Issue 49 (2015)
Konstantin Feoktistov: The Three Knights. The Ploy (Tri bogatyria: Khod konem, 2014)
reviewed by Natalie Kononenko© 2015
Julius (Iulii), the talking horse of the Three Knights series produced by Mel’nitsa, is fast becoming the post-Soviet equivalent of Volk, the wolf of the long-running and extremely popular series of short animated films called Just You Wait! (Nu Pogodi!, 1969-2006). Julius, like Volk, is a trickster figure. Both clever and inept, he stumbles through the world, violating one social norm after another and exposing the contradictory principles on which they are based. Like Volk, Julius provides an escape from the rules that constrain behavior. He is funny and pitiable and enviable all at the same time.
Julius first appeared in Alesha Popovich and Tugarin the Dragon (Alesha Popovich i Tugarin zmei, 2004), the film that launched the Three Knights series. He was absent from the next two films of the series, Dobrynia Nikitych and Gorynych the Dragon (Dobrynia Nikitich i zmei Gorynych, 2006) and Ilya Muromets and the Nightingale Robber (Il’ia Muromets i Solovei-razboinik, 2007), films that were less popular than the initial Mel’nitsa offering. He reappeared as the royal librarian in the Queen of Shamakhan (Tri bogatyria i Shamakhanskaia tsaritsa, 2010), lending the comic element that audiences crave. In the film under review Julius takes center stage in one of the two main plotlines. We first see him in the forest, attacked by trees that are sentient and most ill-willed. We soon learn that this is not reality, but a nightmare, albeit a prescient one. Waking up, Julius goes outside to calm himself with a breath of fresh air and stumbles upon three of the counselors to the Prince of Kiev discussing what appears to be a nefarious plot to overthrown their liege. He rushes to inform the ruler and both panic. First they try to call for help and, when it turns out that the armed forces and the three knights are all far away, they do their best to hide. There are various comic scenes such as when the two mistake the arrival of the cleaning lady for an attack and where they don various disguises, including a scene where the prince wears the cleaning lady’s clothing and Julius appears in a judge’s wig and robe. The two finally decide that the best way to summon help is by sending a telegram—or rather a pigeon-gram--to make the act period appropriate. The problem with this solution is that neither the prince nor Julius has any money and neither has any notion of how money might be earned. They try begging, but this is unsuccessful. Julius remembers his early misadventures with the gambling tree that appeared in the first of the Three Knights films. This is a talking tree that takes bets, gets its customers hooked by letting them win a round or two, and then cleans them out by making them lose all subsequent wagers. Because he owes the tree money, Julius does not dare to approach it himself and sends Vasia, the camel that often serves as Dobrynia’s mount. The camel, like all creatures, gets hooked after a couple of wins and makes an unreasonable wager. Julius tries to stop him, but gets caught by the tree’s two henchmen and forced to reveal the mess that is going on in Kiev. Vasia loses his bet and the tree, having heard about Kiev, decides to go there and see what else it can acquire. The tree, it turns out, not only talks and makes bets, it can pull up its roots and walk and that is exactly what it does.
Meanwhile the intended recipients of the pigeon-gram, the three knights, are far away because they have been dispatched to stop a nasty pirate who keeps honest and hard-working merchants from trading on the high seas. The interaction between the three knights and the pirates is the other main plotline of the film. It is essentially a boevik-type beat-‘em-up plot, with a few comic elements. The knights attack the pirate ship, but have their rowboat set afire. They swim out to the ship, only Alesha loses his boots to a young gypsy thief and then gets caught on a tree branch as the three are about to leap off a cliff and into the water. The battle on the ship is one-sided and the three heroes win easily. Alesha excuses himself momentarily to swim back and retrieve his boots, which he does, along with meeting the entire gypsy band and having his fortune told.
Alesha rejoins his companions and Potania, the pirate leader, invites the knights to a celebratory meal. This, of course, is a trick and Potania plies his guests with poisoned liquor. They pass out and are thrown into the ship’s hold. Alesha dreams in his drugged stupor and sees the fulfillment of the gypsy’s prophecy. She had foretold that Alesha would find a stranger in his house and he sees his wife Lubava being courted by Potania. He jumps in his sleep and thrusts his boots through the side of the ship. As he retrieves his boots, the waters rush in and Alesha is forced to hold his still-sleeping companions above the rising waters to keep them from drowning.
