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The Chess Player

In the 1770s, large mechanical mannequins were all the rage in Europe. The most famous was the Turk, a life-size clockwork automaton that appeared to think on its own while it beat human opponents at chess. Constructed by Wolfgang von Kempelen, for 85 years the Turk and its owners toured Europe and the U.S., astounding crowned heads, renowned thinkers, and common folk alike. Benjamin Franklin and Napoleon were among those who played against the Turk. That much is historical fact. Director Raymond Bernard's The Chess Player (Le Joueur d'Echecs), an entrancing French silent film from 1927, places Kempelen and his mechanical man at the center of an epic fantasia set in 1776 during a Polish uprising against Imperial Russia's occupation. The movie is all but unknown in the U.S., and while it falls short of "classic" status its numerous pleasures rank The Chess Player among the rediscovered treasures of the silent era.

Shot on location in Poland, France, and Switzerland, the story is an adventure drama of romance, patriotism, and rebellion that sweeps between the royal courts of Warsaw and St. Petersburg. With his homeland partitioned and ruled by Russia, Polish nobleman Boleslas Vorowski leads an underground resistance movement. After a brutal revolutionary battle ends in a crushing defeat of the Polish forces, Russia places a generous bounty on Boleslas's head. His mentor, the inventor Kempelen, harbors the rebel leader in his estate home. Conniving a means to spirit Boleslas out of harm's way to continue the resistance, Kempelen constructs the Turk, a clockwork automaton that is unbeatable at chess. With Boleslas secreted inside, the Turk dazzles its way across Poland on a tour toward Germany — until Kempelen is summoned to bring the Turk to the Russian Imperial court, where it must play a command match against none other than The Empress of All the Russias, Catherine the Great.

The Chess Player is a spectacle-rich opus of the grand school. Three dramatic highlights stand out: Thousands of extras from the real-life Polish cavalry populate a rousing battle scene that even in this silent film evokes clashing sabers and thundering hooves. The battle seems to have been shot in part with hand-held camerawork, and the scene supports The Chess Player's favorable comparisons to Abel Gance's Napoleon, Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky, and the battlefields of D.W. Griffith. Second, as the Russians devastate the charging Polish militia, Boleslas's beautiful foster sister Sophie (as "the very symbol of nationhood," her portrait ornaments the resistance movement's flag) sits at her piano and plays a fevered hymn of independence, envisioning her countrymen defeating the Russians and marching homeward in triumph. Third, the climax features a traitorous Polish Major besieged by Kempelen's house of lifelike robotic automatons, including a regiment of saber-wielding clockwork soldiers — it's an eerie and astonishing sequence worthy of Rod Serling or Edgar Allan Poe (who, incidentally, played against the real Turk during its U.S. tour).

The Chess Player's directing and editing are sophisticated for its time, and its design sumptuous. Director Bernard's mindful hand on the tiller steers us through lush scenic photography such as an opulent masked ball at the Empress's Winter Palace, where the Turk itself is placed before a firing squad. The weak leg here is the sometimes draggy screenplay, especially its love-story subplot that just marks time between the big set-pieces. The visuals are accented by one of the most listenable — and cannily synchronized — original symphonic scores of the time. The Chess Player is a striking archeological discovery from the year that bridged the silent and sound eras, and is a fine title for cinephiles easing into the European silents.

*          *          *

This beautiful restoration of The Chess Player was a labor of love for film historian and preservationist Kevin Brownlow. He headed the restoration by Photoplay Productions in collaboration with the British Film Institute, Cinematheque Francaise, and other parties. Milestone Film & Video handsomely produced the DVD, which is released through Image Entertainment. The Chess Player is reconstructed from original 35 mm nitrate elements gathered over years from various sources, including a camera negative reportedly confiscated by the Nazis during the occupation because Raymond Bernard was a Jew. As with Brownlow's restoration of Gance's Napoleon, the end result will impress those cinephiles inclined to add this title to their shelves devoted to the silents. While some scratches and other blemishes from age and wear are unavoidable, the print is a clean, fresh-looking beauty. Contrast and definition are quite fine. (The only exceptions appear to be on the original masters, a few instances of sudden soft-focus during the "hand-held" battlefield moments.) Color tinting applied to the black-and-white elements is an appropriate period enhancement. The sparse intertitle cards were translated into English and recreated with a font similar to the original typeface.

The soundtrack deserves special mention: Henri Rabaud's remarkable original orchestral score has been newly recorded under the baton of Carl Davis, and it's a lovely, full-bodied symphonic piece that brings to mind Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade. It comes through very well in Dolby Digital 2.0. (Clocking in at 2:20, the film here serves double duty when played simply like a CD of an orchestral work in its own right.)

The DVD's extras begin with an 18-minute WNYC radio interview with Tom Standage, the author of The Turk, a book on the historical chess-playing automaton. He doesn't mention this movie, but his background on the real deal is plenty worthwhile. Also here is a video gallery of the original 1927 press kit from La Petite Illustration Cinematographique (:44), a stills gallery (4 min.), and — as a DVD-ROM extra — a Raymond Bernard text interview by Kevin Brownlow. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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