Michael Strogoff (1926) A Silent Film Review

One of the finest, best-acted and most beautiful mega-epics ever made, Michael Strogoff has catapulted to the top of my favorites list. The compliment is not given lightly. Jules Verne’s red-blooded Siberian adventure comes to life in a lavish screen adaptation. Massive in scale, the film still manages to keep sight of its humanity. It also boasts imaginative editing, skillful performances, innovative camera work and gorgeous tinting and stencil color.

I will also be covering three talkie versions of the film. Click here to skip to the talkies.

Home Media Availability: Not currently available on home media.

You can take the boy out of Siberia…

Being a fan of silent cinema, I am used to disappointment. Some of the best silent movies have never been released on DVD, Blu-ray, high-quality streaming or any other home media and viewing them is something of a challenge. It sometimes takes months or even years of patience before a copy of a movie becomes available from, ahem, legitimate sources.

Vintage card from my collection
Vintage card from my collection

Then, occasionally, there are movies that just sort of fall into your lap. Michael Strogoff was like that for me. I had seen the title mentioned before in passing but had never made any particular effort to track it down. I happened to have access to a copy of the film while I was reviewing Ivan Mosjoukine in Surrender and decided to give it a try for research purposes. (Michael Strogoff is the movie that got Mosjoukine invited to Hollywood.) The film runs nearly three hours so I thought I would just watch a little to get a taste.

Oh my word. Three hours have never passed so quickly. Michael Strogoff is one of those films that scores a bull’s-eye in every aspect of movie making. The acting, the direction, the editing, the sets, the costumes, the action scenes, the script… Everything is exquisite!

Come along with me! I can promise you a mega-epic with brains, beauty, character, heart and more Ivan Mosjoukine than you can shake a stick at!
Come along with me! I can promise you a mega-epic with brains, beauty, character, heart and more Ivan Mosjoukine than you can shake a stick at!

You should know that I have a weakness for old school mega-epics, particularly the ones that manage to blend in heavy character development. Lawrence of Arabia is my favorite talkie, if that gives you any clue. By old school, I mean that the movie was actually filmed on location, not in front of a green screen, and that when they say they have a cast of thousands, they mean thousands of living humans and not CGI sprites. Basically, the kind of thing that has not been made in decades. Michael Strogoff pretty much had my name on it, painted in big neon letters.

(This review will also give me a chance to share some of the goodies from my small-but-growing Michael Strogoff memorabilia collection. Hurrah! Screencaps are from a 9.5mm print in Christopher Bird’s private collection.)

Like this clipping!
Like this clipping!

And, I must add, it was an ideal antidote for the disaster that was Surrender. Without going into too much detail (the review was long enough!) I will just say that Hollywood managed to sap all of Mosjoukine’s charisma by casting him as a genocidal rapist. You read that right. Yes, he was supposed to be the romantic hero. In fact, watching Surrender, one begins to wonder if this Mosjoukine guy’s reputation was just a lot of hot air. I know I caught myself thinking that—and I had just binge-watched some of his finest movies! Michael Strogoff was a perfectly-timed reminder of just how wonderful Mosjoukine could be when he was in his element. (“His element” being any movie that is not Surrender.)

Go big or go home. A cast of thousands and sets to match.
Go big or go home. A cast of thousands and sets to match.

Let’s get down to the brass tacks of why it is one of the best epics of any era and certainly the best silent epic you have (probably) never heard of.

The quality was there from the beginning. Michael Strogoff can boast of first-rate source material. Jules Verne may be remembered today for his groundbreaking science fiction but he also wrote his share of earth-bound adventure stories. Michel Strogoff, one of his most action-packed novels, was published in France in 1876 and has been filmed over a dozen times by various nations. Confirmation on early film is spotty at best but the 1926 version seems to have been the fourth screen iteration and the second feature-length adaptation. (No word on the survival status of the 1908 Essanay version or the 1910 Edison version. UCLA has one reel of the 1914 five-reel Lubin version on 9.5mm safety film.) It is also, to my knowledge, the only version that was made by a majority-Russian cast and crew.

