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  • Warning: Spoilers
    Victor Sjöström is perhaps best known as a director for the two silent features he made in America with Lillian Gish, The Scarlet Letter (1926) and The Wind (1928); as an actor, he is surely best remembered for his deeply moving performance as the aging professor in Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries, made in 1957 when he was 78 years old. But the recent recovery of a strikingly well-preserved, tinted print of one of Sjöström's early works produced in his native Sweden should give his reputation a fresh boost and firmly re-establish his place as one of the great directors of the cinema's first generation, alongside D.W. Griffith, Maurice Tourneur, and Erich Von Stroheim. 'Terje Vigen,' based on a poem by Henrik Ibsen, is a remarkably sophisticated film of great beauty, a tragic tale with an ending that is unexpectedly uplifting. I can't recall any other movie I've seen that tells such a sad story and nonetheless left me feeling so exhilarated at the finale.

    This project marked a personal and professional milestone for the director. A former stage actor, Sjöström made his movie debut as a performer in 1912 at a studio called Svenska Biografteatern and began directing films for the company soon afterward, but in later years he asserted that most of his early efforts were vulgar and conventional. By the summer of 1916 he was at a low-point, unhappy about his career and the recent failure of his marriage. When producer Charles Magnusson suggested he adapt Ibsen's epic poem "Terje Vigen" Sjöström was skeptical of its potential as screen material, that is, until a bicycle trip to the Grimstad coast, where the poem is set, changed his mind. For financial reasons the filming took place on the sea shore near Stockholm rather than Grimstad, but the director took full advantage of his location's rocky coast and crashing waves, making the landscape an integral part of his film. When the lead actor originally slated to play Terje Vigen dropped out Sjöström took the role himself, and thus put his personal stamp on the finished product. He gave a measured yet intense performance in the title role and appeared in practically every scene.

    The story is set in the early 19th century and may remind some viewers of the tale of Enoch Arden (which had supplied the plot of one of D.W. Griffith's strongest Biograph dramas in 1911). Terje Vigen is a fisherman who quits the seafaring life to marry and start a family in Grimstad, a coastal village. But the Napoleonic wars sweep Europe, and when the British navy sets up a blockade of his island the threat of starvation becomes a grim reality. Rather than see his wife and daughter starve, Terje attempts to run the blockade and return with food. He almost succeeds, but the British spot him in his small boat, give chase, and eventually catch him. Dragged onto the deck of the British frigate he begs for mercy, but the Captain coldly ignores his pleas and has him imprisoned. Five years later Terje is released and returns to his village to find strangers living in his home: his wife and daughter died of starvation. Years pass, and Terje dreams only of vengeance. When a yacht founders off the coast he rescues the owner with his wife and child, and recognizes him as the British captain who denied him mercy years earlier. Terje has it within his power to kill all three, but the sight of the child restores his humanity. He spares them, and his desire for vengeance is conquered.

    The first thing you notice about this film is that the seaside landscapes are thrilling. The cinematography is excellent throughout, but 'Terje Vigen' is more than just a series of beautiful images. Sjöström's Terje is a strong and dignified protagonist. In a role that could easily have lent itself to eye-rolling histrionics the director did not permit himself to overact, and he set the tone for the other performers: there isn't a single false moment from anyone. Sjöström's directorial technique is especially impressive during the emotional high point, Terje's frantic attempt to escape the British sailors in his boat. It's startling to find a sequence like this one in such an early feature: the director puts the viewer squarely in the midst of the action by alternately placing his camera in each of the boats. He cuts back and forth between shots of Terje's arms furiously rowing and shots of the uniformed British sailors coolly coordinating their pursuit. The camera rocks with the ocean, the tempo of the editing accelerates, and the suspense builds sharply. It's an amazing sequence, especially coming after the stately, melancholy introductory scenes on shore. The sea chase also features the only moment of humor, when Terje briefly believes that he's eluded his pursuers, and "cocks a snook" at them (i.e. puts his thumb to his nose and waggles his fingers). But his triumph is short-lived.

