[dir. Alfred E. Green; scr. Julien Josephson]
The Ottoman force outnumbered the defending army tenfold — and yet… It was no simple matter to break the chain across the Golden Horn, nor breach the Theodosian Walls — and that not even with Orban’s bombard, a cannon so great it was accompanied by sixty oxen and four hundred men.
The siege lasted over fifty days. Walls were destroyed, walls rebuilt; tunnels dug, and counter-tunnels. The Ottoman fleet was held at bay — then transported, on greased logs, overland.
The sultan would have the city; the emperor could leave, take his possessions, have the Peloponnesian governorship, and the populace would be spared. Constantine XI conceded every other rock in his empire to its invader, but he would not surrender the capital.
On the 29th of May, 1453 the final assault began. The wall at last was breached, and in poured the janissaries, and there came a flood of smoke and blood, to the sound of trumpets.
Accounts differ as to the final moments of the last Byzantine emperor. He hanged himself when the Turks broke through the walls. He was killed to the south, making his way to the sea. He rallied those men who would stand with him, threw away his royal regalia, and charged into the fray in a noble last stand, their leader to the end, and died as one of them.
And so the Roman Empire finally crumbled into dust. Mehmed the Conquerer succeeded where his father Murad II had failed, and at the tender of age of 21, took Constantinople.
Over centuries, the Ottoman Empire grew. And as all things grow, so do they wither.
Isma’il Pasha was Khedive of Egypt and Sudan from 1863 to 1879, a reign marked by modernisation and development. The Suez Canal, the dream of a retired French diplomat named Ferdinand de Lesseps, had begun construction during Ismail’s father’s governorship, in 1859. Ten years later, Ismail the Magnificent oversaw the grand opening. The Mediterranean and Red Seas were connected.
Slightly over half the shares in the Suez Canal Company belonged to France, the rest to Egypt. But a reign of modernisation and development is by no means immune to financial difficulty; in particular, war with Ethiopia had left the country in considerable debt. In 1875, Ismail sold his country’s stake in the canal to Britain, for a sum of £4,000,000 — a deal secured by Conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Disreali, using the capital of Lionel de Rothschild. For Disraeli, this was a foreign policy coup: securing the gateway to India, the jewel in the crown.
Elsewhere in London, a seven-year-old boy, who that year had made his amateur acting debut, could never have guessed how significant a role these political goings-on would play in his own life. Young Master Andrews would have had to have been unprecedentedly prophetic to predict, too, that one day there would be pictures that moved and talked, and that he should become a thing known as a Movie Star.
To look at George Arliss as a movie star, it’s still hard to believe. He’s somewhat odd-looking to begin with, but made-up as Disraeli he is, at first glance, frankly freaky. Louis N. Parker, commissioned by Arliss, wrote the original play as a starring-vehicle for the English actor. Disraeli opened on Broadway at the Wallack’s Theatre on the 18th of September, 1911.
The play was first filmed as a silent in Britain in 1916, sans Arliss. After acquiring the screen rights, Arliss starred in the second adaptation, in 1921. Finally, there was the 1929 sound version, directed by Alfred E. Green, with a screenplay adapted from Parker’s play by Julien Josephson (who later wrote Suez (1938), with Tyrone Power as Ferdinand de Lesseps). Warners saw the potential of the story not so much to be a money-maker itself, but to get a new sort of audience into the cinema. A bonus, then, when the film was a success with the public and critics alike. At the 3rd Academy Awards, Disraeli was nominated for Outstanding Production and Best Writing, and Arliss won Best Actor. He went on to play the leads in Alexander Hamilton (1931), Voltaire (1933), The House of Rothschild (1934), The Iron Duke (1934), and Cardinal Richelieu (1935). But he would always be Disraeli.
I worried this one was going to be a bit of a slog when it started: boring low-contrast light, the left edge of the film was cut off from where they put the soundtrack in for the re-release, and other signs of the awkward transition into sound pictures. But I’m happy to report that I got into it, and it was rather enjoyable. It seemed reasonably intelligent, but not ponderous, not even serious, exactly.
The film opens with superimposed text informing us the scene is Hyde Park in 1874. Here a group of men have gathered, listening to a chap rail against the prime minister, Disraeli. They all seem far from gruntled. Then there’s a scene of similarly unenthusiastic fellows of a slightly higher class at a club. Basically, not everyone’s a fan.
Indeed, none less so than William Gladstone. We’re in the House now, and as the G.O.M. (Grand Old Man, or, as the real B. Disraeli once corrected, God’s Only Mistake) waxes on, our hero makes his entrance — napping, or appearing to be. We don’t see his face. His hat’s tilted down over it — like James Coburn in The Magnificent Seven (1960). A real cowboy intro.
Gladstone brands Disraeli a warmonger, unworthy to hold his high office. Disraeli stands, places his hat on the bench, nods to the Speaker, and puts in his monocle. We see for the first time Arliss’ long face, with Disraeli’s distinctive pileous arrangements, most notably a forelock curl to make Clark Kent go as green as a particularly envious bit of Kryptonite. Disraeli commands the room. We follow his gestures, hang on his words. He makes his case for his imperial ideals.
A newspaper informs us: “HOUSE OF COMMONS ADJOURNS. Prime Minister Disraeli’s Foreign Policy Voted Down.”
Disraeli then learns of the Khedive’s desire to sell his Suez shares, and the rest of the film details the prime minister’s urgent attempts to make the purchase whilst concealing his scheme from Russian agents. It’s a little like Lincoln (2011), I guess, in terms of being a character portrait and a political thriller based around one important episode of their career.