Ballrooms...
Ballrooms…

Making the movie in Russia was out of the question. Almost everyone involved was anti-Bolshevik, had fled the revolution and refused all invitations to return. Latvia and Norway stood in for Siberia with thousands of members of the Latvian army playing both Russians and Tartars. In case it wasn’t clear by now, this movie is “big” in every sense of the word.

And battlefields
And battlefields

The story concerns a fictional 1860 uprising of Tartars in Siberia during the reign of Czar Alexander II, aka Czar You-Wanna-Buy-Alaska? A rebellious Russian officer named Ivan Ogareff (Acho Chakatouny) has incited the assorted tribes to unite under the leadership of Feofar Khan and the result has been devastating.

(Feofar Khan is played by Boris de Fast, last seen trying to recruit John Barrymore for the Bolshevik cause in Tempest. De Fast was director Victor Tourjansky’s brother-in-law and he co-wrote the screen adaptation for Michael Strogoff with Tourjansky and Mosjoukine.)

Boris de Fast in full regalia.
Boris de Fast in full regalia.

It seems that eastern Russia will fall if something is not done quickly. Unfortunately, the government’s hands are tied as the Tartars have cut the telegraph lines and there is no way to communicate with the city of Irkutsk, the last stronghold of the Russians in Siberia. The city is over 5,000 versts from Moscow, making this a very challenging problem. (A verst is 500 sazhen. I knew you would want to know.)

The czar
The czar

Czar Alexander (Eugène Gaidaroff) realizes that the only hope for the empire is for someone to hand deliver a warning to Irkutsk. But who can do it? It has to be someone with the intelligence to keep the mission secret and avoid capture, the loyalty to take on such a dangerous mission in the first place and the stamina to endure Siberia and that 5,000 verst journey.

(Oh, all right. A verst is just over one kilometer.)

Such a messenger is found among the ranks of the Czar’s couriers. He is Captain Michael Strogoff (Ivan Mosjoukine), a native Siberian and model soldier. He disguises himself as a civilian, takes on a false name and sets out on his mission.

Strogoff accepting his mission.
Strogoff accepting his mission.

Now if this were a modern Hollywood blockbuster, they probably would have found the messenger breaking rocks in some maximum security prison or hidden in a survivalist cabin. No matter of national security can be solved by someone who lacks a criminal record or at least has a pattern of contempt for authority. Let me tell you, I am getting just a little bit tired of it. It’s a cheap way of building conflict and is now so clichéd that it means nothing.

This is the fate of a nation we are talking about. How about actually asking a person who is capable, law-abiding and physically up to the task? Why, it’s so crazy it just might work!

What do you mean Captain Strogoff is Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean and Reverent? He’ll never do as a hero!
What do you mean Captain Strogoff is Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean and Reverent? He’ll never do as a hero!

The first leg of the journey is by train and Michael is seated near Nadia Fedor (Nathalie Kovanko, wife of Viktor Tourjansky and sister of Boris de Fast), who is also on her way to Siberia. Not the outskirts either. She is heading all the way to Irkutsk by herself to see her exiled father. At the end of the rail line, however, all of the passengers are told that the frontier is closed and all passes are revoked. Michael’s pass is, of course, specially approved and he is allowed to continue. As he leaves, he sees Nadia, who is now stranded. She has no family except her father, no home to return to and nowhere to go but Irkutsk. Michael feels sorry for her, claims that she is his sister and she is allowed to continue on her journey.

Michael Strogoff is courier to the czar and travel agent to ladies in distress.
Michael Strogoff is courier to the czar and travel agent to ladies in distress.

Michael and Nadia have two unwitting sets of companions on their trip. First, there is the somewhat comical duo of Harry Blount (Henri Debain) and Alcide Jolivet (Gabriel de Gravone), a pair of war correspondents from Britain and France, respectively. They act as audience surrogates and comedy relief.

