I'm currently reading Alan K. Rode's mammoth biography of film director Michael Curtiz. It's a fascinating book, and a long-overdue examination of a filmmaker that never seems to get the attention he deserves.
One of the revelatory parts of the biography is the coverage of Curtiz's movie career during the silent era in Europe, before he came to the United States. Curtiz started making films in Hungary, but he left during that country's political upheaval right after WWI. He wound up in Austria, where his films became more epic in scope.
One of the major films Curtiz made during his European period was YOUNG MEDARDUS, a 1923 historical epic that deals with events happening in the city of Vienna in 1809. It is one of the very few silent films Curtiz directed that is available on YouTube with English captions.
YOUNG MEDARDUS concerns Medardus Klahr (Victor Varconi, here billed as Michael Varkonyi), a young Austrian who wants to resist the forces of Napoleon from taking over his country. Medardus' sister Agathe is in love with the son of the Duke of Valois. The Valois family are aristocratic exiles from France, and the Duke does not believe that Agathe is worthy of his son. Rather than be forced apart, Agathe and the Duke's son commit suicide, and Medardus plots revenge by seducing the Duke's daughter Helene (Agnes Esterhazy). Helene also wants revenge for her brother's death, and she and Medardus wind up having a love-hate relationship. The Valois family believes they have a claim to the French throne, and Helene plots to have Napoleon assassinated. As the French conquer Austria, Medardus and Helene both meet a tragic fate.
The print of YOUNG MEDARDUS that I viewed on YouTube was mediocre, lacking sharpness and clarity, with background details hard to make out. Nevertheless, it still gave the impression of a very expensive feature, with opulent sets, hundreds of extras, and much location shooting. There was plenty of historical pageantry on display, and numerous well-staged battle scenes.
There are a number of original running times given for YOUNG MEDARDUS, but all of them are over two hours. The print I saw ran 101 minutes, and while I was able to follow the story for the most part, I did get the sense that some scenes were missing. During the battle sequences near the end, there are almost no intertitles that tell what is going on, and all the various shots of soldiers fighting one another do not have much of an impact without any context to put them in.
The battle scenes also put Medardus and Helene off to the side--it's as if the movie has forgotten about them. The overall story also has a very stodgy quality to it (the characters seem like figures in a vast painting instead of real people). It has to be stated that a full-length, technically restored version of this film would probably play quite differently.
This truncated version of YOUNG MEDARDUS did show me that Michael Curtiz (who was using the name Michael Kertesz during this period) was already a very accomplished director at this time. The camera doesn't move here, but in his staging of shot compositions, Curtiz constantly tries to bring some visual flair to the proceedings. The director would return to historical costume drama many times while he worked in Hollywood, most notably with actor Errol Flynn.
It would be wonderful if Kino or a similar company could release a restored YOUNG MEDARDUS for the American market. I'm going to try and find more silent films Curtiz directed on the internet, and I will be writing a full blog post on the Rode biography once I have finished reading it.