Thursday, 5 May 2016

Poetry and motion – Terje Vigen (1917) John Sweeney and Lillian Henley, Kennington Bioscope

I’m not sure if Victor Sjöström and John Ford ever met but from their mutual love of spectacular nature and their belief in The Strong Man (or Woman), I’m sure they would have got on like a wooden cabin on fire.

These two films came early in both men’s careers and show how advanced performance and cinematography had become by 1917. Two wildly different subjects and locations but two master film-makers at work capturing wild drama against stunning backdrops…

Out West… Bucking Broadway (1917) with Cyrus Gabrysch

This film was only rediscovered a few years back and looks very fine from the restoration on view. It features many Ford trademarks that were no doubt anything but at this relatively stage: beautiful scenery, hard-working ranch hands, a massed brawl – unrehearsed a free-for-all just like JF like them – and a slight story, balanced by not taking itself too seriously. It’s a fun film and very good-looking.

Harry Carey stars as Cheyenne Harry, the pride of the ranch and the apple of his boss’s daughter Helen’s eye. Helen is played by Molly Malone who looks far too young for Harry (39) and yet was 29 so, you can relax South Yorkshire Police Force…

Harry and Helen
Harry carves Helen a heart which she promises to keep and the couple are delighted when her father (L. M. Wells) agrees to their union and future life in a little log cabin Harry has built.

But… into this Wyoming paradise enters a gentleman from New York City, name of Thornton (Vester Pegg) a man with a baddie’s moustache if ever you saw one! He drives his fast car and eastern allure straight into the heart of the young couple’s relationship and before Harry knows it, has started to tempt Helen away with his talk of the bright lights, the big city…

Harry Carey and Molly Malone
As Harry and Helen’s engagement is announced it’s already too late and his intended has been swept off her feet, into Thornton’s car and the express train to NYC. Harry and her Father are distraught.

In New York which, sadly, we don’t get to see; any exteriors clearly being in LA… Helen is introduced to Thornton’s “sister” Gladys (Gertrude Astor) who makes very strange eyes at the younger woman: what’s really going on – white slave trade or something even more transgressive?!

Gladys' mysterious gaze
Helen begins to wonder and sends her wooden heart back to Harry who, as all cowboys do in times of emotional stress, was about to head off on his lonesome. He quickly reverses his decision on receipt of her letter and – literally – catches the next express to New York chasing after it on horseback and clambering on at speed – ye-hah!!

It’s only a matter of time before Thornton is showing his true colours – drinking, messing his hair up and pushing Helen around in front of his weird friends… and then it’s a question of how long it will take Harry to come to the rescue…

It’s a fun film aided by Cyrus’ G’s splendid accompaniment: a man equally at home with cattle wrangling in Wyoming dust as with Park Avenue sophistication and the chaos that ensues when both worlds collide.

Up North… Terje Vigen (There Was a Man) (1917) with John Sweeney and Lillian Henley

I’d previously watched the Kino DVD of this film but this was an altogether more immersive experience: the BFI’s 35mm film was screened and, in the absence of English translations, Lillian Henley read out a translation with actorly precision and powerful, controlled tones. The film is based on the poem by Henrik Ibsen and Lilian’s voice worked perfectly with the rise and fall of the verse: perfectly pitched!

John Sweeney accompanied with some of his most dramatic lines all the while allowing Lillian the space to vocalise before re-joining the action out at sea. The result was simply one of the best silent events I’ve witnessed at the Bioscope or elsewhere: it should be bottled and prescribed for all those in need of some silent spirit!

Victor Sjöström
The film marks a step change in Sjostrom’s direction and the beginning of his glory years aided and abetted by cinematographer Julius Jaenzon. Here Jaenzon captures the rugged coastline not far from Stockholm, which passes for the unforgiving Grimstad coast where the poem was originally set, whilst there are shots on board pilot’s boats, frigates and schooners that put the audience right in the middle of the relentless North Sea.

Camera angles may help a lot but so often we see Sjöström himself, climbing up rigging to splice the sails, rowing against the tides and diving under the murk to evade capture. He was a brave performer as well as innovative director and pushes his own performance to the limits here where his ability to switch from strength to vulnerability is remarkable. There is a man and one who loses all but still finds his soul in spite of a rage vast enough to match the sea storms.

Young Terje
Sjöström’s Terje is a creature of epic desolation – hair and beard robbed of all colour by the loss of his family in the English blockade of Norway between 1809-1815 – but before we know the cause we understand the effect as he rages full-on against the sea.

In flashback we see his previous noble standing and the joy upon his return from long moths at sea of discovering his new born daughter. Happiness lasts until his girl is a few years older and crumbles when war is declared. The British prevent all supplies and Terje, their strongest and bravest, sets off to smuggle food back.

Happy return
He evades the patrols but on his return with three precious sacks of supplies, he gets chased down over agonising and desperate minutes by an English privateer who cares not for his tearful pleading and simply laughs in his face. He’s locked up for long years and unaware of his family’s fate and when his hell is ended by peace, he returns home to the worst possible news.

Thus has he been made and yet he exists as a pilot helping ships in danger to navigate the cruel rocks he knows so well. But he is bitter and sick – a hollow man. When chance offers him the chance to even the score with the very man who condemned him to this fate… can he possibly resist?

You’ll need to watch it to find out.

Terje Vigen is available on a Kino DVD with the earlier Ingeborg Holm (1913) and you can buy it from Amazon and all the usual places but... it’s nothing like the real, live, thing!

Encore Bioscope! Encore!!


  1. When I saw this last year at the Picturehouse in Cambridge we had a 'live' translation on screen, which kind of worked but having an actual voice delivering the intertitles sounds so much better; a sublime silent experience 😊

    1. Lillian read so well and such well moderated tones -a real pro! A really good evening! :-)