Then there is the more sinister team of Sangarre (Marie-Louise Vois) and none other than Ivan Ogareff himself. Ogareff heard that the czar has sent a courier and he means to track him down. Sangarre is his wily Tartar agent and mistress. They are a dangerous pair.

Ogareff disguised as a traveling entertainer.
Ogareff disguised as a traveling entertainer.

These three duos make their way across Siberia, their paths intersect repeatedly but they are not fully aware of one another’s missions. Of course, Michael and Nadia are starting to fall in love but his duty comes first. Being a pretty smart cookie, Nadia soon realizes who Michael must be but she keeps this knowledge to herself and begins to actively assist him in accomplishing his mission.

What’s this? A helpful heroine with common sense? It’s true! Thank you, movie, I needed that.

Nadia puts two and two together.
Nadia puts two and two together.

As I said before, Michael Strogoff runs nearly three hours and does not waste a single second of it so we will not be covering every twist and turn of the plot. Now that we have the heroes and villains established, let’s talk about the content and tone of the film.

Once the characters cross into Siberia, Michael Strogoff becomes very action-heavy. We have runaway horses, a barge battle, much charging from the Tartars and our hero has to slay a hungry bear with a knife. And that is only the first half.

FIGHT!!!
FIGHT!!!

The scenes of mounted combat are exciting and beautifully filmed but the actual hand-to-hand stuff is suitably ugly. At a time when every costumed action film worth its salt featured fencing in the swashbuckling style, our hero instead fights with what he would realistically have to hand: axes, knives and his fists. The combat is bloody and rather realistic, no plasticy, glamorized action for this crew. (The notoriously idiotic New York Times critic, Mordaunt Hall, was horrified that Michael did not fight with something nicer than an ax or knife. Ungentlemanly, that’s what it was. I have no response to that.)

Strogoff and his ungentlemanly weapon of choice.
Strogoff and his ungentlemanly weapon of choice.

Michael Strogoff is an epic but it keeps its feet on the ground. The fight scenes are the most obvious examples but I also appreciated other details that kept the film grounded. Both Michael and Nadia show convincing signs of wear and tear as the movie goes on. At one point, our hero shaves with broken glass. We are most definitely not in Hollywood, kids.

Strogoff shaves with broken glass...
Strogoff shaves with broken glass…

That’s not to say that there are no stylistic flourishes. Quite the opposite! Around the beginning of act two, Michael is shot in the head (this man in unkillable!) but he manages to drag himself to safety and then finally collapses. We then get an extended scene of hallucination, delirium and fever dreams. You know, just to remind us with whom we have the pleasure.

And survives being shot in the head.
And survives being shot in the head.

Victor (or Viktor or Viatcheslav) Tourjansky has a long and complicated history and it is frankly beyond the scope of this review to cover it so I will just be talking about what he accomplished with this particular film. (Trust me, it’s for the best.) Like Mosjoukine, Tourjansky had a brief stint in Hollywood (he was one of many directors who tried to right the ship that was Tempest) but he remains best known for the historical epics he made in Europe. With Michael Strogoff, Tourjansky shows a keen sense of balance between story and spectacle. Further, he makes excellent use of rapid cuts, close-ups, point-of-view shots, irises and fades.

Stylish!
Stylish!

The scene that is most often mentioned for its technical prowess is the ballroom scene that opens the film. Czar Alexander hears the dreadful news from Siberia and imagines the Tartars lining up for a devastating charge against the outnumbered Russians. As these scenes play, they are intercut with the dancers at the ball, whose joyous charge toward the camera is an ironic counterpoint to their dying countrymen and Tartar aggressors. This kinetic scene perfectly encapsulates the conscience of the monarch. Kevin Brownlow described this as one of the finest sequences in Russian or French film of the silent era. I bow to his superior knowledge and can simply add that, from what I have seen, I have to agree.

