Richard the Lion-Hearted (Cines, 1912)
The Talisman is around 450 pages long. Richard the Lion-Hearted (1912)*, which is an adaptation of Scott’s novel, is sixteen minutes. I wrote about Man’s Calling (1912) in the past and praised it for being very wise in its handling of the single-reel drama format — that is, it kept the plot very simple and instead devoted most of its short runtime to developing the characters. Richard doesn’t take that route. It tries to condense the entirety of Talisman into 1070 feet. The story is understandably stripped to the bone, presenting nothing more than the barest minimum to keep the narrative moving. You can forget about anything but the most perfunctory characters.
During King Richard’s illness, his enemies Duke Montserrat and the Templar raise the Austrian flag over the crusaders’ camp. Richard, incensed, has the flag removed and orders his favorite knight, Sir Kenneth, to keep guard over the English flag. Edith is in love with Sir Kenneth, but the Queen doubts his constancy. She forges a letter from Edith demanding an immediate meeting. Sir Kenneth rushes away to see Edith. During his absence, the flag is stolen. Montserrat confesses to taking it. The matter must be settled by mortal combat between Sir Kenneth and Montserrat, Richard decrees. Montserrat is badly wounded and is carried to his tent. When the Templar is alone with him, he hastens the Duke’s death at a dagger point, fearing that Montserrat would have otherwise betrayed him. Meanwhile, Richard proclaims that Sir Kenneth is secretly the heir-apparent to the throne of Scotland. Sir Kenneth and Edith are engaged. The Templar is arrested.
For all its over-stuffed action, Richard the Lion-Hearted looks very good. The Italians were masters of period dramas in early film. Compared to the staginess of the chariot race in Kalem’s Ben Hur (1907), the sets, costumes, and choreography seen in the joust sequence here look at least a real as something you’d see at a Renfair. Not only that, but the cinematography is leaps and bounds ahead of Ben Hur’s static camerawork. It begins with a pan that follows the two horsemen as they enter the field, cuts to a medium-close shot of the king overseeing the rules being read out, then to a wide-angle of the field as Sir Kenneth and Montserrat tilt at each other, and finally a medium-close shot of Montserrat being carried away.
That’s the most impressive scene, but none of them are bad. There’s another, more subdued example earlier in the film: We see Montserrat and the Templar exit Richard’s tent. Richard’s tent is in the foreground. There are two more tents in the near background and another five in the distance. The background tents aren’t a matte painting as they surely would be if this were an American production. All of them are real and they all have costumed extras milling around them.
I’m torn about how to rate this. The story plays much too fast — much, much too fast. But everything else is masterfully put together, so much so that I think it just manages to overcome the pace.
My rating: I like it.
* The film was originally titled Il Talismano. Richard the Lion-Hearted is the name Kleine gave it for its US release, which is what my print is from.