"But obviously, the story that I told in the film was made up. But yes, the story of the chess player is true."—Raymond Bernard (1965 interview with Kevin Brownlow)
The year is 1776, and revolution is the order of the day. In Vilnius, the Polish people hold out hope even as they suffer under the yoke of Tsarina Catherine's Russian army. Boleslas Voronski (Pierre Blanchar) leads the rebellion, flanked by his foster sister, Sophie (Edith Jehanne), the feminine embodiment of the nation's spirit. When their attempted uprising fails, Boleslas goes into hiding with a price on his head, his best friend, Russian officer Prince Serge Oblomoff (Pierre Batcheff) and the cruel Major Nicolaieff (Camille Bert)
Meanwhile, in a house on the edge of town, Baron von Kempelen (Charles Dullin) lives alone and builds a curious collection of automatons to commemorate the past. But soon he will need to use his genius to help those living in the present—and pull off one of the greatest magic tricks in history.
Chess is war. Granted, it is war abstracted to pure logic, but no one would doubt its origins. And who better to prosecute a game of pure logic than a machine? Or so strategists have always thought. Pure logic, by all rights, must win a war, like a computer with a purely logical mind must always win at chess.
Of course, chess computers can rarely match the fuzzy logic and non-linear strategies of a true grand master. And real war is always inherently chaotic, invariably wrecking precise battle plans. Nonetheless, politicians and generals have always thought that they could have war under control, as any tyranny believes it can tame a population intent on breaking free. And people have always been fascinated at the possibility that a machine might beat a master at a game that marks the acme of human intellect: chess.
Case in point: in the 1770s, Baron von Kempelen—the real tinkerer, not the fictionalized version in Raymond Bernard's 1927 silent epic, The Chess Player—toured Europe with a clockwork curiosity he called "the Turk." Dressed in exotic finery, this early robot would play any would-be champion at chess, and win nearly every time. 98%, at least. It beat Ben Franklin. Years after Kempelen's death, under a new owner, it beat Napoleon, who apparently tried to cheat.
Of course, the Turk was a hoax, a magic trick. How did it work? Well, you will have to read Tom Standage's recent book on the Turk. In his audio interview on the new Milestone Collection DVD of The Chess Player, Standage talks quite a bit about the social and philosophical climate surrounding the Turk, but he does not tell you how Kempelen pulled off the trick. He wants to sell his book, after all.
The real story of the Turk is, ironically, as interesting as Raymond Bernard's melodrama. Restored in 1990, The Chess Player is presented in a well-crafted package by the Milestone Collection, complete with tinting and a newly recorded performance of Henri Rabaud's original score. There are a few scratches here and there, but the film is in fine shape. If only the story were as ambitious as Milestone's restoration. Bernard takes a very long time to get to the Turk, introducing Kempelen's creation halfway through the film's running time. The story he wants to tell is more about the romance and politics of the era: the failed Polish uprising against Russia is the centerpiece of the first of the film's two acts. While this part of the story culminates in an elaborate cavalry battle, Bernard's static camera and reliance on medium shots tends to undermine the dramatic scope. The film gets more interesting in its second half, where Kempelen tries to smuggle the fugitive Boleslas out of Poland by using the chess-playing soldier's skills as the heart of his fake automaton. When the slippery Nicolaieff suspects the ruse, the Turk is sent to play chess with the Tsarina herself. Kempelen and Sophie must come up with a plan to slip Boleslas away from the Winter Palace right under the nose of the entire Russian court.
It is hard to go wrong with an idea like the Turk, and the script builds enough suspense in the second act to almost make up for the padded first act. Bernard's film has several strong sequences, including a creepy climax in which the villain faces off against a squad of automaton soldiers. But in between, The Chess Player is often bogged down with improbable plot twists (Sophie, the light of the revolution, turns out to be a disenfranchised Russian princess) and lengthy scenes of romantic prattle (especially between Serge and Sophie) that tend to distract from the action and suspense. Fortunately, the cast avoids the usual histrionics associated with silent melodrama, and Bernard wisely lets his images tell more of the story than intrusive title cards. When the film clicks, especially at its climax, Bernard also manages to pull off some clever images—check out the clockwork Death right near the end. If Bernard had come up with more stuff like this, The Chess Player's Turk would have been as well known a silent movie character as Rotwang's robot Maria in Metropolis.
The Chess Player has enough good ideas to fill several films, although often Bernard's approach is never quite up to the level necessary to exploit these ideas effectively. Still, the film succeeds often enough to be worth a look, especially for silent film buffs looking for those neglected classics. And Milestone does its characteristically fine job making this restored edition accessible to a contemporary audience. Besides, how cool is an army of 18th century robots?
Milestone Films and Raymond Bernard is released for time served. The Turk is impounded by this court, but Baron von Kempelen is released with a warning. Court is adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
• Interview with Tom Standage
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