The other famous scene in Michael Strogoff is the sequence in which our hero falls into the hands of the Tartars. This section, along with the opening ball, was deemed worthy of wondrous stencil color. (Stencil color was just that. Stencils were laboriously cut and each frame was tinted with various colors. The process looks very watercolor-like and became quite sophisticated near the end of the silent era.) The dancers and warriors of the Tartar camp look fabulous, yes, but the color also elevates the dramatic nature of the scene. (Mordaunt Hall also did not think much of stencil color. May I harm him?)

Low quality VHS but you get the idea.
Low quality VHS but you get the idea.
Ditto.
Ditto.

Ivan Ogareff plans to take Michael’s identity and he presents the czar’s courier as a gift to Feofar Khan. Michael is sentenced to be blinded with a white-hot sword blade. As an added cruelty, his mother, who has already endured torture for his sake, is made to watch it happen. Tourjansky plays the scene for maximum pathos and suspense but also manages to keep it tasteful. While other film versions of the story keep the scene brief (possibly to please censors) or turn it into all kinds of wrong (in the post-censor world), the 1926 version allows it to play out with every emotion explored. Mosjoukine does some of the finest acting of his career and, considering the career he had, that is saying a lot.

michael-strogoff-18michael-strogoff-08michael-strogoff-16michael-strogoff-07

Michael is dealing with feelings of rage, humiliation, helplessness, filial love, empathy, vengeance, duty, fear, despair… What’s going on in his head is complicated. It would have been easy to do a straightforward, heroic, bloodied-but-unbowed sort of performance (almost every other onscreen Michael Strogoff goes that route) but Mosjoukine does not take the easy way out. He delves into every possible emotion, acting mostly with his eyes. Further, the scene is tightly controlled and he does not give in to the temptation to overact.

Mosjoukine acts the heck out of the scene.
Mosjoukine acts the heck out of the scene.

I am not one of those people who gives random standing ovations but my word! That was astonishing!

I had never read the book Michael Strogoff (don’t worry, I fixed that before the review) so I did not know where it was going. This is me:

They’re not going to burn his eyes out. He’s the star. They’re his best feature.

They’d better not burn his eyes out.

They’re not… oh my god they are….

Eeeeeek!

And Mosjoukine looks hurt. Really hurt. He is shaking from shock, his eyes are bleeding… I believe the only silent performer who equaled Mosjoukine in acting injured was Lon Chaney. Now THAT is a combination that would have been worth exploring.

For goodness sake, movie!
For goodness sake, movie!

Praise must also go to Jeanne Brindeau, who plays Michael’s mother. She is heartbreaking in her scenes as she watches her son’s punishment. I must say that I also appreciate how beautifully Tourjansky shoots her. Brindeau was sixty-six years old at the time of filming, an age when actresses are often asked to emphasize their years. Lillian Gish often commented that D.W. Griffith was one of few directors who was just as concerned with beautifying the mothers as he was with making his leading ladies look lovely. Well, we can add Tourjansky to that list.

(The Passion aspects of this scene are pretty clear. It’s a pity that, in a rare moment of ham-fistedness, Tourjansky briefly uses light to make a halo appear around the blind Michael later in the film.)

Two generations of Strogoffs.
Two generations of Strogoffs.

This is some of the best acting in the film but Michael Strogoff is full of scenes that invite wordy reviewers (ahem!) to wax poetic. The ensemble cast is just that good. However, I will control myself and move on.

I know it’s stylish to sniff at leading ladies who were married to their directors but I cannot think of a better Nadia than Nathalie Kovanko. The character was only sixteen in the book (!) but the screenwriting trio and director made the intelligent decision of upping Nadia’s age by a full decade. Kovanko was twenty-seven at the time of filming and at the height of her beauty and talent. Her age and experience also allow her character to deal with Mosjoukine’s Michael on much more equal terms. Kovanko plays Nadia as a naturally calm, practical person who feels deeply but does not let her emotions run away with her. In fact, Michael is the more emotional of the pair, which is understandable as he is carrying the fate of a nation on his shoulders.

Nadia is a reasonable and intelligent adult. Fancy that.
Nadia is a reasonable and intelligent adult. Fancy that.

