In an epic genre mashup, science fiction meets the Polish independence movement. Loosely based on the true story of the Turk automated chess player, the film tells the tale of an insurrection against the Russians and its aftermath, during which a fugitive rebel leader disguises himself as a robot. As one does.
This part of the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon. Read the other entries here.
Wait, there wasn’t a simpler plan?
The Italians and the Americans get all the credit for silent epics but for my money, no one can beat the French in the silent epic game. Most viewers have heard of Abel Gance but he wasn’t the only French director making big, Big, BIG pictures in the silent era. Today, we are going to be looking at a unique epic from director Raymond Bernard.
What genre does The Chess Player belong to? It’s historical and it’s an epic but it also has a fascinating trick up its sleeve. What is it? Science fiction, my friends!
The story takes place in the late eighteenth century. Poland spent much of the last three hundred years occupied by either Russia or Germany and the story takes place in a section of Poland under Russian control. Russian soldiers patrol the streets.
But hark! Rebellion is bubbling below the surface. Boleslas (Pierre Blanchar) is a patriotic hussar (though, sadly, we are a century too late for him to be of the winged variety) who dreams of liberating Poland from the Russians. He has gotten together with other hussars to sing patriotic songs with his foster sister, Sophie (Edith Jehanne). Let’s see, a handsome soldier with a girl raised as his sister but totally not… If you say, “They’ll fall in love by act three” then have a cookie because you’re absolutely right!
It’s very awkward to sing illegal patriotic songs as Russian patrols cross the city and the singers must be quiet every time one of those patrols passes by. If I were a Russian, I would be a total brat and keep riding back and forth so they would have to start and stop. And you wonder why none of the kids will play with me.
You may think that Boleslas is the hero of the film but he isn’t. In an eerie mansion, there lives an eccentric inventor who has mastered the art of the automaton. These robots look very much like humans and are getting more realistic with every incarnation. We’re talking deep, deep, deep into the uncanny valley here. And the mansion is full of the things, some with swords. I’m sure nothing will come of that.
The inventor is named Baron von Kempelen (Charles Dullin) and while he is a favorite of Czarina Catherine the Great, he is also for Polish independence. It is also broadly hinted that the baron knows more than he is letting on about the mysterious past of Sophie. But right now, he is occupied with replicating the movements of Polish ballerina Wanda (Jackie Monnier) in robot form.
Boleslas is besties with Serge Oblomoff (Pierre Batcheff), who is a pretty nice guy for a Russian nobleman. The Russian troops and the Polish troops under Russian command share a barracks and Serge and Boleslas share command. It works pretty well, considering that half the place is plotting armed rebellion.
The powder keg finally explodes on the day of Sophie’s birthday. Serge has left early to give her his best wishes (hmmm….) and Boleslas is playing chess with a Russian officer while Wanda dances for the troops. When she leaves to change, some of the Russians decide to help her get out of that dress. Boleslas does what any red-blooded Pole with a crazy haircut would do: he runs the miscreant through. And then we get the brawl.
This movie is mostly known for the cavalry scene that comes a little later but for my money, this is the best part of the film. The camera is fully unchained, lurching wildly through the combatants. It’s kinetic, exciting and if you were to colorize it, you could cut it into any modern film and no one would realize that it is nearly nine decades old.
The Polish soldiers manage to throw out all the Russians. Boleslas sends a note to Sophie telling her not to hold up dinner because that is how he rolls. (Boleslas is one tough mensch, let me tell you.)
Sophie is disappointed but she has Serge, which more than makes up for it. The baron watches from the shadows as they kiss. But then who should show up but Boleslas, who has evaded the Russians and is preparing for war. Serge knows nothing of the happenings at the barracks and is genuinely shocked when Boleslas tells him to make like a tree and get out of there. Worse, Sophie sides with Boleslas. Well, it was a nice romance while it lasted.
What follows is that flashy cavalry scene I was telling you about. Sophie is waiting at home for word of the battle raging just outside of town. Artillery shells batter the walls and she realizes that Boleslas is losing. To give herself courage, she plays the piano and sings their anthem, imagining the victorious (but, alas, unwinged) Polish cavalry riding to victory. It’s done with great pizazz and a bit of trick camera work. It’s quite good but I like the honest, raw jerkiness of the barracks brawl better.
For all of Sophie optimism, reality refuses to give her the victory she wants so desperately. The Polish cavalry is wiped out and both of Boleslas’ legs are broken. Because he is a tough cookie, he manages to drag himself to safety and the baron takes him in.
And now we are met with a problem. How the heck are they going to get him out of town? The baron has enlisted the help of Wanda and Sophie but how can they hope to smuggle a man with two broken legs out from under the nose of the alert Russians?
Then the baron gets an idea. Boleslas is the best chess player in Poland. Why not make use of his skills? The baron will build a special automaton, one with just enough room to conceal a man inside. Boleslas can play chess by working the mechanism. To add a touch of class, the automaton will be dressed as a Turkish wise man. The baron will then take his “invention” on a European tour and will let Boleslas out once they cross the border into Germany.
What could possibly go wrong? Try everything.