Back in Kiev the palace is invaded by the tree, which follows its usual pattern and first lets the prince win and then gets him to bet his kingdom. Of course the prince loses at this point and he and Julius are expelled from Kiev. Their journey is shown as one of misery and, as the dejected prince walks through the countryside, the skies darken and the rains begin to pour. Julius and the prince find shelter at what seems to be an abandoned farmhouse. Suddenly we see another threat as a hand reaches for a scythe on the wall. The hand belongs to the farmstead’s owner, a large and kindly man, very similar to the three knights and a figure who may be based on Mikula Selianinovich of classic byliny. The heroic-looking farmer not only cuts hay, he tends a herd of flying horses: Pegasuses, as Julius calls them. They are the source of inspiration and respond to anyone who does something artistic. At this point the prince does a horrible job of singing a song, but summons a little flying horse nonetheless. Using the flying horses, the prince, Julius, and the mysterious farmer rescue the three knights from the sinking ship just in the nick of time. The two plotlines come together and off our heroes fly with Alesha trailing a string of rats which had also been in the hold of the pirate ship.
The group heads for Kiev, although Alesha makes a detour home and discovers that the “stranger” whom Lubava had taken into the household is actually a cat, one which immediately attacks the rats still stuck in Alesha’s boots. The heroes arrive in Kiev and find it to be a city that is transformed into a den of iniquity. Colored lights are everywhere and people and animals place wagers, losing all they own. The three knights assume that the tree had played fair with their prince and thus deserves its winnings. They decide that the only way to restore Kiev is to win it back by challenging the tree to a game of hockey. Their opponents are the tree’s two large henchmen and our heroes easily win the first round. The tree then orders a game of table hockey. Alesha plays one of the henchmen and still wins. But then the tree takes over, trounces Alesha, and claims all that the knights own, they having wagered their landholdings to get the tree to play them. The knights, their wives, the prince, and Julius leave the city dejected. Since they had staked their own homes, they have nowhere to go and so they move in with Ilya’s mother, a simple woman living in a village. The prince has a terrible time handling all this and, when the old woman sends him out to fetch some water for the garden, he falls down the well. Ilya’s wife does her best to pull the prince out, but he nearly drowns and starts to hallucinate one of the requisite musical numbers of the film. With the help of the knights, the prince is rescued and, as he lies there regaining consciousness, Tikhon, Alesha’s mentor from the first of the films, suddenly appears. The knights explain their plight to Tikhon and he suggests that the tree might have cheated, even showing them how this is done. The realization that the tree won by cheating leads the knights to vow to return to Kiev and reclaim all that was lost.
On their journey, the group runs into the three plotting counselors. It turns out that their plot was actually a surprise for the prince’s anniversary: a huge, gilded, statue of the prince of Kiev on a horse. The knights take over the statue and use it as a Trojan horse. They get inside and Tikhon offers it as a wager to get the tree to allow the group to enter Kiev. This time Tikhon plays the tree at cards and keeps winning consistently. This infuriates the tree and it sheds its top, becoming a horrifying stump with super-long tentacle-like roots. The tree attacks our heroes. The rats are in this plot for a reason and they swarm the tree stump causing the tree to panic and allowing the heroes to knock a wall down upon the tree and restore Kiev to its rightful ruler.
It is tempting to see political commentary in this film. After all, it has to fit the situation in the country in which it is shown in order to appeal to the audience and to gross the equivalent of 19 million American dollars that it has made so far. One interpretation might be that the film comments on the situation in Ukraine, a land whose political future is of great concern for Russians. After all, the capital of Ukraine is Kiev/Kyiv, just as the film, and its former leader Viktor Yanukovych can definitely be seen as inept, money-obsessed, and willing to abandon his country when things go badly, just like the Prince of this film. Since the current leader Petro Poroshenko is extremely wealthy and has actually been referred to as the chocolate king (he owns Roshen Chocolates), perhaps the film is meant to comment on his leadership. In either case, if one places the inept ruler in Ukraine, then the message can be that this is a country in need of rescue and three great Russian knights, symbolic of Russia as a whole, need to go to the land of Kiev and restore order.