Of course, it stands to reason that a capable and intelligent hero like Michael Strogoff would not fall for a ninny (or be the son of a wimp) but you would be amazed how many heroic figures do just that. You see, by making both Michael’s mother and lover powerful figures, Michael himself comes off as more powerful. You’d think that this little fact would have spread but we are still saddled with ninny heroines in all too many modern films. (Or, even worse, faux action girls.)

Understated romance.
Understated romance.

(Nadia does a bit of sideline-standing during the climactic fight but she just had an enormous-but-I-will-not-reveal-it-as-it-is-a-spoiler shock and when she recovers she tries to get help so I can’t fault her too much.)

One thing that I have always appreciated about Russian films is how they handle romance. While there are a few soppy movies, generally Russian romances are understated and practical. While Hollywood heroes would fall to their knees with grand, sweeping gestures and announce their adoration in poetic terms, Russian leading men tended to take a more realistic approach.

He's a handy guy to have around.
He’s a handy guy to have around.

For example, watch how Michael and Nadia become close. They meet in a railway car and she is saddled with a large, sleepy seatmate who has fallen asleep on top of her. Michael trades seats with her. Later, she is trying to watch a gypsy performance but cannot see above the crowd. Michael lifts her onto a barrel. When Nadia is guiding the blind Michael through the snowy mountains, she grows tired. He senses it and carries her the rest of the way. These gestures are done with a minimum of fuss and drama. He cares about her well-being and does his best to make her comfortable. It’s as simple as that.

Nadia, for her part, is equally practical. After Michael has been blinded and abandoned by the Tartars, he is flailing around in half-panicked disorientation. Nadia is visibly upset after witnessing his torture but her first thought is how she can realistically help. She calms Michael, helps him to stand and says that she will be his eyes.

Nadia's turn to rescue Michael.
Nadia’s turn to rescue Michael.

Michael and Nadia don’t need to make big pronouncements or go overboard with crazy love tokens. They are kindred spirits and their care for another is all the romantic expression they need.

I find this way of handling the love story to be refreshing and extremely effective. In fact, I far prefer it to the silent Hollywood grandstanding, limb-kissing and sundry mushy gestures. (Never was a fan of what I call the Pepe Le Pew school of romance. Unless, you know, actually done by Pepe Le Pew.)

Total opposite of a Hollywood romance of the period.
Total opposite of a Hollywood romance of the period.

Throughout the film, you will see Mosjoukine and Kovanko repeat the same set of gestures, each time with a different purpose and a richer emotional impact. For example, after Michael saves her from a bear, Nadia doesn’t say anything but places her hand above his heart. Later, when Michael is having an emotional breakdown, Nadia repeats the gesture to show that she still has faith in him and his courage. When Michael is blinded and asks her to leave him, she tells him she will stay and touches above his heart once again. It is quite powerful.

A gesture of thanks...
A gesture of thanks…
And then of comfort.
And then of comfort.

Last, but certainly not least, I must praise the screenplay. As I stated before, Michel Strogoff is a first-rate adventure novel and deserves to be rated with Jules Verne’s best, at least from what I have read. The man was crazy prolific. It’s a reasonably hefty novel, almost 400 pages, and is stuffed to the gills with events and characters. (You can read a free and legal public domain English translation here or enjoy a free audiobook edition thanks to LibraVox.)

The adaptation by Tourjansky, Mosjoukine and de Fast is often cited as the truest to the book. Our trio knew they had a good thing and understood how to adapt the story to a visual medium while staying true to Verne’s vision.

Knock them dead? Is that a promise or a threat?
Knock them dead? Is that a promise or a threat?

I should note, though, that this adaptation is also significant because it actually improves on the original.

Like most bookworms, I get annoyed when movies play fast and loose with the original. It’s not so much that I feel the book is sacred. No, it’s because, 9 times out of 10, the changes are stupid, damage some other aspect of the story or were simply not needed. In most cases, good adaptations stay close to their source.

Vintage chocolate card.
Vintage chocolate card.

