Early & Silent Film

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The Rocks of Valpré, UK 1919

Posted by keith1942 on December 20, 2015

Dell cover

This film was directed by Maurice Elvey and adapted from a popular novel by Ethel M. Dell. The film was produced by Stoll Picture Productions. I am fortunate in having seen the film from a 35mm print at both Il Giornate del Cinema Muto 1997 and the British Silent Film Festival [Leicester 2015]. I was impressed on both occasions. Curiously there is little written on the film. Even the BFI monograph on Elvey only mentions the film in passing.

Elvey’s output as a director is uneven. But when the story or themes catch his attention this seems to focus his direction. Certainly this film has a melodramatic plot, but it also offers some interesting settings and the opportunity to present conventional scenes in a distinctive manner.

Ethel Dell was a popular novelist though her work did not garner much critical praise. This novel was filmed again the 1930s. I have not seen it but details suggest that it was one of the less pre-processing ‘quota quickies’. This version was adapted by Byron Webber. He scripted a number of films in this period and also acted. I have not seen any of the others. In this film I thought what was distinctive was more to do with direction and scripting. A colleague at Leicester stated that the film follows the plot of the book fairly closely.

I thought there was some extremely well executed staging and cinematography. The latter was done by Paul Burger. Burger was a Belgium who worked for Stoll and appears to have been the regular cameraman in this period on films directed by Elvey. One of these was At the Villa Rosa adapted from a novel by A. E. W. Mason, which I also thought was pretty good.

“Elvey’s narrative skill sustains the complex structure of this detective mystery. … Paul Berger’s marvellous photography of the Riviera provides a rich, often almost “gothic” setting.” (Il Giornate del Cinema Muto Catalogue, 1997).

The Art Direction is listed by Dallas Cairns, an Australian. He certainly acted in several of the films directed by Elvey. And he also directed films and possibly also produced films. I have not found any other design credits for him.

The film used actual locations in Torquay, standing in for France. One sequence used Corbyn Head. These locations are some of the best sequences in the film. Elvey would seem to have thrived on location filming. His later Hindle Wakes (1927) has some fine location work in Blackpool, filmed by Basic Emmott.

The rest of the film was shot at the Surbiton Studio of Stoll Picture Productions. The company was the largest production firm in this period. In 1921 they moved to larger studios in Cricklewood. The basis for the film company was the Stoll Theatrical Empire. There is certainly a sense of that in some of the films of the period.

Il Giornate Catalogue comments on this film,

“With his usual skilfully chosen cast, Elvey does handsomely by Ethel M. Dell’s melodramatic novel of heroic sacrifice, turning it into a human and ultimately very moving story.”

The plot is complicated but full of generic elements. Trevor Mordaunt (Basil Gill) is a young French inventor who meets and begins a romance with Christine Wyndham (Peggy Carlisle), staying on the French coast with her Aunt (Winifred Sadler). Things go wrong when a rival, Captain Rudolphe (Humberston Wright), steals the plans of Trevor’s invention, a new design of a breechblock gun. This aspect of the plot appears to have been influenced by the Dreyfus affair. Trevor is accused of theft by the military, wrongly convicted and sent to Devil’s Island. He later escapes and has to both track down Rudolphe and clear his name. He also, like Jacob, has to serve time before he can be re-united with Christine.

Some of the most memorable sequences in the film are those using location filming. So Trevor and Christine meet on a rocky beach. On a later tryst Christine’s dog runs off and in rescuing it Trevor and Christine find themselves cut off by the rising tide.

“prisoners till morning”

In a happy touch the dog recurs right throughout the film rather than disappearing as soon as his/her plot function is over.

Trevor and Christine have to pass the night in his secret cave where he works on his invention. The film uses a title from the book,

“The Knight of the Magic Cave”

This is a studio set, but full of shadows, which give it an evocative, almost expressionist feel. Trevor and Christine are innocents but local gossip deems otherwise.

“Christine’s indiscretion”

In a double-whammy this is the occasion on which Rudolphe purloins the plans of the invention.

The filming on the beach and the rocky inlet where the couple sit and talk and romance is well filmed. The changing shots and angles produce a sense of place and freshness.

The comments regarding Christine lead to Trevor and Rudolphe fighting a duel with sabres on a cliff top overlooking the bay. The sequence includes shots from the point of view of Christine, watching from a distance. These include long shots and iris shots and the editing suggests the emotions felt by Christine as she watches.

“You fought on my account!”

However, her aunt takes Christine back to England whilst Trevor suffers a court martial and then prison.

“Stone walls do not a prison make.”

He escapes but faces an even more complicated future. When he finally finds Christine she is married. And Trevor is in debt to the man who is her husband, Bertram de Montville (Cowley Wright), who rescues him from his poverty stricken existence as a street musician.


Rudolph re-appears and there is another plot complication involving a misappropriated cheque and the blackmailing of Christine. Trevor resolves these and Bertram, recognising their love, does the ‘decent thing’,

“I release you from your vow or duty, go to him.”

But the complications continue. Trevor encounters Rudolphe one more time, in Paris. Dying the rival confesses and Trevor is able to clear his name. Meanwhile Bertram has fallen ill and conveniently dies.

“Through the long day the tide slowly ebbs away.”

Trevor and Christine are finally together, their problems left behind.

“The other was a dream .. this is reality.”

There is less location work in the latter part of the film, though we get a return to Valpré and the Torquay location for the passing on of Bertram. The cinematography and settings continue to work very effectively. And the performances, especially of the lead couple, are very good. When I saw it at the British Silent Film Festival we had an accompaniment by Neal Brand, he provided both dramatic and lyrical passages of music to set off the film.

The BFI print is 5938 feet in length, in black and white; the original release was probably 300 feet longer. The original film had tinting. At the both screenings the film was projected at 18fps, running for 79 minutes.

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