Cossacks and Crinoline: Creating the perfect opening scene

The time has come, the walrus said, to talk about opening scenes, those iconic moments that kicked off great films. Star Wars (1977) started things off with a literal bang, its heroes on the run from a gargantuan, relentless enemy. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) kept its bangs in check until the end of the scene and contented itself with a rusty windmill and three bored killers. Yojimbo (1961) set the stage with Masaru Sato’s cocky score and a shot of Toshiro Mifune’s shoulders swinging as he walked down a dusty road.

The best opening scenes do a bit of showing off and give a sample of the tone and style of the film. We know that Star Wars will be an epic space opera and we know that Once Upon a Time in the West will be a stylish western that takes its sweet time. Yojimbo is not your mama’s samurai movie and its sass and brass are clear from the start. From strutting disco strolls to the destruction of Praxis, successful opening scenes stay in the memories of moviegoers for decades.

You may have noticed that most of my examples and, indeed, most articles covering good opening scenes tend to start around 1960 or so. Well, we can’t have that, can we?

Ladies and gentlemen, please turn your attention to the smashing opening scene of Michael Strogoff (1926). Christopher Bird has kindly opened up his collection and uploaded the scene to YouTube. It is taken from a 9.5mm print released to the British home market. For comparison, we also get another version of the scene contained in the 9.5mm French release.

This is required viewing. There will be a test.

As was the case with 9.5mm home releases, Michael Strogoff was abridged and some trimming of this opening scene occurred in the abridgement. Also, the original version of the film featured stencil tinting. You can imagine how glorious this must have been in 35mm with all those beautiful colors… However, the scene is pretty darn impressive in 9.5mm sepia, wouldn’t you say?

So, now that you’ve seen it, let’s take this thing apart and examine why it succeeds as both art and entertainment.

(By the way, the director is Victor Tourjansky, the star is Ivan Mosjoukine, the year is 1926 and the picture is based on a novel by Jules Verne. Quite a pedigree, yes? If you want to know more about the whole film, here is my review.)

The original cut of the film had a prologue with Jules Verne but I think we can rightly consider the czar’s ball to be the true opening of the picture. Czar Alexander II (Vladimir Gajdarov, a near-perfect replica) is enjoying himself when he received word that the eastern part of his empire is being overrun by Tartars.

The real Alexander II...
The real Alexander II…
His cinematic duplicate
His cinematic duplicate

Also present are Blount and Jolivet, two reporters taking in the sights and sounds of Russia. The grammar of silent film is cleverly employed as closeups of Jolivet’s eyes and Blount’s ears communicate where their attention is directed. Their status as viewpoint characters and audience surrogates is further communicated by overhead shots of the dancers as they twirl around the room.

Czar Alexander excuses himself from his guests to hear further news of the Tartar invasion and this is where the scene really comes to life. Alexander imagines the Tartar forces attacking Russians, charging with their weapons drawn. The film cuts back to the ballroom as the dancers prance together in an imitation of a cavalry charge. We are thrown between shots of the Tartars, the ballroom band, the czar’s anguished face and the excited dancers. The playful charge blends with the deadly version and the music makes it impossible for Alexander to put the horrors out of his mind.

One reason I am very grateful for the video above is that it is really impossible to convey in words how excellent the editing it. The cuts come fast and furious but they do not feel affected or self-indulgent. The scene builds to a frenzy, symbolizing the helplessness that the monarch feels when his country is under attack.

It’s worth noting that such bold cutting represents quite a step for Tourjansky, who was last seen directing the somewhat staid Tales of the Thousand and One Nights. In his on-set memoirs, Mosjoukine takes credit for pushing the rapid cutting technique and from what we have seen of Mosjoukine’s output (The Burning Crucible), it is reasonable to assume that he was indeed the brains of the out fit.

In the end, though, what really matters is what ends up on the screen. Michael Strogoff is a stylish epic that manages to blend real heart and feeling into its impressive set pieces. The opening scene is a perfect taste of the brilliance that is to come.

Once again, thanks to Mr. Bird for sharing his collection and research on this intriguing film. And in case you were wondering, no, Michael Strogoff is not yet available on DVD or Bluray, though a restored edition is part of the collection of Cinémathèque française and is occasionally screened at film festivals. (Yes, stencil color included!)

Oh, and I lied about the test. Nya nya nya!

This post is part of the Classic Movie History Project. Read all about it here.

11 Replies to “Cossacks and Crinoline: Creating the perfect opening scene”

  1. Ah, I so wish this would be released on DVD. It looks absolutely stunning! I feel like I’m in a perpetual state of pining for some silent movie or other to be released. 🙂

    It is continually amazing to me how modern silent movies could look…much more modern than movies from the thirties. I encounter a lot of perplexed looks when I enthusiastically run on about silent films, but truly I feel like silent movies could be more accessible to people now than many films from the ’30s and ’40s.

    1. Excellent point! The agile camera in this scene looks like something from decades later. And I might also add that the heroine of this picture has considerably more to do than most leading ladies of Hollywood’s golden age.

  2. I saw what you did there – sneaking Ivan Mosjouskine into the blogathon, and good on you!

    This film is stunning! I love how the costumes swirl under the overhead camera. Yes, the editing feels VERY modern. Love!

  3. Oh to see the whole film. I love the editing which just increases my pulse because it switches from the dancing to the horse riding to the czar. I love the ballroom scene…just splendid.

  4. Why I like Mozart’s openings, he’s a master of getting straight down to business and holding you.

    A side issue is the way sales at Cannes etc markets influenced openings: buyers often walking out after a few minutes assessment led to a style where every possible attempt to capture them was made in those first few minutes.

    And what was the last modern film to have one of those old extended opening title sequences?

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