That being said, the top screenwriters know what to change and why. Both The Penalty and Stella Maris changed their source novels considerably but the changes were masterfully handled and resulted in much stronger films. (I detail these changes in my reviews of those films. You can read my Stella Maris review here and my review of The Penalty here.)

In the case of Michael Strogoff, Team Tourjansky/Mosjoukine/de Fast made four significant changes, which improved the tale:

Removal of coincidences

Oh boy did nineteenth century writers love their coincidences. No waif could get adopted without discovering that his adoptive father is… his real father! No heroine could get a job as a governess without discovering that her new employer… was the man who reduced her parents to poverty!

Michael returns to his hometown.
Michael returns to his hometown.

The coincidences in the novel Michel Strogoff are not nearly as coarse but there are a few. The biggest is when Michael runs into his mother in Omsk. This is his hometown and he knows his mother is there. You would think he would be on his guard but in all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world… she wanders into the very one that contains both Michael and Ivan Ogareff. This coincidence leads to Michael’s eventual capture.

The design of this picture is gorgeous! Did I mention that? (This is the tavern in Strogoff's hometown.)
The design of this picture is gorgeous! Did I mention that? (This is the tavern in Strogoff’s hometown.)

The movie fixes this nicely. After Michael’s near death experience (i.e. being shot in the head) he manages to get to Omsk and can’t resist trying to see his mother through the window of her house. Now this is certainly ill-advised but understandable since the man very nearly died. His mother spots him and follows. Also understandable as she thinks her son is on the other side of the country.

More for Nadia to do

Nadia was a practical kid in the book but by aging her up, the movie makes her a much more formidable character. There is a misconception that an empowered woman must be a violent woman. In Nadia’s case, she is not a soldier and has never learned how to fight. She is a nice Russian girl from a good-but-disgraced family and she may not have any kung fu moves up her sleeve but she has guts. During one fight scene, she actually saves Michael’s life by pulling him out of the way of a sword slash.

Nadia doesn't know kung fu but she finds ways to help.
Nadia doesn’t know kung fu but she finds ways to help.

Nadia does still have to be rescued a few times but it is not really because she is a woman. After all, the reporters need saving too. She gets into trouble because she is not a native Siberian and does not expect to be randomly attacked by bears. Plus, as stated before, she does her fair share of rescuing. More importantly, she takes charge of her own fate and joins Michael on his mission because she wants to.

I also like the way the story neatly avoids a cliched outcome and treats its heroine like she has a brain. For example, near the end of the first act, Michael’s need for haste and the importance of his mission force him to swallow his pride and back down from a duel with Ivan Ogareff. (Neither man is aware of the other’s true identity.) Nadia sees what has happened and, for a moment is disgusted at Michael’s apparent cowardice.

Nathalie Kovanko out of costume.
Nathalie Kovanko out of costume.

Most stories would stretch this out. (Some later adaptations certainly do.) What’s better than interpersonal conflict? More interpersonal conflict. Well, not always. See, we have an awful lot of Tartars to fight through and bickering can seem petty under such circumstances. In the book, Nadia simply has faith that a brave fellow like Michael must have his reasons for backing down from a fight, she just doesn’t know what they are.

Nadia's complete trust in Michael is refreshing.
Nadia’s complete trust in Michael is refreshing.

The film, however, uses clever editing and flashbacks to show Nadia’s thought process as she puts together the reasons why Michael would fight a bear without hesitation but refuse to take on Ogareff. She recalls whispers of a royal courier and realizes that it is the only possible explanation for what has happened. Her own loyalty to the czar makes her admire Michael all the more. Once again, Nadia is treated as an equal partner in the film.

Slicing the flabby third act

After Michael and Nadia escape the Tartars, it’s a race to get to Irkutsk and warn the Russians that Ivan Ogareff has infiltrated their ranks using Michael’s identity.  This is suspenseful stuff. And the book… kind of takes forever for them to get there. I mean, it’s well-written but something a bit more heart-pounding is called for, at least in my opinion.

Much though I love ogling a bearded Mosjoukine.
Much though I love ogling a bearded Mosjoukine.

The movie cuts a character and a whole lot of scenery description and gets the whole thing done in two scenes, which is all we needed anyway. Well played, my Russian screenwriters, well played.

Handling the hero’s blindness

(Spoiler alert in place for the next two paragraphs.)

Owch.
Owch.

In the original story, Michael was never blind. He wept at the sight of his mother’s despair and the tears dissolved and protected his eyes from the heat of the sword blade. A very Jules Verne way of handling matters. (Science!) Of course, this leads to some issues. He was never blind but he let Nadia drag his carcass across Siberia? Supposedly, he hid his ability to see in order to avoid being questioned by the Tartar invaders but time is of the essence. Wouldn’t it make more sense to admit his vision had returned and race at full speed to Irkutsk? And not drag Nadia into danger with him?

Double owch.
Double owch.

In this film and most of the subsequent adaptations, Michael’s tears save his eyes from being destroyed but they are still badly damaged and he is truly blind for quite a stretch. Michael’s vision begins to return when he and Nadia are taking a rest from their journey but it does not come back completely until right before his climactic battle with Ivan Ogareff.

There are a few sequences that could have done with explanatory title cards. For example, it is not immediately clear why Michael did not destroy the Czar’s letter when he was caught up in a mass prisoner sweep by the Tartars. The book reveals that since the Tartars were headed to Irkutsk anyway, he planned to get lost among the thousands of prisoners and then break away when they neared their destination. He could have escaped at any time but it would have meant being pursued by Tartars all the way to his destination. Michael’s identity is revealed rather suddenly and he had no time to destroy the letter.

The final confrontation.
The final confrontation.

However, there may have been a title card to explain this in the original release. You see, Michael Strogoff is yet another silent movie that was very nearly lost. For years, the only known copy was a 9.5mm print of a 30-minute abbreviation. The Cinémathèque Française was able to obtain two incomplete 35mm prints and put together a more or less complete version of the film. The restoration also included reproducing the glorious stencil color. However, small fragments of the film are still considered lost.

Grand and glorious.
Grand and glorious.

Michael Strogoff is one of the best silent films I have seen (shame on me for not having seen it sooner) and it deserves to take its place among the great epics. I give it my highest possible recommendation.

Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★★★

Where can I see it?

Michael Strogoff was restored by the Cinémathèque Française in 1987 but has never been released on DVD. (All screen caps are from a 9.5mm print in the private collection of Christopher Bird.) This thing deserves a full-blown Blu-ray release with an orchestral score and all the trimmings. (I am thinking a selection of Cui, Ippolitov-Ivanov, Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov for the music.) That’s my big dream. My teeny-tiny dream is just one little DVD, pretty, pretty please. And maybe just a piano score to go with it? Please? I’ll be your friend.

Come on! If the Larry Semon Wizard of Oz can get Blu-ray, surely Michael Strogoff can get one itsy-bitsy DVD.

If you are just dying to see the Russian emigres in action, I highly recommend Flicker Alley’s box set French Masterworks: Russian Emigres in Paris 1923-1928. It is wonderful.

silents-vs-talkies-header-michael-strogoff

I was considering a full Silents vs. Talkies review for this tale but no other version really held my interest. So, I have decided to give you a rundown on some of the other versions I was able to view.

strogoff 1936

The 1936/1937 version with Anton Walbrook is generally reckoned to be the best of the bunch. I have not seen the 1936 European production but the RKO release (which made heavy use of its footage and reused its star) has that hermetically sealed quality that too many talkies exhibit. The sets feel very setty. I felt that Wolbrook missed Michael’s restlessness and energy but I do agree that this is better than what came after.

Curt Jurgens took the title role in 1956 and while he certainly had the physical presence for the part, he was too stolid and, frankly, German to be convincing as the dashing Siberian hero. Further, as was typical for films of the fifties, the costumes look fresh out of the wardrobe department (even the rags!) and the ladies sport some very modern bangs.

strogoff 1956

The 1970 version, simply entitled Strogoff in some releases, was an Italian-French-West German co-production. I am sure there are exceptions but nothing strikes cold terror into my heart like a 60s-70s West German co-production. Many apologies to the German side of my family.

