Of the sixty scientific and adventure novels by Jules Verne
between 1863 and 1907, Michael Strogoff, the sixteenth,
was written in 1876 and appeared as a play in 1880. The novel
runs to 120,000 words and is a virile piece crammed with action
and with a struggle theme of the highest order. In addition, it
is full of detail drawn in by the author with his usual impeccable
accuracy. It is alive with strong characters. The background is
itself famous; the period dramatic and historic. Inevitably, therefore,
the whole is a more majestic drama than (for example) The Lost
World (First National, 1925).
It is fortunate that a French company made this film. The spectacle is vast without being vulgarly colossal, the players wear their costumes as though they belong to them, and the extras and the sets carry a unique stamp of realism. The adaptation of the long book is interesting in its extraordinary faithfulness.
Only a third of the original is preserved in the version available, which causes a painfully episodic quality to intrude and, by creating gaps which remove motives, renders some actions and situations inexplicable. The brief treatment of what remains is as follows:
At a ball in Moscow two reporters glean the news that the
Tartars are rising, led by the traitor Ogareff, and intend to
attack Irkutsk. The Czar summons his Courier, Michael Strogoff,
to deliver a message stating the date his army will relieve that
On the Volga, Strogoff meets Nadia Fedor, traveling the same way. Also on the boat is Ogareff, disguised, and his accomplice, Sangarre. Strogoff hears that they know of the departure of the Courier.
At Ishim, a man demands and obtains the horse team booked by Strogoff who dares not jeopardise his mission by dueling.
Ferrying the river Irtych, Strogoff and Nadia are attacked by Tartars. Nadia is captured, and Strogoff, wounded, drifts to the river bank. A mujik rescues him.
At Omsk the Tartars prepare their attack. Strogoff is recognised by his mother and has to deny he is her son. They are observed, and she is arrested and taken before Ogareff while he escapes by horse.
Strogoff reaches a telegraph office at Kolyvan where Blount and Jolivet are sending off despatches. The Tartars attack, and he is captured and his horse killed.
Marfa Strogoff and Nadia meet as prisoners, and Ogareff commands that Marfa be flogged till she points out her son, the Courier. But Strogoff saves her, strikes Ogareff whom he recognises as the man at Ishim, and is taken before the Emir Feofar Khan for judgment. His message having been seized, he is blinded by the blade of a red-hot sabre passed before his eyes.
Nadia and Strogoff toil on towards Irkutsk while Ogareff is accepted as the Courier on delivering the message at the Governor's Palace.
Beneath the ramparts of Irkutsk, the Tartars await the signal to attack, arranged by the traitor in the Palace. Naptha from the burst reservoirs is floated down the river and fired. In the confusion, Nadia and Strogoff enter the Palace and, meeting Ogareff face to face in fair fight, Strogoff kills him after explaining how the tears in his eyes upon beholding his mother's face for the last time saved his sight. Ogareff's scheme of betrayal from within is thus foiled, and the Russians gain a notable victory and save their city.
In Moscow, Strogoff is suitably decorated by the Czar, and, with full ceremony in Irkutsk Cathedral, he and Nadia are married, the Press being represented at this function by Blount and Jolivet.
This narrative, whose content of action verbs as against speech and thoughts will create a favourable impression at once, differs from "textbook" construction (i.e. rising pitch of interest up to a defined dramatic climax, as in The Lighthouse by the Sea) in that the dramatic pitch is established and maintained throughout - the slight modulations of romantic passages and comedy relief merely serving to emphasise the sustained strong drama. Verne used the fact of Strogoff not being blind after all as his climax, just as in Around the World in 80 Days he used the fact of Phineas Fogg being in time after all. However, in Film an explanation cannot be a climax, and wisely we are shown finally the beautifully happy ceremony of marriage in the Cathedral, which only occupies a paragraph in the book, the fight with Ogareff coming within six pages of the end.
