Thursday, May 30, 2019

"L'Agonie De Byzance" or "The Agony of Byzantium" (A 1913 Film About the Fall of Constantinople)

L'Agonie de Byzance or The Agony of Byzantium is a 1913 production that is counted as one of the best French films of the silent era. Made on the eve of World War I, it is an ambitious and lavish depiction of the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in the mid-15th century. The task of directing this mammoth production (even though the film runs to just 30 minutes, it counts as a superproduction for its time) went to Gaumont's (a major French film studio) most prolific director, Louis Feuillade.

Where L'Agonie de Byzance distinguishes itself most is with its impressively staged battle scenes, which are among the most ambitious depicted in cinema up until this time. Even though the camera is rigidly static and most scenes consist of long takes with minimal editing, there is a dynamic quality to the action sequences that really does convey a sense of the fury and frenzy of battle. The static set-up actually works to the film's advantage, making the spectator feel that he is standing on the periphery of the drama, watching history unfold from a privileged vantage point. It only falls down in the scene where the hoards swarming towards the camera end up having to split into two, taking a left or right turn to avoid crashing into an very expensive piece of filmmaking apparatus.

The quality of the set and costume design is also worth commenting on, since this is the most obvious sign of Gaumont's commitment to raising the bar by several furlongs. Although there are a few scenes where Feuillade had to make do with what is obviously a painted backdrop, most of the sets are remarkably solid and detailed, with false perspective used to great effect in several scenes. For a film that was entirely shot in the studio, L'Agonie de Byzance has a surprising realism about it that is rarely found in historical films of this time - you could easily think that at least part of it was filmed on location. Such is the visual impact of some scenes - for example, the one in which an army of sword-waving Ottomans surge through the city gates - that you can favourably compare them with what we find in more recent films, such as Kurosawa's Samurai films. L'Agonie de Byzance is shameless spectacle all the way, one of Louis Feuillade's main achievements.

Below is the French and English versions of the film: