Saturday, 5 January 2013

Turkish delight… The Chess Player (1927)

A mechanical chess player known as The Turk defeated almost all opponents from 1770 to 1854 and baffled the best minds of Europe including Napoleon Bonaparte (not to mention Benjamin Franklin). Remarkably it was only “exposed” in the 1820s... some trick.

In Raymond Bernard’s 1927 film, The Chess Player, a similar device is used to hide the leader of the Polish forces from the occupying Russian army. It’s an ingenious mix of illusory fact with fiction.

Charles Dullin and friend
Clearly treading a similar path to Abel Gance, Bernard’s film is full of camera mobility, rapid cross-cutting and attempts to show the inner lives of its characters.

Set in Eighteenth Century Poland after the Russian invasion of 1776, the film was adapted from the novel by Henry Dupuis-Mazuel and stars Pierre Blanchar as the pig-tailed Polish noble, Boleslas Vorowski, a master chess player and military leader.

Empress Catherine II’s troops have over-run Poland and the armies from both sides work in uneasy alliance sharing quarters in Boleslas’ home town of Vilnius. On the outskirts lives the inventor Baron von Kempelen (Charles Dullin) a man who’s genius has earned him royal favour and yet who seems to harbour deep agendas.

His ward, Sophie Novinska (Edith Jehanne) is seen as a symbol of Polish independence with her face painted on the army’s standards and yet she may not be entirely all she seems… Even though she loves him like a brother, she does not reciprocate Bolselas’ romantic feelings and instead is drawn to his unlikely best friend, a Russian officer Serge Oblomoff (Pierre Batcheff)… a decent enough chap in spite of the heavy foundation and powdered wig – fashion eh?

Edith Jehanne and Pierre Batcheff
Boleslas plays chess against the Russian Major Nicolaieff (Camille Bert) as the officer’s relax in the mess. A Polish ballerina, Wanda (Jackie Monnier), performs for them but this is not enough for some of the Russians who pursue her into a locked room… Boleslas rushes to her aid and starts a fight that sparks a war.

The Poles succeed in driving the Russians from Vilnius but they are eventually defeated by the latter’s superior numbers. The battle is filmed in style by Bernard with camera’s tracking the cavalry charge and with dynamic inter-cutting showing different facets of the chaos.

Sophie watches on in tortured isolation from her grand house… hoping for the survival of both her friends and appalled at the deaths in her name. Jehanne emotes superbly, playing out her grief on the piano – very 1927 but very effective.

Boleslas survives the battle but is badly wounded, as the Russians search him out the Baron has an idea…

Pierre Blanchar and Charles Dullin
The second half of the film shows the tour of The Turk, a mechanical chess player which conceals the recuperating Boleslas. Accompanied by von Kempelen, Sophie and Wanda, the mechanical wonder beats all comers and travels ever closer to Germany and freedom.

But, Major Nicolaieff recognises the playing style in losing to the machine and realises that the clock-work grand master hides a secret. He persuades their host, King Stanislas, to send the Turk to the Empress in St Petersburg… out of the frying pan…
Catherine's a great big cheat...
At court the Empress is highly amused by this new toy but orders it to be executed after she fails to beat it and tries to cheat… Boleslas sweeps all the pieces from the board (the real Turk would also react similarly to any moves outside the rules).

It is also revealed that the Empress knows Sophie’s real heritage and that she is a Russian princess and she sends Nicolaieff off to the Baron’s castle to find the evidence required to destroy Sophie’s credibility…

Pierre Blanchar and Edith Jehanne
Can Boleslas be rescued from the firing squad, who will Sophie chose between pigtaled and powder-puff princes and will the cause of Polish independence be maintained?

There’s a lot packed into the last part of the film and it feels very much like a novel turned to film with Bernard cramming in as many resolutions as possible.

Camille Bert gets a shock...
But The Chess Player also contains some stunning sequences especially those at the Baron’s castle when Nicolaieff encounters the full extent of his invention in one of the most macabre silent set pieces I’ve seen.

I watched the Milestone DVD which uses the restoration overseen by Kevin Brownlow, Patrick Stanbury and David Gill. It is enhanced by Henri Rabaud’s stirring new score performed by the Orchestre de Radio-Television-Luxembourg ably conducted by Carl Davis.

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