The famous names connected with the film are Mosjoukine, the Star, and Tourjanski, the Director, and, to a minor degree, Nathalie Kovanko, who played many silent leads and starred in a talkie, Tourjanksi's Volga in Flames. Ivan Mosjoukine, a Russian born in 1889, played leads in numerous Russian films up to the Civil War when, in company with Tourjanski, Alexandre Volkov, and Dmitri Buchowetski, he went to France. His French films, of which the most famous apart from Michael Strogoff are Kean by Volkov, and The Late Matthew Pascal by Marcel l'Herbier (though by different directors) were obviously largely controlled in the direction and acting by Mosjoukine himself, who had also directed in his earlier days. One only has to compare these films to note the star's favourite gestures and groupings. Much the same applied, of course, to the American stars, but in fairness to Mosjoukine, it must be said that he avoided scene-stealing (with the resultant dramatic unbalance often noticed in American Stellar Vehicles) and that his acting was always very good and often excellent. Adventure drama, preferably with a role calling for varying make-up, always attracted him. Thus, in Michael Strogoff, he has three guises. He proceeded to America in 1926, appeared in one film (Surrender (1927)) then returned to Europe via Berlin where he made The President to fulfill his contract with Universal - a strangely un-American film, strong, Mosjoukineish, and having a leading part calling for contrasting characterisations. In 1929 he played opposite Lil Dagover in his last silent film, The White Devil, directed by Volkov for UFA. Tourjanksi made several spectacular films in France, and is remembered particularly for the German-produced Volga, Volga (1928-9, with Lilian Hall-Davis and Hans von Schlettow).
Both of these men are associated with essentially virile films, creating strong characters and setting them in dramatic situations. They were also extremely competent and experienced in film technique, Mosjoukine in particular having dabbled successfully in highbrow films of which he himself had written the scenarios. Hence we expect to find in Michael Strogoff passages of brilliance comparable with the finest in Vaudeville and Pitz Palu.
The film is further notable in its almost complete avoidance of the semi-static pageantry which was a feature of French large-scale silent films and was caused by their directors' lack of real feeling for cinematic action-movement of the players. Films impaired by this failing include The Count of Monte Cristo (1929, with Jean Angelo and Lil Dagover), Miracle of the Wolves (1924 by Raymond Bernard), The Chess Player (1926 same director), Violets Imperial (1924, by Henri Roussell, with Raquel Meller), and even Léonce Perret's renowned version of Pierre Benoit's novel, Konigsmark (1924, with Huguette Duflos). As Paul Rotha wrote, referring to some of the above, "Although pictorially the big realizations seldom fail to please, their paucity of action often renders them depressing."
`Showy and rather pointless cameracrobatics introduce the Grand Ball at the Czar's palace with a tracking shot from the orchestra and an effect since claimed as a Busby Berkeley special - the camera looking virtually downwards upon the dancers. More impressive is the straight long shot of the magnificent ball room. The Czar is introduced by title and mid shot. Two men are next shown in the gallery, each with a tracking close-up - one up to a big C.S. of his eyes, the other up to a big C.S. of his ear. They see and hear a General approach the Czar with news of the Tartar rising. This is well done but rather too subtle in the abridged version, though a faithful copy of the book. Next, by visiting cards, Jolivet and Blount are introduced.
A finely-lit long shot shows General Kissoff with the Czar in his room. Titles explain the threat to Irkutsk of the traitor Ivan Ogareff and the Tartar Feofar Khan, and, since the safety of Irkutsk is desperately important, a Courier is summoned. The Czar leans over a map, his finger on Irkutsk. His thoughts run on the menacing Tartars. Then spacious long shots show a Tartar horde riding down a peaceful Russian village leaving their marks of murder, rape and pillage. Intercut are close-ups of the Czar, shot with pale-fringed vignette. The sequence is worked up as the noise of the band and the dancers stir up the troubled rhythm of his thoughts, but the mechanics of the cutting are obtrusive which weakens the effect. In long-shot, the dance ends. In mid-shot, with titles, Blount and Jolivet decide to follow the Tartar revolt in Siberia.
Michael Strogoff is impressively introduced as he enters the Czar's room, and titles explain his mission. His rather dandy make-up is, of course, to offset his later toughness and is merely a pleasurable prologue to a struggle as far as his fans are concerned. His uniform and bearing are beyond reproach. He strides out and away in a long shot with immense depth of focus and a nice effect of light streaming in through the huge doors: fade out.
On a small paddle steamer on the Volga the reporters reappear, and Strogoff (now the standard Ivan Mosjoukine, clean shaven), travels incognito as Nicolas Korpanoff - and has met Nadia, also en route to Irkutsk to rejoin her exiled father. A series of mixes culminate in C.S. of the Tzigane dancer, Sangarre, with a tambourine. Ogareff is introduced. He is posing as one of the troupe in an act with a performing bear. Then, seated on the deck, Michael and Nadia overhear a conversation between them. The wording comes literally from the book
"It is said that a courier has set out from the Czar for Irkutsk."
"It is so said, Sangarre, but either this courier will arrive too late, or he will not arrive at all."
A white-fringed C.S. of Strogoff is intercut. The coincidence of the overhearing is glossed over satisfactorily.
