Monday, 19 December 2011

Edward Sloman remembered... Surrender (1927)

This is a slightly odd but very well-made film of love and duty from an almost neglected director; Edward Sloman.

Kevin Browlow’s “Parade” stopped to include Sloman and bemoan the fact that so few of his works survived. Whilst there are slightly more than was thought at the time, Brownlow was especially impressed with his print of Sloman’s 1927 film, Surrender.

Based on Lea Lyon, Alexander Brody's 1915 drama, Surrender tells of a Jewish community in an Austrian village on the border with the Russian empire at the outbreak of the Great War. Whilst political tensions are running high, life in the village seems undisturbed. The village’s moral leader is Rabbi Mendel Lyon (powerfully played by Nigel De Brulier…strangely reminiscent of Tom Baker), who, as well as providing spiritual guidance, arbitrates in disputes and provides wise counsel.

He has a daughter, Lea Lyon (Mary Philbin) whom he dotes on and who is betrothed to Joshua (Otto Matieson), an eager young man one suspects early on isn’t quite smart enough for her.

Into this setting comes a Russian prince, Constantin, played with superb energy by the great Ivan Mozzhukhin (Ivan Mosjukine here) in his only Hollywood film. Having established himself as a star in Europe, most notably in Casanova (made earlier in 1927), Mozzhukhin was sourced as a potential Valentino substitute following The Great Lover’s passing. He was made to have plastic surgery to shorten his nose whilst an interpreter had to relay Sloman’s direction as Mozzhukhin – seemingly – spoke little English.

There is an exceptional outdoor sequence when we first find Constantin out hunting. Brownlow remarks on the excellent camera work showing the Prince’s view of his quarry which turns out be only a squirrel which he refuses to shoot. Soon entirely more impressive fair comes within his sights as he finds Lea sitting beside the river, she is shoe-less after his dog has retrieved her footwear and marooned on a rock.

Constantin “rescues” her and the two quickly strike up a rapport as she is charmed by his skilled courtship. This fits with Mozzhukhin’s “Casanova” persona and some commentators have argued that what comes next was “out of character” given his previous casting but, surely, an actor is the sum of all his parts…not just the one? OK, there is Hugh Grant…and there was Valentino…but Mozzhukhin could clearly act!

The couple are interrupted by Constantin’s troops and Lea’s father; it is time for war and the Rabbi has, unknowingly, only just begun the defence of his daughter’s honour.

The Cossacks begin their invasion and Sloman’s direction is superb as he shows the clashing together of their army and the village. Two farm workers see the advancing army and speed on horseback to the still peaceful village to relay the news: “The Cossacks are coming. THOUSANDS OF THEM!” scream the intertitles superimposed over the men as they arrive with their warning.

But, it’s too late and the village is quickly over run.

Constantin recognises the Rabbi and seeks out his daughter. She refuses his advances and is reminded of her “duty” to love Joshua. Constantin scoffs at this, love should be an instinct…yet this doesn’t prevent him from trying to force Lea into his own arms. In his anger he gives her an ultimatum: she must come to his room that night or he will burn down the village with all its inhabitants.

In spite of the moral dilemma, Lea decides that committing this sin is the only way to save the village. There’s another great sequence when she is shown walking through the village between houses boarded up with desperate hands reaching out for help and the Russian soldiers holding flaming torches ready to follow their orders.

Lea reaches Constantin’s room and the village is saved… But how far has she been made to go against her beliefs, how cruel has Constantin been and... will she be damned for her actions?

Soon the Austrian counter attack reaches the village and it is the Cossacks’ turn to flee. Is there any kind of future for Lea and Constantin?

The film diverges from the play in its resolution and this is true to form for Hollywood of the time – without giving too much away. This may account for it’s less than entirely coherent storyline, but it’s an engaging story none-the-less. Whilst Sloman directs expertly with a good deal of camera movement and vitality, he paces the story well and brings out the best from the actors and their characters.

The situation is melodramatic, as was the play, but also realistic enough for audiences still recovering from "the war to end all wars" and at a time when the Hebrew faith was no less contentious in some quarters, than it was in the following decade and beyond.

Mary Philbin does well to match Mozzhukhin’s dynamism and the two make an eye-catching and, ultimately sympathetic pair. This is a stretch given Constantin’s brutal threat to the village but he may have expected her favour based on their previous meeting and possibly that’s the way Russian Princes behaved when thwarted... in wartime (in Hollywood). Philbin is mostly remembered today for two horror films, Phantom of the Opera and The Man Who Laughs (I love that this was the template for Batman's Joker!) but had a fair dramatic range as shown here.

But the star is really Sloman. Maybe as Matthew Sweet has recently written, we are fascinated by silent film because so much is lost or in ruins – Surrender is certainly bloomin’ hard to get hold of. Maybe it’s just nostalgia for a period we never knew? Or, just maybe, it’s because we enjoy reconnecting with the simple skills of film directing and acting faced with an excess of over-produced and self-referential modern movies?

If it’s pure hand-crafted and hand-cranked film you’re after, Edward Sloman knew how to make it. Surrender proves that! It is a shame that the film and more of his work isn’t readily available… maybe one day.