Strogoff is murky, adds to the story where no changes were needed and manages to turn every unique aspect of the tale into a cliché. (This version annoyed me the most so it gets special attention. Mwahaha.) They turn Michael and Nadia into whiny little twerps but they don’t stop there. They kill off Marfa, make Nadia married to another guy already, make Michael a lothario, toy around with their newly-invented adultery and focus half the story on Ogareff. (Marfa is played by veteran German actress Elisabeth Bergner. Wasted. Utterly wasted. There oughta be a law.)

strogoff 1970

Still with John Philip Law as Michael and Hiram Keller as Ivan Ogareff, there is plenty of tall, beautiful scenery, if you catch my drift. What can I say? I’m human. They’re pretty.

However, the eye candy aspect is taken a bit far. This version is infamous for using the hero’s capture, torture and subsequent blinding as an excuse for the camera to linger over him in, shall we say, assorted states of dishabille. I love it when a movie gives things that extra touch of class.

Rawr.
Rawr.

Look, I know it was a little something for the ladies and I do appreciate the sentiment, really and truly, and I am not trying to look a gift horse in the mouth but I would hardly call that the proper time or place.

Finally, I just fast-forwarded to the good parts. But there weren’t any. Such is life.

1970 poster

The 1970 version was marketed as a children’s movie in Germany at one point. Torture, adultery and shirtless men? You know, for the kids! Discount DVD concerns are famous for pulling this. I recall one incident when I was a child. I rented a Pocahontas movie that had box art aimed at children but contained, ahem, grownup themes. My mother was not amused. (Strogoff would probably earn a solid PG-13 these days but I am extremely conservative about what I consider to be proper for the kiddies.)

1970 dvdTourjanksy himself directed a follow-up film in 1961, which starred Jurgens. I think this may be one of the only cases of a star of one version of a film and the director of another collaborating on a sequel. I was Strogoffed out by this time and ended up passing on the movie.

I also did not check out the 1974 miniseries or the more recent animated version. Michael Strogoff adaptations seemed to be getting worse and worse so I went back and watched the 1926 version again. It was a tough job but someone had to do it.

And the winner is…

The Silent

Grit carries the day.
Grit carries the day.

No surprise, the silent is far and away the best of the bunch. The behind-the-scenes team really understood their source material and they had the budget and the cast to make an absolutely top drawer epic. There is no need to even bother with the assorted remakes. This is the definitive version.

4 Replies to “Michael Strogoff (1926) A Silent Film Review”

  1. Excellent review! Now I really want to see this movie…but really? No DVD release for this? The silent film fans already have it bad enough with most films either being lost or in storage.Meanwhile the so-called “Worst Silent Film” gets a blu-ray release? Ugh…

    On the other hand thanks to you and these series of reviews I’ve seemed to develop a fondness for Mr.Mosjoukine. Darn it, I already have enough silent film men I’d need a time machine for don’t go showing off more pretty men to me!

    1. Ha! My fiendish plan for Mosjoukine recruitment is working 😉

      Thank you so much, I am glad you enjoyed the review. The movie just blew me away. Here’s hoping we get a release soon.

  2. Epic movie, epic review! Michael Strogoff seems like it should be revered classic of silent cinema. I naïvely thought that you at least had a decent DVD of the movie. Once again, Kino-Lorber needs to get their butts in gear and give Michael Strogoff a proper release. It’s epic, it’s silent, it’s Russian, seems right up their alley.

    1. For the life of me, I have no idea why this movie has not gotten more attention over the years. I think part of the problem is it was not one of those “Aha! Found in the attic of a mad collector” movies but, like “The Sea Hawk” it was pieced together with a lot a patience and a lot of elbow grease, which also means less attention from the press.

      Oh well, I am doing my very best to get this movie more love. I am on a crusade!

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