Taras Bulba is a historical movie based on the romanticized historical novel by Nikolai Gogol. Although I have not read the novel, the plot of the movie and the plot summary I have read of the revised 1842 edition match pretty well. Set in the 16th century, the story tells the story of an old Cossack named Taras Bulba and his two sons Andriy and Ostap.
When Taras Bulba's sons return home from study in Kiev, they all decide to seek adventure and go to the Zaporozhian Sich. The Cossacks there are restless as it is a time of peace in the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth (which they are part of), so they ponder if they should attack the Ottomans or Tartars. When Taras Bulba gets word from one of his men that Poles have killed everyone at his estate, he directs his wrath at them. His man also proclaims the Poles are up to no good in many other regards, so all the Cossacks there are riled up and ready for war.
Knowing that the Russian government produced Taras Bulba is a key detail in understanding the stance the film takes. One could easily construe that this movie contains overtures of propaganda. The movie takes place in Ukraine, but all the Polish hating Cossacks refer to their land as Russia. If one didn't know any better, one would think they are Russians, which they are not. Although Ukraine is mentioned a couple times, it is always presented as if it was part of Russia. You are also not going to be able to escape the many speeches that every dying Cossack gives, in which they sing praise to having the honor to die for Russia.
The evil villains of the story are the Poles. They Poles are inept fighters and their elite forces, the winged hussars, have armor so thin that a Cossack blade can cut right through it. So expect the very worst in every regard when the Poles are concerned in this film. Although we don't get to know any of the Polish characters too much, other then Elzbieta, and to a lesser extent her father. In the few parts of the movie that the Poles speak Polish, there is a voice-over that says the same thing in Russian right afterwards. This is distracting and a little annoying, especially for those of us who understand Polish.
Regardless of the potential propaganda elements, Taras Bulba is still worth seeing. Bogdan Stupka, the actor that portrays Taras Bulba, is perfect for the part and it just might be his best performance to date. One could learn a lot about the Cossacks by watching this movie; from Cossack customs and dress to the general lawlessness of the time in Eastern Europe, the story has a lot to offer, even if from the Russian viewpoint. For the most part, there is great attention to detail and even has actual Polish actors play the role of the Poles. Magdalena Mielcarz, who plays Elzbieta, is beautiful enough to make it believable that Andriy would fall so madly in love with her at first sight.
Taking a closer look at the historical accuracy, there are a few minor flaws that I would like to point out. First, this story is supposed to take place in the 16th century, but the winged hussars have 17th century armor. The helmet with wings that Andriy wears takes it even further, as that is an 18th century Saxon-period helmet. With the exception of point blank range, the breast plate of the hussar armor would have deflected most of the fire it received from either pistol or matchlock rifle.