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Magic Sword - A Mediaeval Mystery, The (1901)


Main image of Magic Sword - A Mediaeval Mystery, The (1901)
35mm, black and white, silent, 180 feet
DirectorW.R. Booth
Production CompanyPaul's Animatograph Works

A mediaeval knight battles to save damsel from an ogre and a witch.

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Exactly a century before the film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings (US/New Zealand, d. Peter Jackson, 2001-3), W.R. Booth and R.W. Paul made this short film that used the full panoply of what were then state-of-the-art special effects to tell a traditional sword-and-sorcery romance. In The Magic Sword - A Mediaeval Mystery, a knight has to battle ghosts, ogres, shape-shifting witches and disembodied flying heads in order to win back his damsel - but, thanks to a magic sword bestowed on him by a good fairy, everything turns out happily.

Compared with the films that Booth and Paul made only two years earlier, The Magic Sword is impressively elaborate, with single shots containing multiple trick effects achieved through complex double exposures and superimpositions. One of the most striking effects is a shot of the witch taking off on her broomstick. John Barnes, in volume 5 of The Beginnings of the Cinema in England, quotes Frederick A.Talbot's description of how producer Paul:

invented a novel movement in the camera, which is now in general use in trick cinematography. The lens was arranged to be raised or lowered in relation to the area of film in the gate, but still independently of the film itself. This was done with a small gearing device whereby, when the gear handle was turned, the lens was moved upwards or downwards. The witch astride her broom stood upon the floor of the stage, which was covered with black cloth, against a background of similar material. By turning the gear handle of the lens attachment the latter was raised, until the witch riding on her broom was lifted to the upper corner of the film and there photographed. Although she simulated the action of riding through space in the traditional manner, in reality she merely moved across the black-covered floor.

The final result, together with similar sequences involving a giant ogre grabbing the damsel from the castle ramparts and the witch being turned into a magic carpet that unrolls by itself before taking off with our heroes on board, was so startling that it moved the legendary stage illusionist J.N.Maskelyne (of Maskelyne and Devant fame) to describe The Magic Sword as the finest trick film made up to then.

Michael Brooke

*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'R.W. Paul: The Collected Films 1895-1908', with music by Stephen Horne and optional commentary by Ian Christie. An extract is also featured in 'How They Laughed', Paul Merton's interactive guide to early British silent comedy. Note that this material is not limited to users in registered UK libraries and educational establishments: it can be accessed by anyone, anywhere.

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Video Clips
Complete film (2:14)
Booth, W.R. (1869-1938)
Paul, R.W. (1869-1943)
Paul's Animatograph Works: Trick Films