A title introduces the Posthouse at Ishim, Siberia. A traveler drives up, demands horses, and is told they are already booked. He enters, and in long shot within we see him come - Strogoff, Nadia, Blount and Jolivet being present. Then, terse and brilliant in every phase of filmcraft:
a. L.S. The postmaster indicates who has booked the horses
b. C.S. Strogoff moves slightly forward
c. M.S. Man stares, turns to postmaster (Blount in background).
d. C.S. Nadia looks from postmaster to man, apprehensively
e. M.S. (track forward) Man strides up to Strogoff, says
f. TITLE "I must have your horses."
g. C.S. Strogoff replies
h. TITLE "You may not."
i. CM.S. Man strikes him with whip
j. C.S. Nadia is horrified
k. C.S. Strogoff stares without speaking, at
l. C.S. (diffused) the Man - MIX TO
m. L.S. (track forward) the Czar in his room
n. C.S. Strogoff calmly shakes his head, says
o. TITLE "I shan't fight."
p. C.S. Nadia looks at him
q. L.S. Blount, Jolivet, and the Man stride from the room
r. C.S. Nadia thinks - MIX TO moving light pattern - MIX TO
s. CM.S. Strogoff overhearing Ogareff's conversation; superimposed title, Un courier du Tzar est parti de Moscou pour Irkoutsk - MIX TO moving light pattern - MIX TO
t. C.S. Nadia thinks.
u. L.S. She sits down by Michael, says
v. TITLE "Brother, I do not doubt your courage."
w. C.S. He looks up
x. C.S. She smiles down at him
y. C.S. He gets up, his bearing restored
z. L.S. He stands erect by her - FADE OUT
The tautness, the concise dramatic narrative-content of
the shots is clear from the scenario. Prominent among the touches
of finesse in their direction, photography, acting, and montage
are: Blount's natural entry, background of (a) . . . the slight
but meaningful movement at the end of otherwise static (b) . .
. the grouping, and the lighting (including the view through the
window) in (c) . . . the anxious movement of Nathalie Kovanko's
eyes in (d) . . . the compositional perfection of (e) where the
speed of tracking forward and the diagonal direction are so chosen
that the Man, striding forward, always remains at the side of
the frame . . . Nadia becomes at the apex of a triangular composition
- and the perfectly timed cut, after the blow, to Nadia's reaction
close-up (j) . . . (k) is full of suppressed fury, but (l) and
(m) precisely convey the Czar's warning - and the arrangement
(r), (s), (t) is inexpressibly well done. (The version available
contains a translation in the middle of (s) which is redundant,
breaks the rhythm of the weaving lights, and should be removed.)
The attack by the Tartars on the ferry is magnificently done with grim detail. Strogoff fights valiantly, is finally shot, and falls overboard. The Tartar types are admirably chosen, being shown in detailed close-ups during the fight. Nadia becomes their prisoner. An excellently turbulent close-up shows the wounded Strogoff caught in the strong current, and he finally collapses among the reeds by the river bank.
The short sequence in the Mujik's hut is notable for the excellence of the photographic composition of the interiors, and for the fine bearing of the unnamed player who plays the Mujik. The cutting of Strogoff's symbolic dream, wherein he struggled to climb a vast stair, is most regrettable. Strogoff, now quite handsomely bearded, renders thanks and strides away from the haven. This beard is a satisfactory break-away from the convention that permitted (for example) Edward Malone (Lloyd Hughes) to be clean-shaven after days in The Lost World.
At Omsk, preparations for the Tartar attack are indicated by a spacious long shot. Marfa Strogoff is introduced in a large room of her house apparently praying for the safety of the besieged town. She is shown in a well-arranged close-up,with circular vignette. Strogoff passes through the battle zone to reach the town. The battle scenes are superbly done on a huge scale. Details of the leaders are cut in which heightens the realism. The detail shots of the padre and the bearer of the standard who are shot down are well taken from a low angle with strong dramatic emphasis. The triumphal charge of the Tartars, their entry through the gates of Omsk, the panic of the civilians, and the occupying Tartar column riding past a burning building are shown in long shots crammed with turbulent action - vigorous, impressive, and highly dramatic. (There is an air of newsreel realism, unusual and hard to explain. The abbreviation weakens the effect by making things happen too quickly.)