    The story is a tragedy, but Terje's climactic change of heart is what makes this film a surprisingly uplifting experience. After reading a synopsis of the plot I confess I sat down to watch the film expecting it to be gloomy and depressing, but instead found an exciting, expertly-handled work of silent cinema that left me buzzing. Apparently 'Terje Vigen' marked Victor Sjöström's first international success, popular not only in Sweden and throughout Europe but also in the U.S., Latin America and Asia; fully ninety years after it was produced I can understand why.
  • tonstant viewer28 September 2006
    If this movie had been made in 1923, I'd have been more blasé, but for 1916 it's nothing short of miraculous.

    The open-air filming is smooth and well-executed. The emotional rawness is hit hard but never gets overheated. The acting is intense but does not stray into laughable "stagger-and-clutch." Dutiful fidelity to Ibsen's poem may cramp the subtitles, but never interferes with masterful story-telling in the film itself.

    There is one sequence, in which a launch from a British warship destroys a fisherman's rowboat and then attempts to hunt down the fisherman while he's swimming for his life underwater, that is an absolute classic that will live in your memory.

    This film is short, but very powerful, and worth going the extra mile to see.
  • Warning: Spoilers
    "Terje Vigen" is one of the best films of the 1910s. It's extraordinarily well crafted for 1917, with some brisk, modern editing (e.g. the capture scene) and, especially, outstanding photography throughout. In this respect, the only slight criticism I could give the film is that it's rather short, at about 53 minutes on the Kino DVD; regardless, the pacing is good. The intertitles from Ibsen, despite whatever is lost in translation, I think also add to the film's rhythm and mood.

    Most of the drama takes place outside, at sea, which avoids some of the dimensional and framing awkwardness, or theatricality, of shooting indoors that so afflicted early filmmakers. Much of it also occurs at night, and the reconstructed blue tinting is very good. Moreover, director Victor Sjöström and cinematographer Julius Jaenzon's photography is not only naturalistic; they make nature into the defining presence of the picture. They do so quite economically, too. Reportedly, the location was less than ideal--settling for the closer and calmer shoreline of Stockholm rather than the real Norwegian island and including in the story a man-o'-war and village, both of which they show very little of. Yet, they didn't need them.

    Sjöström seems to have been one of the first to make nature a central character in his films in a significant way and returned to the conflict between man and nature in such films as "The Outlaw and His Wife" (1918) and "The Wind" (1928). In "Terje Vigen", it's not only the warship or its commander that challenges and affords him, or provides the plot, but also the stormy waters, the foliage that disguises him and his boat as part of the natural environment, the isolation of the island, the entrapment of the sea. Nature as a catalyst and reflection of the plot and character development become most evident in the film's climax.

    To top it off, Sjöström plays the lead, Terje Vigen, in a restrained and convincing performance, especially in his transformation from robust youth to embittered and isolated old man. There's no wonder upon seeing these early performances in his own films that later he would so easily fall back upon acting after his directorial career ended. By 1917, however, Yevgeni Bauer and D.W. Griffith were the only two directors to my knowledge to display such mastery, although for very different uses, of the art form.
  • Warning: Spoilers
    'Terje Vigen' is probably the purest example in Sjostrom's work of the conflict between the natural world and civilisation. It is this theme, his facility with action narratives, and his privileging of monumental landscapes that bring him closer to the American Western than his most famous compatriot and pupil, Ingmar Bergman.

    'Terje' is based on an epic poem by Ibsen, a writer most famous for his plays. The plot is simple enough - Terje Vigen is a salty old sea-dog in the early 19th century, tired of a hard, marine life, who settles down to blissful domesticity with his weaving wife and young child. After five years, however, the Napoleonic Wars break out, and the resulting blockade by the English forces the small community into starvation. Vigen decides to row to a village across the sea to smuggle food for his family; evading the English naval lookout on his way out, he is captured on his return, and thrown into jail for five years. Returning a forgotten man, he finds his house occupied by strangers and his family long dead. He becomes a broken, reclusive lighthouseman; one stormy night, he rescues his captor with his family. Will Vigen get his bitter revenge?

    'Terje' features sequences still unequalled in sea dramas - Vigen's clambering onto the huge yardarm to unfurl the sail; the entire smuggling sequence, from the silvery ripples of the water as Vigen rows away from his wife, radiating away from her towards his doom, to his first evasion from the navy, hiding in an improvised hole, to the terrifying hunt, a brilliantly edited suspense sequence, with one man, old Vigen, chased by a crew of young professionals, to the messy, tortuous climax, Vigen struggling and diving, being shot at by frankly inept sailors.

