There are some films which leave you wondering why they aren’t better known. The 1926 adaptation of Jules Verne’s epic Michael Strogoff is one of them: beautifully produced and possessing all the elements of a bonafide crowd-pleaser, it baffles me that it has not yet received a DVD release. Being that Fritzi Kramer of the Movies Silently blog wrote a detailed review of this film with tons of historical context and analysis, this piece will just be a series of points which should land Michael Strogoff on your watch list in an instant.
5. Shows off the technical dazzle of the late silent era
The mid to late 1920s were the silent era at its peak in terms of technical artistry. Cinematography, direction, and acting were at the height of sophistication. Michael Strogoff possesses a camera which glides through scenes, masterful fast-paced editing, and actors with restrained performances, more than enough to debunk the idea that silent films from the 1890s to the 1920s were creaky antiques.
4. Ivan Mosjoukine in the lead role
How I wish Criterion or Kino Lorber would just release a Mosjoukine box set! While I have only seen Mosjoukine in Kent and Michael Strogoff, I have to wonder why he doesn’t have more of an online fan base. An intense actor whose career found him in both comedic and dramatic roles, he really shines as the titular hero of Michael Strogoff. He manages to be a white hat protagonist who is endearing and vulnerable, never once insufferably saint-like, a hero you can admire and look up to.
3. It’s the real deal
Obviously being made in the 1920s, Michael Strogoff lacks any of the computer generated wizardry which dominates modern filmmaking. While I am not adverse to CG and green screens, it is nice to see a film that uses real locations in addition to matte paintings. But when I champion Michael Strogoff for being “the real deal,” I am mainly alluding to the action sequences, particularly the fight scenes. You see, I dislike fight scenes which are over-choreographed, an element much too common in recent blockbusters (coughStarWarsprequelscoughMarvelMoviescoughhackhack). I’d much rather see a fight that looks like, well, a fight between two people on the spot and not a sparring match or a Super Smash Bros. match. It’s one reason I love the climax of this movie: the fight looks like a battle on the spot, no fancy back flips or slow-mo punches necessary.
2. Strong female leads
There’s a strange line of thinking which claims strong female leads did not exist in cinema until the 1970s or so… a line of thinking that comes from folks who have only seen one or two movies older than Star Wars. As someone who regularly watches movies older than my grandparents, it’s a laughable notion and Michael Strogoff is one of many films which debunks it. Both the heroine Nadia played by Nathalie Kovanko and the hero’s mother Maria played by Jeanne Brindeau are independent, active characters. Nadia in particular possesses an internal strength which more than makes her Strogoff’s equal and not just a breathing prize for the hero or a faint-hearted damsel. The two of them come to each other’s rescue multiple times in the narrative, making the romantic subplot in Michael Strogoff one of my favorites in all the movies I have seen.
1. Perfect blend of story and spectacle
Epics are spectacle-heavy by nature. Battles! Big sets! Big costumes! Big emotions! Good and evil! Life and death! History in shift! Worlds colliding! And yet there are way too many epics which forget to include a human element. Without interesting characters, what does the audience care if their world is falling apart or endangered? Luckily for Michael Strogoff, this is a film which remembers that rule. Michael, Nadia, Maria, and the two reporters are all memorable characters with whom we can identify, the sort of folks you want to go on an adventure with. Thus the fights, chases, and earth-shattering events all mean something and take on a greater sense of dramatic interest.