also refreshing. Were I a superstitious Iron Age peasant, I’d definitely need my vodka to get any sleep in those haunting, brooding forests! The wintry visuals of cursed Galirad, the forests, foggy mountains and marshes really transport you to a different place and time.
Then there’s the uniquely Russian touches: Elen has a woman warrior, Ertan, as another bodyguard, and she is armed and armored like a Central Asian. (Ertan is the woman to the right of the blonde Elen). The raiders who strike Wolfhound’s home village are mostly mounted archers. It’s a reminder that to a Russian, the word ‘barbarian’ will conjure not images of Vikings and Celts, but of nomad raiders from the steppes. Costumes and armor styles are also interesting, showing an interesting blend of Nordic and Central Asian in style.
The Wikipedia article on this movie erroneously describes it as High Fantasy, but it’s definitely not. It is more of a mythical Low Fantasy, with magic pretty low-key throughout, but very grounded in a pagan religion. When Wolfhound and the Princess are surrounded in the ruins of an ancient temple, Elen summons supernatural aid by slicing her forearm and dripping her blood on the altar stone. Wolfhound himself is guarded by the gentle mother goddess Kendarat, who heals him from mortal injuries more than once. I think this hero-returning-from-death-to-destiny thing is an element taken from the old Russian bylina epics. (BTW check out Jared Sorenson’s Bylina and Bogatyr, a free RPG based on Russian myths.)
Wolfhound also departs from traditional S&S in not relying on ‘blood and bewbs’ for visual appeal. There’s surprisingly little gore in it, though the film’s fight scenes are frenetic and very physical, and there are only two scenes with nudity, neither very long nor exposing much. Actress Oksana Akinshina’s fresh, innocent beauty is something we can enjoy without her having to take her clothes off! Instead the movie relies on that good old device Hollywood might want to relearn – a simple story powerfully told.
The movie was based on the first of a series of fantasy novels by Maria Semyonova. According to the Wikipedia entry on her, she wrote a fantasy novel based exclusively on Russian mythology because ‘why do you prefer the chewed-out Tolkien-esque sandwich while our richest native tradition stays forgotten?’ Now I’m wondering if I can ever track down English versions of those books!