    These action scenes, in which the natural world is an impassively fierce presence, are contrasted with the domestic - the scenes where he greets his wife and first meets his new child and plays with it are as touching and believable images of family life as anything in cinema ('Thomas Graal's first child' confirms Sjostrom's rare facility with children), while the communal scenes of near-famine are harrowing.

    But there is no easy split between nature and civilisation - Vigen's house is ominously framed by the vast sea, while his adventures on the waves are provoked by domestic needs. Neither is there a simplistic dichotomy between the 'truth' and 'honesty' of nature, and the hypocrisy of society. The latter might cause the murderous war and Vigen's imprisonment, but it also tempers Vigen's warped nature in the aftermath of his loss, where the sight of a family checks his destructive urges. The film closes with an astonishing image, a lingering shot of his family's grave overlooking the sea at sunset. It has an immense, metaphysical, enigmatic, uncanny impact, somewhat frightening in its restfulness, that is closer to Bergman (the sing-song, ye-olde-Englishe translation of Ibsen's verse in the intertitles are unintentionally, distractingly comic)
  • Poverty, loss, revenge, and man's inhumanity to man are the themes that propel director Victor Sjostrom's film TERJE VIGEN (1917) (listed here under its English title A MAN THERE WAS). Sjostrom portrays the title character in this adaptation of a poem by noted author Henrik Ibsen. Terje is a sailor who supports his small family in Norway. A blockade by the English navy causes Terje to undertake a dangerous voyage to get supplies for his family, but he is caught and imprisoned. When he learns of his family's death from starvation, he becomes a broken man. One day he comes unexpectedly face to face with the captain responsible for his imprisonment, as he and his family are caught in a violent storm. What choice will Terje Vigen make?

    The story is told in approximately one hour. Modern filmmakers could learn much from the economy and concision of these early features. The narrative is straightforward, simple and unadorned, with no padding or extraneous subplots, and the story is told most effectively. It uses title cards sparingly, and in a very interesting fashion. Lines from the original poem are displayed on the screen, then the action described in the lines takes place, and the viewer is able to follow from there.

    The actors do fine work in this film. Sjostrom proves to be a fine actor in the lead role, imbuing his character with dignity, sorrow, tenderness, anger, and many other emotions. The supporting cast is also effective, particularly Bergliot Husberg as Mrs. Vigen. The actors show restraint and naturalism in their parts, largely avoiding the tendency towards big melodramatic gestures that marked contemporary theatrical productions.

    Equally notable is the cinematography, which depicts both the beauty and the dangerous ferocity of the sea, as well as the starkness of the island landscapes. Sjostrom made very effective use of the Norwegian scenery, causing nature to become a character in its own right in the film. Tinting adds to the moody atmosphere. The camera is mostly stationary, according to the custom of the time, but the shots are very well composed, like paintings. In addition, the film is well edited, not allowing shots to go on longer than necessary.

    This film was definitely very moving and memorable. TERJE VIGEN is a compelling and concise tale of the effects of man's inhumanity to man, and of the dilemmas that individuals face when tempted to cast compassion aside. It is rendered effectively through succinct scripting, heartfelt and naturalistic acting, and artfully composed cinematography. It is definitely a masterpiece of silent cinema. SCORE: 10/10
  • This is a faithful adaptation of the eponymous poem by Henrik Ibsen, and all inter-titles are quotations of Ibsen's original text. The film follows an innovative non chronological structure. In the brief opening scene, old grey-haired Terje Vigen is contemplating a stormy sea. It is followed by a long flash back showing his past life first with his wife and daughter, his trip to Denmark, his capture by the English, his life as prisoner in England, and finally his return home. There is even a flashback in the flashback when, while in jail, Terje Vigen remembers his wife and daughter. The last part starts with the same scene as the opening one, followed by the rescue of the British yacht. It is interrupted by a brief flashback when Terje Vigen realises the Captain of the yacht is the Englishman who had taken him prisoner. The most remarkable aspect of the film is the outdoor on-location filming on the coast and on small boats, which gives great authenticity to the action, in particular the very realistic chase and sinking of the dinghy in the middle of reefs. Editing is brisk, cross-cutting between views of the two boats and then between the English boat and Terje Vigen trying to escape by swimming underwater.