It is even more interesting to see this film as a commentary on the Russian leadership, with the criticism displaced in time (to the medieval past) and in place (from Moscow to Kiev) to avoid getting Mel’nitsa into trouble. Looking at it this way, the film can be taken to imply that Russia’s leader is paranoid, money-hungry, and inept, perhaps even excessively influenced by a tree or trees, if one believes the rumors that Putin is a member of the Anastasia Cult and a devotee of the Ringing Cedars. If the film is a commentary on Putin, then just as the Prince sees threats everywhere (the counselors are viewed as threatening even though all they are doing is preparing an anniversary surprise; the peasant with the scythe is threatening, even though all he is doing is feeding horses) so Putin can be said to be paranoid, dispatching his opposition without cause.
The threat presented in this film is an internal one. In the early Three Knights films the enemy had been external: dark, Turkic figures like Tugarin and more generally Asiatic figures like Ilya’s enemy Robber Nightingale and the Queen of Shamakhan with her Muslim-style veil and Asiatic dress. These were likely a reference to the Turkic peoples in the various republics of the Russian Federation whose citizens were flooding Moscow and other major Russian cities at the time those films were made. In The Ploy there are no external enemies: no character in the film looks foreign and even the pirates look Caucasian, though rather scruffy. The gypsies are dark, but not much of a threat. The enemies are within: they are in the Prince’s imagination and in other people’s greed, be it the desire to win easy money by gambling or to make money dishonestly as the pirates try to do.
Paranoia and greed are emphasized by contrasting characters with these flaws to good and noble characters who are free of them. The paranoia of the ruler is contrasted to the overly trusting nature of the heroes. The knights cannot imagine that anyone would cheat and they insist on acting honorably even when this comes at great personal cost, such as the loss of their property. When the prince tells them that he has lost the key to Kiev, they ask if the game was fair. When the prince admits that he really did lose, they insist that he must honor his debts. Only when Tikhon convinces them that the tree cheated are they willing to battle the tree on their own boevik-style terms. The lust for money that the tree exploits is contrasted to making money by honest work. Merchants who trade honestly must be protected and pirates who seek to profit from the labor of others must be punished and this is precisely what the three knights are doing at the beginning of the film. Profit by honest work is good. Easy money, by contrast, not only gets one into trouble, it is a lowly, primitive desire because, in the film, animals wager alongside humans.
A minor motif of this film is another hint that it is a comment on Putin. In the film, the Prince repeatedly tries to be a regular guy—and fails miserably. When out in the city trying to send a pigeon-gram, he does not understand that, if he wants to behave like an ordinary person, he will need to pay like one. When he wants to attract a flying horse, he sings a song about digging potatoes, the sort of song that a farmer might sing. Yet when he actually ends up on a farm he does not realize that there are no balconies, no gazebos, that milk is not sterilized, and one must fetch water from a well. Does this hint at Putin’s efforts to portray himself as a man of the people, a macho guy capable of hard work and of mastering nature?
Even the Trickster motif with which this review began can be seen as a commentary on the leadership in the Kremlin. Julius, the trickster-figure, has a constant companion: the Prince of Kiev. Whether in Kiev or outside the city, the two walk together, talk together, and act together. At one point the prince tries to end the equality between himself and the horse and to make Julius serve as his mount, a suggestion that Julius immediately dismisses. The two share many character traits. Both are cowards and paranoid. Both are lazy; they complain about all of the work that they have to do when, in reality, neither does anything. At the same time, the two are very different. While Julius is the loveable trickster, the prince is not; he is merely pathetic. Julius breaks the rules; the prince does not understand what the rules are. Is this another comment on Russia’s leadership rather than a description of the prince of medieval Rus’?
University of Alberta
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Three Knights: The Ploy. Russia, 2014
Color, 75 minutes
Director Konstantin Feoktistov
Scriptwriters Aleksandr Boiarskii, Svetlana Sachenko
Production Design Svetlana Degtiareva
Music Mikhail Chertishchev
Editing Sergei Glezin
Voices: Sergei Makovetskii, Dmitrii Vysotskii, Dmitrii Nagiev, Oleg Kulikovich, Valerii Solov’ev, Dmitrii Bykovskii-Romashov, Gosha Kutsenko, Nargiz Zakirova, Anatolii Petrov, Liia Medvedeva
Producers Sergei Sel’ianov, Aleksandr Boiarskii
Production Studio Mel’nitsa, Film Company СТВ
Distribution (RF) Nashe kino
Konstantin Feoktistov: The Three Knights. The Ploy (Tri bogatyria: Khod konem, 2014)
reviewed by Natalie Kononenko© 2015