At night, Strogoff looks through the window to get a glimpse of his mother. Four superbly arranged and lit shots, intercut, narrate this action: a fine L.S. of the house and street, a vividly real shot through the window showing Marfa tending the wounded, a slightly over-pathetic close-up of Strogoff looking in, and a detail C.S. of Marfa looking up. The shots are fine in content but, strictly faulty in camera-angle since the second shows a window-frame which Strogoff was too near to see, and the third is taken from inside the window which draws attention to an "impossible" camera position. Strogoff walks away, but a horseman has noted the incident. As in the book, Strogoff's lapse is shown as a grave blunder.
The café set is another gem. Strogoff's denial to Marfa, the hurried exit, shaving with a splinter of glass, and a getaway on the white horse are done in fine style with bold black and white lighting. The background of drunken Tartars in the café is another studied detail. Marfa is questioned again in Ogareff's huge apartment in which crude disorderliness is well conveyed. The Marfa-Ogareff "struggle" close-up of extreme power is shot with pinpoint sharpness of focus against a very diffused background. The exterior night scenes of Strogoff pursued, riding through the dark woods and exchanging his horse for the mount of a shot Tartar are really superb. At dawn the Tartars still chase the lone white horse. They are in the battle region, and Strogoff is in the telegraph office with Blount and Jolivet. The former wires leisurely at 10 copecks a word while Jolivet prances about in impatience. A picture of the Czar adorns the wall. The clerk is imperturbable. The Tartars approach. Jolivet lures Blount to the window, starts writing, pauses to fling out a shell that comes through the window. It explodes outside partly wrecking the office (a crisp piece of cutting). Jolivet continues writing
Then a queer streak of over-sentimentality intrudes. The white horse walks up, and collapses, and Strogoff is still kneeling by it when the Tartars come up and capture him.
Marfa and Nadia have met also as prisoners. At Ogareff's command the former is forced to kneel at the point of a sabre to be flogged till she points out her son amongst the prisoners. Here the presentation is straight-forward but with the unusual attention to detail. Sangarre nudges Ogareff. There follows a masked C.S. of Strogoff, then a C.S. of his hands clenched behind him. In a sudden turmoil of action, Ogareff gives the word. The Tartar raises the knout, Strogoff dashes forward, and hurls him aside. Ogareff strides up, and in two magnificently vivid close-ups, Strogoff furiously swings the knout and smashes it into Ogareff's face. A score of Tartars close in, and the Czar's dispatch is seized and read
At the Emir Feofar Khan's huge festival, established in vast long shot with flags topping the frame in the foreground, Ogareff brings his news, and Strogoff awaits sentence. Fanfares and dancing and acrobatic riding abound. The Emir announces the penalty of blinding. The gauze-fringed close-up emphasises the cruel lines of his face. Nadia is swept back into the crowd. Marfa stands near. A sabre is heated on a huge brazier. The dancers become more abandoned. Marfa cries bitterly. Strogoff stands calm. Nadia stands deathly still. A tear can be seen in Strogoff's eyes, as he looks towards his mother. The red-hot sabre is raised in a grim close-up. Then comes flashes of the dancers, of Nadia's grief, of Marfa collapsing. Then a close-up of Strogoff writhing in pain, his eyes horribly burned. The huge crowds disperse. Ogareff cuts the cords and gives his victim a last contemptuous kick. Nadia rushes forward. The three are left alone, and Michael is helped across to Marfa in a long shot of the empty dais. He whispers to her, and she smiles. Those who know the book remember his explanation to her of the miracle that has saved his sight.
Wassili Fedor's pardon by the Grand Duke at Irkusk is mutilated to a series of too short shots and one vast subtitle.
In a hut, Nadia and Michael rest. He grieves at hindering her. A thin streak of blood from his left eye is the reminder of his fate. In two lovely close-ups, free from exaggeration, a tear falls from Nadia's eyes on to their cupped hands.
At Irkutsk Ogareff announces himself as Strogoff, delivers the despatch to the Grand Duke, and secures a position in the Palace.
The snow sequence is rather ludicrous. Michael and Nadia toil on, Nadia falls asleep in his arms, and then (as in the book) he strides forward the quicker. But the precipice routine is rather silly. Unhappily, the more dramatic episodes of the later stage of the journey have been cut. This has also caused Strogoff's motive for appearing blind, that he may be no further molested, to lack conviction.
Sangarre receives Ogareff's (mis-spelt) note under the ramparts of Irkutsk. Naptha is seen floating down the river. At midnight Ogareff drops a flaming torch, and a sheet of flame rises from the waters. Tartar cannon open fire. There is confusion at the Palace. Michael and Nadia are seen approaching. It must be admitted that the foregoing is impossible to comprehend at first viewing so excessive has the pruning been. The naptha on the swift waters of the river is a mere flash. The sudden appearance of M. and N. within the besieged town is disconcerting. Their journey on an ice-floe over the burning river amid Tartar fire is a real thrill in the book (reading it recalls Lillian Gish in Griffith's Way Down East). The shots of the town, seen over the blazing river, are grandly realistic.