    See more and a link to the full film at: a-cinema-history.blogspot.com/2013/12
  • Warning: Spoilers
    "A Man There Was" (1917) is a remarkable Swedish film based on the poem "Terje Vigen" by Henrik Ibsen.

    The verses of the poem form the basis of all title cards throughout the film as the whole story is acted out visually.

    It follows the story of Terje Vigen (Victor Sjöström - who also directed the film) whom along with his wife (Bergliot Husberg) and small child, live in a costal village in the south of Norway in the early 19th century.

    With villagers starving to death because of the English blockade, Terje makes a decision to take a row boat to Norway to get food supplies for he and his family.

    He makes a safe passage and loads his boat with supplies before setting back to Norway. However, en route he is spotted by a British ship whose ruthless Captain (August Falck) puts his men in a row boat, armed, and sends them after him.

    A thoroughly exciting and tense chase takes place before Terje is finally captured and taken prisoner on the English vessel.

    The Captain turns him over to authorities back in England where he remains in prison for five years.

    Upon release in 1814, he returns home where villagers no longer recognise him due to his ragged, aged appearance.

    He seeks out his old home but is bewildered to find new dwellers who deliver the devastating news that his wife and child starved to death years ago and are in a pauper grave.

    Terje sinks within himself and taking a modest home by the sea, lives a life of solitude as a recluse where he peers out at the mighty ocean where his fate was sealed.

    One evening, he spots a yacht in distress out in the rough seas and decides to take his row boat out and attempt to assist the troubled crew.

    Arriving at the yacht, he finds the small crew struggling frantically as a woman - actually the Captain's wife - (Edith Erastoff), clutching a child in a blanket, sobs on the deck.

    Terje takes the wheel but then recognises the Captain as the man whom had captured him in 1809. Fierce with revenge at heart, he helps the Captain - along with his wife and child - to the row boat and pulls his oars until theu reach a rocky area protruding from the waves.

    Here, he reveals to the terrified Captain that he is the man whom had his life destroyed due to the Captain's actions and tells him that he will now avenge.

    He announces that the wife shall die first, but when he regards the innocent, bewildered child's face, Terje sees the light and finds forgiveness in his heart.

    The family visits him later at his home to reward him for his brave actions.

    This is a visually stunning film and is completely void of any of the histrionics usually associated with films of this age.

    There is a feel of total naturalness in every performance and the direction is sublime.

    The scene where the British crew pursue Terje at sea is very exciting and features very rapid cutaways between the crew, Terje in the sea, gun shots being fired etc. It's ahead of its time by decades.

    A wonderful introduction to the quite amazing world of Swedish silent cinema.
  • Enchorde11 February 2019
    Warning: Spoilers
    To watch the classic silent movies is a little more demanding than watching a "talkie". However, that said, it doesn't mean that you still can't enjoy them. First, and most importantly, Terje Vigen got a story that works, even today (actually I am little surprised that no one has tried to make a modern remake). Based on a poem by Henrik Ibsen, it is a tale set in the Napoleonic Wars. A sailor leaves the sea when his wife gives birth to a daughter. But war brakes out and British warships patrol and blockade the Norwegian coast and ports. Starvation follows. Terje sets out on an epic journey, rowing to Denmark, to get grain for his family. But, when he is close to home he is caught by the British and his boat (with the grain) sunk. Terje is thrown in prison, never to see his family again.

    After the war, he returns, but there is no one left for him. He settles on the outermost islands. One day, a yacht is in trouble nearby and Terje sets out to rescue them, only to find that the yacht's captain is the same officer that sank his boat with the grain all those years ago (and practically sentenced Terje's family to death).