The Chess Player is based on real history. Baron von Kempelen really existed and in 1770, he built a machine called the Turk, which was proclaimed to be an automaton possessing artificial intelligence. To prove this claim, von Kempelen toured with the machine and had it play against local chessmasters. The machine had an impressive track record and was impressive enough to win audiences with Catherine the Great, Napoleon and Benjamin Franklin.
Of course, a machine beating a human at chess was not actually possible until the 1990s. How did von Kempelen manage to create something so astonishing in 1770? From the start, the Turk had its skeptics. Edgar Allan Poe wrote an essay condemning the machine as a fraud when its new owner brought it to America in the 1820s.
The original Turk was eventually destroyed in a fire but it was reconstructed and the secret was finally out. The whirling gears inside the cabinet concealed a space just large enough for a human player, who would manipulate the machine.
Of course, von Kempelen in the film only intends the Turk as a way to get Boleslas across the border but with one thing and another, they end up at the court of Catherine the Great (Marcelle Charles Dullin). The empress tries to cheat but Boleslas is just as gutsy as ever. He sweeps all the pieces off the board. Catherine laughs and then orders the machine shot. Whoopsy.
In real life, the story of the cheating monarch is actually attached to Napoleon Bonaparte, who was said to be delighted by the automaton’s scornful reaction. Whether or not it’s true, it’s a heck of a story.
So, will Boleslas survive his run-in with Catherine? Will Sophie reconcile with Serge? And what will become of those sword-wielding robots in the baron’s manor? You’ll have to see The Chess Player to find out!
This film is spectacular to look at and the imaginative way it weaves fact into fiction makes it an intriguing early science fiction epic. Everyone does well but Charles Dullin as the baron and his wife Madame Dullin as Czarina Catherine easily walk away with acting honors. Catherine is a dream role for actresses as it allows them to chew scenery like nobody’s business. Not that I’m complaining.
Before we move on to other topics, I must share one more scene that is justly famous. This is very much a spoiler so skip to the next paragraph if you want to learn the secrets of The Chess Player for yourself. The czarina sends a spy back to the baron’s manor to steal some incriminating papers. When he arrives, he sees the automatons neatly covered in dust cloths and he sees a big control panel. You guessed it, turns them on. Bad move, as it turns out. As a robotic musician plays a jaunty tune on its loot, the sword-wielding automatons surround the spy, advancing and slashing. It’s scary as heck. The spy tries to chop down the robots but there are too many and the eventually turn him into shish-kabob. As the guitar player continues to strum away, we see the dead man tangled into bodies of broken automatons. Eerie and very effective.
Of course, every movie has its flaws and The Chess Player’s main issue is its choppy plot and shallow romantic leads. I must point out that the film had to be reconstructed and the choppiness may not be anyone’s fault. (Reconstructing film is a thankless task. Do you include all the elements and get people complaining about a drop in quality or do you use only 35mm elements and then get people complaining about missing pieces? A catch-22 if there ever was one. And then you get the people who will complain about anything in a silent film restoration or reconstruction because they think it makes them seem smart. It doesn’t but that doesn’t seem to stop them.)
For example, in the film released on DVD, Boleslas is wounded and the next thing you know, he’s safe in the baron’s house with Sophie nursing him. This seems rather abrupt. However, there is a scene in the 9.5mm home release version of the film that shows Sophie running to get to Boleslas and then we see her relief when she sees he is alive. However, if this scene was not present in any of the 35mm elements or was decayed, many film restorers would opt to leave it out so as not to distract the audience with a drop in quality.
However, the issues with the central love triangle have nothing to do with missing footage. At first, Sophie loves Serge and even contemplates eloping with him while Boleslas is recuperating. However, family loyalty takes over and she stays. During the Turk’s trek to Catherine the Great’s Winter Palace, Sophie is impressed by Boleslas’ stoicism and starts to feel decidedly unsisterly toward him.
Sophie starts to fall for Boleslas for no other reason than the plot dictated that she must. Serge is ridiculously noble, talented and sweet. I am grateful that the film didn’t turn him into a villain (such a cheating move!) but we ever never really told why Sophie begins to prefer Boleslas. I mean, we get a title card about how she finds his stoicism awesome but he was stoic before. I mean, the guy took on the entire Russian half of his cavalry unit and merely sent a note saying he would be late for dinner. It’s only when he travels inside the chess player that Sophie gets all dewy-eyed. So the key to heart is being locked in a box for a few days? Is that her thing? Oh my.
The Chess Player is definitely an example of style over substance. However, the style is as chic as can be and it has enough directing virtuosity to keep modern silent fans interested from beginning to end. It’s a very fine film but with a bit more care and character depth, it could have been a masterpiece. Still, it’s worth seeing and the argument could definitely be made that its stylishness more than makes up for any flaws it has.
Now you must excuse me. All this talk of hussars made me track down some Polish films featuring same. With wings. I’m happy as a clam.
Movies Silently’s Score:★★★
Where can I see it?
The Chess Player was released on DVD by Milestone. It features an excellent orchestral score, as befits the film’s epic scale.