Movie Review: The Chess Player

Movie review © 2004 James Schroeder

“The Chess Player” From the novel by Henri Bupuy-Mazuel. Produced by La Societe des Films Historiaues. 1926. France.

This is a melodrama, starting in the town of Vilnius in Polish Lithuania in 1776, which is occupied by Russian soldiers of Catherine the Great.

The leader of the Polish resistance trying to oust the Russians is Boleslas Vorowsky, who is the best chess player in the region. His guardian is Baron von Kempelen.

(In real life Kempelen was famous throughout Europe for manufacturing hundreds of automations that could sing, dance, play music, etc. His most famous creation was The Turk.)

Vorowsky is wounded in battle and Kempelen, who wants to get him out of Lithuania, comes up with a brilliant idea – he will create an automaton chess player! Vorowsky will be inside The Turk and play chess while Kempelen pretends it is a mechanical device.

Technically this movie is superb, showing The Turk perfectly as Kempelen opens and closes doors, holds a candle inside, etc., just as it was done in real life.

Kempelen exhibits The Turk and is about to cross into Germany, and safety, BUT, King Stanislas Poniatowski of Warsaw, Poland, has heard of The Turk and wants to see it.

After seeing The Turk in action the king insists that Kempelen take it to Catherine II of Russia, along with a warning that Catherine does not like to lose at chess.

But Vorowsky isn’t about to let anyone win, especially Catherine, so The Turk wins their game.

That makes her angry and she orders The Turk to be shot at dawn! (I told you it was a melodrama.)

Vorowski, who has been living the life of a pretzel, is about to be killed!

One interesting moment is when The Turk defeats a Russian officer whom Vorowsky happened to defeat in Vilnius. The Russian recognizes Vorowsky’s style of play and correctly surmises who is inside The Turk.

He then sneaks and peaks around and proves it. The plot thickens!

For comic relief there is an idiot who looks like Harpo Marx, but is not the least funny.

At 140 minutes it is often dull, but many French and German films of the silent era were far superior to most Hollywood products, and this is one of them.

The lighting, sets and camera work are better, but NOT the acting, which consists mostly of a lot of mugging. As Kempelen starts to get his great idea you can see the wheels turning!

Available via inter-library loan.

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