    The story got all the components a movie needs. Adventure and suspense. Actually some good action (the scene when the British chase Terje is very good - years before it's time and impressive from a directorial and cinematographic point of view). Emotional highs and lows with an edge of irony and revenge thrown in. And some good acting. It is not uncommon that silent actors overact quite a bit to get the message through the screen, but not here. Victor Sjöström, both the director and lead actor, keeps the acting on an acceptable and therefore plausible level. And the movie is not too long, running about 45 minutes (as stated above, I can't relax as much when watching a silent movie)

    So, well worth watching, both from a technological/cinematographic perspective, but also just because it is a good story.
  • Warning: Spoilers
    bizarre, lyrical intertitle cards--perhaps in original language it was This silent film might take a bit of getting used to as you watch it. That's because the intertitle cards are written in a very odd and lyrical manner--one that makes reading them a bit difficult at first. It's as if some poet decided to write them. Now I have no idea how close these are to the original cards, as the current copy we have of the film was made from a German print. Were the original cards written like this? And how much was lost in translating it to German and then English?

    Victor Sjöström starred in and directed this film. Few Americans today would recognize him or his name but some might remember his as the aging professor in Bergman's "Wild Strawberries". However, in the silent days he was a HUGE star--directing and starring in lots and lots of films. A few of them still exist today and the ones I have seen are very well made.

    This is the story of Terje and it begins around 1810. Sweden and Britain are at war and the British fleet is blockading the coastline. As a result, the common folk are hungry and Terje goes to sea to smuggle in food. However, it's risky business and he's eventually captured. The British Captain is a tough man and has no pity--sending Terje to prison for five years. When he is released and returns home, he learns that his beloved wife and child have died and Terje spends years pining for them. Then, out of the blue, he is handed an opportunity to exact revenge upon the Captain. What's Terje to do? Well, see the film for yourself!

    All in all, apart from a ridiculously improbable scenario at the end, the film was exceptionally well made and compelling. A very good early silent film and one that fans of the genre should see.
  • MartinTeller12 January 2012
    I've been wanting to see more Sjostrom, hoping for something on the level of PHANTOM CARRIAGE. Although this one has nothing but rave reviews on IMDb, it didn't grab me as much. A melodrama about a man driven mad by tragic misfortune and cruelty, but it's hard to feel too sorry for him because he really didn't have a very good plan. Maybe I'm being harsh, but despite a strong performance by Sjostrom I just wasn't emotionally invested enough to care that much about his troubles. However, technically it's very impressive for its time and features some stunning nautical cinematography and a haunting final image that serves as a strong counterpoint to the redemptive theme. You can also see Sjostrom's man vs. nature motif emerging, further developed in THE OUTLAW AND HIS WIFE and of course THE WIND.
  • Warning: Spoilers
    This film was terrible, terrible! As I said in my title, Adolf Hitler loved this film because it put the British in a very bad light. Among other things, Hitler was not known for his good taste! Yes, this film has other problems. First of all, its depressing! A guy (Virgen) gets food for his family, but is captured by the British and held prisoner for five years. When Virgen, on bended knee, tearfully explains what his skiff was doing in the water, the British laugh in his face. When he's finally released from prison, he comes home to see that his wife and child have starved to death. A bit later in the film, he goes out to rescue a yacht in trouble and sees that it's none other than the commander of the ship who imprisoned him five years earlier, along with his wife and baby. Herein lies another problem. It gets kind of fuzzy about whether or not Virgen ultimately rescues these people. You see someone else do that while Virgen is raging at them. Then there's the ending, which I will go ahead and tell you because I don't want you to waste your time on this turkey. Now, in the scene before the end, Terje is waving at these British people. I could have ended there (and gotten a "2" or "3" from me). But nooooooooooooooo! He dies and it shows his grave! Gee whiz! Again, I say, do yourself a favor and DO NOT watch this!
  • A Man There Was tells the story of Terge Vigen, a Swedish seaman played by director Victor Sjöström who plucks up the courage to take on the British Empire's naval blockade of trade routes which in turn is slowly starving out his small village, wife and child. Set mostly amid the chaotic northern sea and coastlines, Sjöström creates a wonderfully moody and sombre atmosphere throughout filled with strife and tension, an impressive and fitting soundtrack (on the 2008 DVD version), distilled by beautiful intertitles taken from a Henrik Ibsen poem. Although it has its moments and overall is an enjoyable feature, its short runtime, sometimes plodding pacing and lack of significant plotting stop the movie from ever truly taking off beyond being a mere mood piece.