The Magic Sword 1901

Director: Walter R. Booth

A medieval knight battles ogres and ghosts to rescue his beloved from the clutches of an evil witch...and all in just three minutes! A brief look at a silent forerunner of the films of Harryhausen and Bert I. Gordon.

A knight romances a damsel by a moonlit castle wall. The sudden appearance of a witch distracts him, and his damsel is snatched away by a giant ogre. A fairy appears, imploring the knight to give chase and offering him a magic sword as protection. Meanwhile the damsel is taken prisoner in the witch's cave.

When the knight comes to her rescue, he finds that the witch has cast a spell so that she and the damsel look alike. After battling a series of nightmarish apparitions, the knight uses the magic sword to reveal the damsel's true likeness. The fairy re-appears and transforms the witch into a magic carpet, on which they all fly home together. At the castle, they celebrate their reunion with a feast.

Subtitled 'A Medieval Mystery', The Magic Sword was in effect a bumper compendium of moving picture trickery, as conjured up by director and former stage magician Walter Booth. The commentary on the BFI DVD release suggests that it was designed purely as a crowd-pleaser, perhaps intended to be shown at the close of an evening's film programme. It was featured prominently in producer Robert Paul's 1901 film catalogue, where it comes recommended ' audiences who have become weary of foreign pictures of this kind.' -- the inference here being that Georges Méliès and his contemporaries across the English Channel had pretty much cornered the 'trick' film market by 1901.

It turns out that Booth had quite a few tricks of his own up his sleeves. The BFI Screenonline review highlights the innovative combination of superimposition and a moving lens used in creating the illusion of the flying witch, noting that revered illusionist Joseph Maskelyne held the film in high regard. And the inclusion of giants, witches and damsels in distress means you can draw a short straight line between this film and the one of the same name produced by Bert I. Gordon some sixty years layer, taking in The Thief of Bagdad, Jack The Giant Killer and several of Ray Harryhausen's features on the way.

In the witch's cave

Primitive though it may be, The Magic Sword merits attention because it perfectly captures that moment in time when the so-called 'cinema of attractions' (a term coined by critic Tom Gunning to describe early non-narrative moving pictures) was just beginning to leave its sideshow origins behind, and the film medium was taking its first hesitant steps towards a style defined purely on its own terms. That, as they say, is magic!

End Credits:
Cast Unknown
Producer: R.W. Paul
Paul's Animatograph Works, UK
Running Time 3 mins.

R.W. Paul - The Collected Films 1896-1908 (BFI Video)

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