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CHESS PLAYER, THE (Le Joueur d’Echecs)(director/writer/editor: Raymond Bernard; screenwriter: from the book by Henri Dupuy-Mazuel; cinematographer: Willy Faktorovitch/Joseph-Louis Mundviller; music: Henri Rabaud; cast: Pierre Batcheff (Prince Serge Oblomoff), Camille Bert (Major Nicolaieff), Pierre Blanchar (Boleslas Vorowski), Edith Jehanne (Sophie Novinska), Charles Dullin (Baron von Kempelen), Armand Bernard (Roubenko), Jacky Monnier (Wanda), Fridette Fatton (Pola), Marcelle Charles-Dullin (Catherine II), Alexiane (Olga), Pierre Hot (King Stanislas); Runtime: 133; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: ; Milestone; 1927-France-silent, English subtitles)
Magnificent visuals.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The Chess Player is an eye-catching but dated costume spectacular that dramatically reconstructs a moment of history in the 18th century of Poland and Russia during a time of French film history when such silent epics were in vogue. It is at times imaginatively directed by Raymond Bernard from Henri Dupuy-Mazuel’s novel which was based on the real Turk, a chess playing automaton. This rediscovered almost lost film was beautifully restored in black and white tint under the direction of Kevin Brownlow, Patrick Stanbury and David Gill. Composer Heni Rabaud’s lush score is conducted in the restored version by Carl Davis and the Orchestre de Radio-Television-Luxembourg. Davis specializes in re-orchestration of silent film scores.

The film is set in Vilnius, Poland, in 1776, in the Russian-occupied part of Poland, a weakened country divided up among the European powers, when Empress Catherine 11 ruled Russia with an iron-hand and her cousin King Stanislas was her puppet ruler of the occupied territory.

At an inn in Vilnius, the chess grand master nobleman Boleslas Vorowski (Blanchar) beats the Tsarina’s crafty envoy Russian Major Nicolaieff (Bert) in a chess match. When pretty Polish dancer Wanda does a ballet number for the Russian and Polish soldiers at the inn, she is slighted by a Russian soldier and the heroic Boleslas rushes to her aid dueling with the Czarist’s soldiers. This skirmish leads to Boleslas having enough of the Russian oppression and organizing a liberation movement which temporarily succeeds in pushing the superior Russian forces to the outskirts of Vilnius. But when the Russians regroup they attack the outnumbered Poles and crush them, blowing off the legs of Boleslas with a cannon blast.

While the battle was raging the beautiful 16-year-old orphan Sophie (Jehanne), raised along with Boleslas by the eccentric Hungarian inventor Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen (Dullin), watches with divided loyalty as she observes that under her banner the Poles marched to war. She watches from her castle the destruction of the brave Poles and starts madly playing the piano in disbelief at what she’s seeing, as she feels torn apart that so many have died under her banner. Sophie has been wooed by Count Boleslas, but views him more as a brother–even though they are not related. Instead she has fallen in love with a young nobleman Russian officer Serge Oblomoff (Batcheff), who is friends with the jealous Boleslas despite their political differences.

The severely injured Boleslas, the only Polish soldier unaccounted for, seeks asylum with the mechanical-minded Baron Kempelen, who spends his time building life-sized automatons in the form of humans dressed in costume. The bedridden Count is nursed by Sophie, and feelings of love stir inside him. But things get dicey when the Empress puts out a reward for 100,000 rubles for the capture of Boleslas. The Baron schemes to get the patriot to Germany and freedom, and he comes up with the idea of creating an immense chess-playing automaton dressed like a Turkish sultan and hides the wounded nobleman inside it. After several months the Baron and his entourage go on a chess playing tour across Poland with the Turk and defeat all opponents. As the time nears to play in the Warsaw court and then cross the nearby border to Germany, King Stanislas organizes a game with Major Nicolaieff. The Major recognizes who his opponent is through his moves, but says nothing. Instead he informs the Empress and arranges a command chess match between the Empress and the Turk at the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg. When the sore loser Empress is caught cheating, the concealed patriot brushes the pieces off the board. For this insulting gesture to her rule, the Empress orders the execution of the automaton at sunrise.

It all builds to a suspenseful conclusion, as Sophie’s real identity is revealed and Sergei’s friendship is put to the test as the escape plan is hatched and Sophie is forced to choose which one of the rivals will be her lover. Meanwhile Catherine has sent Major Nicolaieff to search the Baron’s workshop for official documents on Sophie’s birth records to verify if she is indeed an abandoned Russian princess, but while there the Major is trapped in the workshop and attacked by the life-sized toy soldier robots in one of the more bizarre scenes ever filmed–alone worth the price of admission for this movie.

The film was brilliantly created and looked as good as any Hollywood epic, with stunning decors and a thousand gorgeously costumed extras recruited from the Polish cavalry to fill the screen with awe inspiring thrills and great location shots in Poland, France and Switzerland. The film was indeed an epic in every sense of that meaning, but what this lavish production failed to do was move me emotionally or intellectually. It was more like an escapist film, one that gloried in heroics and patriotic gestures. But it lacked thought-provoking ideas or a love story that could touch the heart or characters that could overcome being so wooden. Everything seemed stiffly exaggerated, as the acting was more theatrical than cinematically friendly. Yet it’s still worth seeing for both film history and its magnificent visuals.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”