But first, a garden party! Disraeli mixes business with pleasure, and here asks Lord Probert (David Torrence) of the Bank of England to cough up the cash. Probert makes some pretty good arguments against, and refuses. Disraeli instead will turn to Hugh Myers (Ivan F. Simpson), a Jewish banker. (Disraeli, though an Anglican, was Jewish, and anti-Semitism is an element in the film.) Meanwhile, Russian spy Mrs Travers (Doris Lloyd) endeavours to drop eaves, which is impressive behind doors, but a bit silly behind rosebushes. I don’t know to what extent, in reality, spies were hiding behind rosebushes, and what part they played in the Suez shares purchase, but as a representation of the Eastern Question, and the Great Game — of Britain and Russia jostling for power as the Ottoman Empire declined — it’s rather effective, and adds the requisite excitement.
Also at the garden party: Charles Deeford (Anthony Bushell), a wealthy young man who isn’t so hot on Disraeli sort of asks Lady Clarissa Pevensey (Joan Bennett) to marry him. She loves him, but he’s being a bit of a pompous ass, so she declines. Lady Clarissa being something of a mentee of his, Disraeli adds Cupid to his list of official duties. He doesn’t take very long to convert Deeford to his way of thinking, and asks him to come work for him.
At No. 10, we meet Disraeli’s private secretary, Mr Foljambe (Norman Cannon), another Russian spy (Disraeli knows; he put Foljambe there to keep a close eye on him). Mrs Travers and Lady Clarissa also turn up. Anyway, Foljambe asks Deeford if anything’s happening with the Suez Canal and Deeford suddenly stands up and manages to nonverbally convey: “No! Nothing going on there! It’s secret! How do you know about the Suez Canal? Disraeli’s certainly not going to buy any shares in it if that’s what you’re thinking!”
This is somewhat frustrating for Disraeli. Now the Russians will be rushing off to get the Khedive’s shares. Someone needs to beat them to it, some devilishly cunning English agent. But whom? Disraeli strikes gold: send a man so utterly incompetent, such a bad liar, such a massive twit, that he will thoroughly discombobulate Russia’s greatest political minds. Disraeli dispatches Deeford at once. Lady Clarissa is very proud of Charles, but weeps to see him leave. I swear to God, Disraeli gives a funny look to camera.
Against all odds, Deeford succeeds, and Lady Clarissa is chuffed to bits. Unfortunately, Mrs Travers has orchestrated the financial ruin of the banker, Myers. This later stuff is all at Disraeli’s house, a great big set with towering bookcases and a high ceiling. There are shots where the actors are quite minute in the frame, and it gives the impression of Disraeli battling alone, or at least with only a small band of friends. One shot has the virtually inconsolable Myers about to relate his misfortune to Disraeli — inconsolable because he cannot keep his promise, because he has failed his friend — but it cuts in before it really makes an impact.
Another bit I noticed had Disraeli walking out of shot and coming back, so that the frame showed briefly nothing but the room, and centrally an empty chair. I don’t know whether that’s art or a joke. Maybe both. (I couldn’t tell sometimes whether Disraeli was smart or not, either.)
Also, tall men: Deeford occasionally, and Disraeli’s butler almost always have the tops of their heads cut off by the frame (it’s not quite Al from Police Squad! but it is a little funny). The staginess, the wider shots, etc. do have that farce connotation. Which is appropriate enough, considering the next bit of business is Mrs Travers arriving, and Disraeli putting his robe on, and the Prime Minister of Great Britain lying on a couch pretending to be sick to outwit a Russian spy lady.
There’s some nonsense about a code, and Mrs Travers confesses her part in villainous machinations. Probert is then called, Disraeli bluffs him, and gets his deal.
A happy ending.
The one other main character I haven’t mentioned yet is Lady Beaconsfield, Disraeli’s wife. She was played by Arliss’ real-life spouse, Florence Arliss, reprising her own role from the 1921 silent. It is a depiction of a loving and lasting marriage. She will hear all he has to tell her, support him, team up with Lady Clarissa to assist in the thwarting of Mrs Travers, and all the while she conceals her own pains. These three significant female characters are definitely a highlight of the film, the other being Arliss’ own performance.
The last part of the film has Disraeli with an appointment to be honoured by Queen Victoria, now the newly crowned Empress of India. But he doesn’t want to go, not while Lady Beaconsfield is ill. Yet go he must.
He exchanges his pleasantries, and thanks Probert and Myers, but he is clearly lost without his wife. A telegram arrives. As Disraeli opens it, fearing it holds the announcement of Lady Beaconsfield’s death… she appears out of the crowd behind him. She goes to him, he turns to her. “Didn’t you get my telegram?” (Or something to that effect.) They go in to be honoured by the Empress, together.
Disraeli may not be a great film, but it is an entertaining enough account of a slice of history, with a sense of character, and time and place, and of a world of shifting empires. How close is this story to the historical truth? I don’t know. Does it matter? I don’t know. Don’t you want Russian spies hiding behind rosebushes in your biopics?
After all, history is largely in the telling — in the leaving in and the leaving out. There are diverse accounts. Emperors hanging themselves and running away and perishing valiantly.
There is one other version of the fate that befell the last Byzantine Emperor at the Fall of Constantinople. As bronze cannon roared like thunder, as the city screamed, as the soldiers swarmed in, an angel transformed Constantine XI into marble, and in the earth sequestered him, beneath the Golden Gate. And there he waits to be awoken.
We no longer conceal our kings under the mountain. Now they are preserved in celluloid as an insect in amber, in ones and zeroes as statues in a temple, immortal in the shining light, for us to turn to in the dark. And for them to turn to us, and to make funny faces. More of the latter, to be honest.