June 11, 2007

The Tempest (1908)

By the year of 1907, cinema had already reached the point where it wasn't a novelty anymore to see camera tricks or actuality films. While cinema had already developed a certain narrative style thanks to the efforts of film pioneers like Edwin S. Porter and Georges Méliès, many people still considered cinema as a lesser art at best, and a mere sideshow entertainment at worst. To help the new medium to gain more credibility as an art form, the shooting of famous theater plays became a new trend in European cinema, and soon the classic works of Shakespeare and other authors began to appear on movies. While the attempt to give some "credit" to films was certainly noble, this approach soon proved to be flawed, as those movies became nothing more than mere plays put on film. However, some artists tried to use this new trend creatively in order to truly innovate cinema, and British director Percy Stow was one of them.

William Shakespeare's "The Tempest" is the story of sorcerer Prospero and his young daughter Miranda. Prospero is the rightful Duke of Milan, but was deposed by his jealous brother Antonio and set adrift along with his daughter until they reached a magical island where they have been stranded for twelve years. On the island, Prospero found a spirit named Ariel, who becomes his servant after Propsero rescued her from imprisonment in a tree using his magical powers. Propsero also found Caliban, a native monster, son of a legendary witch, who helped them to survive on the wilderness but, after attempting to rape Miranda, also becomes Propero's slave, scared by the sorcerer's powers and Ariel's magic. However, another threat is near, as Propero finds out that Antonio is on a ship that is passing close by the island. It is now time for him to unleash the Tempest and consummate his revenge.

This version of Shakespeare's classic is actually the very first adaptation of "The Tempest" to film, and was the second work by writer Langford Reed, who would become a regular scriptwriter in many of the movies for director Percy Stow's company, Clarendon. As written above, in those years the norm was to simply shoot a representation of the play without making any changes, but under Stow's orders, Reed made the very first attempt to actually translate the classic play to the new medium. So, knowing his limitations, Reed makes a condensed, yet very complete version of the story (although Caliban's subplot is eliminated) that truly captures the essence of the play and manages to remain faithful to Shakespeare despite the changes, ultimately proving that cinema requires a narrative of its own.

Just like Langdon Reed's screenplay moves away from the stagy adaptations that were the trend in those days, director Percy Stow makes his movie version of "The Tempest" a brand new kind of way to tell Shakespeare's tale. Instead of simply shooting his actors performing the play, Stow literally makes the magic of "The Tempest" come alive by cleverly using set designs and special effects to recreate Prospero's magic island. Stow started making "trick films" in Georges Méliès' style, and again he borrows from the French master as "The Tempest" visual look owes a lot to Méliès' famous 1902 film, "Le Voyage Dans la Lune". However, Stow also uses scenes on real locations mixed with his very goo special effects to achieve a style that, while fantastic, looks also realistic to a certain extent, and of course, never stagy.

Sadly, the names of the cast of this first version of "The Tempest" have been lost forever, as there are no records of who played who in this early British classic. However, it still can be said that the actor who played Propsero did an excellent job in the role, as without any kind of overacting he manages to compel all the emotions that his character represents, and he can easily go from being fearsome to merciful. Still, the star of this "Tempest" is definitively the little teenager girl who plays Ariel, as she manages to steal every scene with her highly dynamic performance that clearly shows that she was trained as a dancer. This unknown young actress certainly had a lot of screen presence and Stow knew very well how to use it to portray the otherworldly nature of Ariel. The rest of the cast is good although nothing surprising, and as written above, the role of Caliban was diminished to the point that nothing is left of the highly challenging role of Shakespeare's play.

While this version of "The Tempest" showed that cinema wasn't an extension of theater and in fact was an entire new art form, very few followed Stow's cinematic approach to Shakespeare and the stage-bound adaptations kept appearing during the following years. Still, Percy Stow's creative genius kept shining through the following decade in his "Lieutenant Rose" series of movies, early examples of British spy films. As the co-founder of Clarendon and director of several of the most amazing films of early British cinema (including the first version of "Alice in Wonderland"), Percy Stow's name can proudly stand next to Porter and Méliès as one of the most innovative pioneers of early cinema.


1 comment:

M said...

You really should see Derek Jarman's unique adaptation, i think you'd like it.