Early & Silent Film

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The Cossack Whip, USA 2016

Posted by keith1942 on July 16, 2017

This was John H. Collins final film for a combination of companies, Kleine – Edison – Selig – Essanay. He then moved on to Metro. Collins had married up and coming star Viola Dana in 1915 and she was the star of this film  and continued in that role for Collins until his demise in 1918.  Helen-Day Mayer and David Mayer in the Le Giornate del Cinema Muto Catalogue, characterise the plot of this film.

“Not high art, but a melodrama to be enjoyed – as melodrama. Although the collapse of the Russian Army, virtually helpless under German attack, was well known in America in 1916, writer James Oppenheim and scenarist Paul Sloane fell back on a misgoverned, cruel and autocratic representation of Russia that had been the subject of numerous late-Victorian stage melodrama.”

In the early reels we have the despotic Tsarist secret police, secret revolutionaries [though without defined political content] and the innocent villagers caught up in the conflict. In the film we first meet the revolutionary band [ The Brotherhood] including Sergius (Richard Tucker). An attack on a train to free imprisoned radicals leads to searches of villages on the orders of Cossack officer Ivan Turov. This leads to a raid on the village where Darya (Viola Dana) and her family live,

The raid is a bravura sequence. A lone horsemen is seen on a hilltop amongst a snow-covered but desolate landscape. He is joined by other horsemen, seen in silhouette. Intercut with this are scenes of a village celebration for the betrothal of Darya’s sister Katerina (Grace Williams) to Alexis (Robert Walker). Then the mounted Cossacks attack the village, shooting, cutting down with sabres and pillaging. Some villagers, including children, are left for dead; others are marched off to the secret Police HQ for interrogation. Darya had managed to hide in a water barrel and hs emerges to see the dead and the desolation.

At the Police HQ the interrogation is supervised by Turov. With Katerina Turov shows her the torture of Alexis through a stone trap door above the cell where he is being beaten with a whip. Turov offers her Alexis’s life in exchange for her favours. However, after he has satisfied his lust, Katerina discovers that Alexis is actually now dead. Katerina is also beaten, and in a terminal state, she returns to the village with the whip used in the torture. Finding her and hearing her story Darya swears revenge.

The plot moves on. Darya flees to Moscow and joins the ballet troupe of which Sergius is also a member. However, the secret police force her to flee again, to London. Darya’s ballet career is furthered there by Madame Pojeska ((Sally Crute). But even here she is the subject of surveillance by a Tsarist spy. She also meets Sergius again.

The pair return to Russia where Darya becomes a featured dancer in the prestigious Imperial Ballet. This brings her to the attention of Turov who visits her dressing room and flirts with her. Darya takes up his invitation and he shows her the secret police HQ. He shows her the actual cell where Alexis and Katerina were tortured and the stone trap-door above. Playfully and flirtatiously examining the wall manacles in the cell, Darya inveigles Turov into letting her lock him in them. She now produces the whilst and proceeds to beat the helpless Turov. Tension is increased when a cut show the audience a man In Tsarist uniform above the cell as well as Turov’s Chinese servant. The uniformed officer turns out to be a fellow revolutionary who ends Turov’s agony by shooting him. This sequence once again uses the effective and relatively fast editing seen earlier in the film. At the climactic moment the dead Katerina is superimposed on her living sister. And the underground cell is presented with a blue tint which emphasise its forbidding nature.

Her revenge completed Darya can flee Russia with Sergius. We last see the pair entering

‘the land of the free’

as the ship passes the Statue of Liberty in New York harbour.

The plot line was not always clear to me and the ‘long arm of co-incidence’ seemed to operate. The geography of the film seemed very convenient, especially the visit to the secret Police HQ in the final reel. And credits seem to suggest two Turov’s: if so I did not distinguish them. And synopsis referred to Paris rather than London. However, the 35mm print for the screening seemed complete. Whatever the possible confusions in the plot this was an exemplary use of film techniques and seemingly radical for the period.

Jay Weisberg and Paolo Cherchi Usai’s introduction in the Festival Catalogue comments;

“A fine example of this [the fruitful collaboration of Collins and Dana) is The Cossack Whip, which can still astonish the modern viewer for the unbridled modernity of its style. The film is edited with an elegance and rhythm that could have made Eisenstein envious, and there is reason to suspect that Collin’s grasp of the medium flourished quite independently from Griffith’s influence.”

We also enjoyed a suitably dramatic accompaniment from Neil Brand at the piano.

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