A FILM COMPOSER SCORES A SILENT-FILM RERELEASE.
B
Y ERIC BEHEIM


The Indian Tomb

FIG. 1: The lavish production of The Indian Tomb is marked by elaborate sets and plenty of high drama. (click image for larger view)

Joe May’s 1921 action/thriller masterpiece The Indian Tomb has long been considered one of the greatest cinematic epics of all time. Budgeted at more than 20 million German marks (a very large sum at the time), this lavish two-part adventure film takes place in an atmospheric Indian setting of romantic imagination, complete with mystical yogis and dancing girls, ornate palaces and temples, roaring tigers, and hissing cobras. (The “authentic Indian locations” were filmed in Germany at May’s 50-acre “film city.”)

The legendary Conrad Veidt heads a large cast while having a field day as Ayan, the charismatic, sadistic Maharajah of Bengal. Written by Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou, the serial-style plot has Ayan carrying out an elaborate plan of revenge against his wife and her English lover. With the aid of a reluctant high yogi, Ayan brings a European architect to his palace under a cloud of secrecy to design a massive tomb, just so the evil Maharajah can supply the occupant! The architect’s girlfriend (played by Mia May, Joe May’s wife) follows him to India and immediately catches Ayan’s licentious eye. Thus begins a roller-coaster ride of tense climaxes and assorted plot devices that include sexual extortion, man-eating tigers, exotic festivals, and chases across a crocodile-infested lake (see Fig. 1).

Long unavailable, a new, definitive version of The Indian Tomb has been digitally mastered for the home-video market by David Shepard, who is internationally known for his work in preserving classic silent films.

In restoring this visually stunning masterpiece to its former glory, Shepard faced many challenges, not the least of which was coming up with more than three and a half hours of appropriate music to match the exotic and sometimes fantastic action taking place on screen. When budget considerations ruled out such niceties as original scoring and the use of a live orchestra, Shepard turned to me. Working with a modest collection of home-studio gear (located in one corner of the family room), I previously supplied Shepard with electronic scores for the films of diverse screen personalities such as Buster Keaton, Boris Karloff, Clara Bow, and Koko the Clown.

As most people know, the so-called silent films were never actually shown in silence. Even in the earliest nickelodeon days, theaters provided a piano or small string ensemble to play during the performance. In many instances, the music bore little or no relationship to what was happening on screen. Later, as films became longer and more sophisticated, it became apparent that the right choice of music was a key factor in making the proper emotional connection between the film and its audience. Early blockbusters such as The Birth of a Nation (1915) and The Battle Cry of Peace (1916) had specially prepared scores performed by full orchestras.


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Reprinted with permission from Magazine, March, 2001
2000, Intertec Publishing, A Primedia Company All Rights Reserved



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