The fight is magnificent. Ogareff treacherously sneaks behind the blind man. On being countered, he realises the truth - a full C.S. of Michael's eyes, gauze-fringed. Ogareff attacks with sabre; Strogoff parries with his short Siberian knife. A superb close-up has the crossed shadows of these weapons on Strogoff's face. The traitor's sabre is broken. He feels for a pistol. Strogoff throws his knife and, gruesomely, pins his hand to the table. Then, springing from the stairs, a heavy rough-and-tumble follows. Nadia is locked in the next room. The door slowly opens. It is Ogareff who staggers in, but collapses. Then Michael comes. Covered with blood, and with tattered clothes, he still retains dignity and only says, "God is with us, Nadia." This is simple, restrained, and most effective.
The discomfiture of the arrested Sangarre on beholding Strogoff is well conveyed in a telling close-up. The Duke congratulates the Courier. The Tartars are repulsed and Fedor and Nadia reunited in grand exterior night scenes in the snow.
The setting for Michael's introduction is exactly repeated, but in front of exalted guests, as the Czar promotes him to Colonel. Unhappily, the sequence ends with iris-out on the dandy Strogoff taken from an angle that fails to do him justice. One recalls that he is at his best full-face.
Blount and Jolivet are present in the bride's home when, according to custom, the relatives give the betrothed couple (kneeling) their blessings before the church ceremony. The lighting of the long shot is beautiful. Marfa and Wassili are together. Then the Cathedral towers are seen, bell tolling, and a really lovely long shot in the Cathedral with faint sunbeams. Nadia makes a sweetly pretty bride, and Blount and Jolivet are still in attendance as Michael embraces her, takes the candles, and extinguishes them: slow fade-out.
The sustained dramatic balance is remarkable, and the narrative value as expressed in film form is excellent.
The only faults one can find are the two over-emphasised touches of sentimentality and the tendency to digress into spectacle. The Trade reviewer rightly remarked, "We understand that since the trade show at the Albert Hall the film has been re-edited, and we have no doubt that, with some curtailment of merely spectacular effects and elimination of some of the blood and brutality, a strong, dramatic story by a master hand, superbly presented, will be enthusiastically received by every class of audiences." Of the many strong directorial touches, the fine scene at Ishim and the details selected in the fight sequences stand out. In the handling of the players, too, routine gestures have been avoided.
The story of its nature tends to be episodic, but small touches, as the decreasing orderliness of Nadia's hair as she gets further on her journey, are carefully controlled.
Notable for thoughtful masking, for excellent collaboration with the director in the Ishim sequence, and for the remarkable brilliance in most of the exteriors. Parts of the original were hand-tinted in two or three colours, as were parts of the contemporary Italian Last Days of Pompeii.
This is really beyond reproach. To realise to the full the fine characterisations of these excellent players, one has only to compare them with the costumed marionettes of other films. As a team they achieved the epic realism of The Covered Wagon.
The cutting of the original was too leisurely. Only certain sequences are notable. The cross-cutting at the Ball fails due to visible mechanics. However, the timing of the intercut detail close-ups in the fight scenes is excellent.
The settings of the period from the Mujik's hut to the Grand Palace, have been designed and reproduced with detailed accuracy and a careful eye to dramatic composition (e.g. at Ishim).
Michael Strogoff is probably the best adventure story of the heroic type, based on a struggle theme, in the whole history of the silent film. Even the much-abridged version available will never fail to impress an audience when properly presented with a first-class musical accompaniment. Fresh air blows across its magnificent canvas; lofty mountains and wide rivers lie along the memorable journey: a nation fights and conquers an aggressor: the hero's romance is fittingly fulfilled in the Cathedral.
- The Chess Player has been acclaimed a masterpiece since its restoration and release on DVD
- Despite Anthony Bulleid's dismissal of The Grand Ball, I consider the intercutting between the aristocrats dancing and the Tartar cavalry charging among the finest sequences of French (or Russian) cinema.
- Tina de Yzarduy was Raquel Meller's sister.
- The film has now been restored by the Cinémathèque Française, complete with stencil colour, but they have no plans to release it on DVD.
- With grateful thanks to Lenny Borger for corrections to this article.
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