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The Chess Player, directed in France by Raymond Bernard, was recently released by Milestone Film & Video on DVD. The film, which was restored by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill in the 1980s, tells the story of an automaton called "the Turk," a full-sized mechanical chess-playing "man." The Turk existed in real life; it was built by Hungarian Wolfgang van Kempelen about 1770 and earned its name because of its Turkish-looking garb. However, The Chess Player is a fictional account of this object, which was based on a novel by Henri Dupuy-Mazuel. In the film, von Kempelen constructs the figure as a political move in Poland's fight for independence against Russia—but in real life, no such political intrigue took place. Plus, there is a bit of romantic interest thrown in for good measure.
Actually, von Kempelen toured his mechanical figure around Europe and gave performances, playing matches with some very famous figures in history. As Tom Standage writes in his book The Turk: The Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth-Century Chess-Playing Machine,1 chess was extremely popular in Paris at the time. It was not difficult to find expert French players and others—including Napoleon and Edgar Allan Poe—willing to have a match against an automated figure. The most intriguing aspect of these performances is the fact that the Turk was extremely good and rarely lost. Audiences would be allowed to look through the cabinet on which the Turk figure sat, witnessing the mechanisms that apparently made it run. But, like any good magic act, there was a trick involved—Standage's book and the film both provide the answer at the end.
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a range of incredible automated figures was produced, partly for entertainment and partly to demonstrate technical and scientific principles and expertise of the time. During the mid-1700s, Jacques de Vaucanson created a series of beautiful performing artist figures, but his most famous automaton was a mechanical duck that paddled through water, moved its neck, found and swallowed grain, digested it, and even "disposed" of its food. In 1779, Von Kempelen himself developed a "talking head" that worked through bellows and tubes driven with a keyboard, like a piano. The vowels and syllables spoken by the figure were produced by air driven through this apparatus. In 1838, Cornelis Jacobus van Oeckelen created a life-size robot called "Android Clarinetist," which performed four classical pieces on a thirty-two-note clarinet.
While The Chess Player's narrative is fictional, the object it portrays was real and historically significant. The film itself is also of historical interest in that it represents the work of one of France's most important directors, Bernard, and one of the most accomplished special effects artists in motion picture history, W. (Walter) Percy Day. Bernard, the son of playwright Tristan Bernard, was one of the most accomplished directors of his time, known for impressive large-scale, big-budget productions, including Les Misérables (1933), which Dudley Andrew describes as "France's most official film production since Abel Gance's Napoléon."2 The scope of The Chess Player is evident in the fact that it was shot on location in Poland, France, and Switzerland, plus it features [End Page 149] a large cast filmed in battle scenes and at a grand ball, as well as a range of visual effects.
Day was an Englishman who was not only an accomplished fine art painter, but also contributed glass paintings and matte paintings to a range of films from England, France, and the United States; to name just a few examples, he worked on Napoléon vu par Abel Gance (1927) (he also had a small part in the film, as Admiral Hood), William Cameron Menzies's Things to Come (1936), and Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949), in addition to films directed by John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Michael Powell...