We can speculate, and we can speculate, but the probability is that few of the silent movies made during the siege of Constantinople in 1453 were very much good. And there are clear reasons for this, both political and cultural.
On the one hand, we have to bear in mind the extremely trying circumstances under which the movies were being filmed. In attacking Constantinople, the Ottoman Turks were also attacking the last bastion of the Roman Empire, (if only in symbolic form) a direct line of power that stretched back some two thousand years. It was also the seat of the Orthodox Christian Church, a force equal and opposite to the Catholic Church in Rome. Expansionist wars were two a penny in the fifteenth century, but this was no run of the mill example, it was already rife with meaning, and no doubt the Byzantines under threat would have been only too aware of that. Besides which, on a purely practical level, the constant cannoning of the city walls must surely have been a distraction. Even making silent movies, surely, some peace and quiet is required for concentration’s sake.
On the other, and perhaps more pertinently, Byzantine art had always defined itself by a certain flat austerity. Their mosaics and paintings that we can study today are colourful, but there’s a grim functionality to all that colour; the lines are severely drawn and make the characters depicted seem two dimensional and undramatic. It would be foolish to expect that in the creation of an entire new art form that several centuries of engrained Byzantine culture would be abandoned overnight. It is unfair to imagine that the clowns who pratfalled and danced and poked each other in the eyes in Constantinople cinema were other Chaplins, or Keatons, even other Fatty Arbuckles. The conditions were wrong. Their genius could not have flowered.
And yet, of course, we remain fascinated by those movies from the Byzantine age. And again, partly this will be because they were the pioneers, the history of cinema begins here with these shadowy figures by the Bosphorus doomed to be killed or enslaved by the Muslim potentate. But I hope our fascination is not purely academic. That we honour not merely the historical significance of what was invented, but that, with care and study, and an open mind, we try to appreciate the art on its own terms.
No entire print of a Byzantine movie survives, and that is to be expected. When the sultan Mahomet II appealed to the Byzantines to surrender, with the promise that their lives would be spared, his terms were rejected. The Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI Palaiologos, said that the city could not be yielded, for it was no single man’s possession to yield. And with these brave words he sealed the fate of the fifty thousand inhabitants of Constantinople, and, more importantly, the fate of those few precious cans of film kept within. The Turks had besieged Constantinople for fifty-five days. They were tired and angry. When they broke the defences, as was the custom, the soldiers had permission to ransack and pillage the city for three whole days, taking plunder, razing buildings to the ground, and raping and slaughtering the populace. These were not conditions in which a fledgling film industry was ever likely to prosper.
And yet, we are lucky. In spite of all, some sequences of film are extant. They are fragments only, most no more than a few seconds long, but they still afford us a tantalising impression of early cinematography, and what those Byzantine audiences must have enjoyed. One man tries to sit down upon a stool, and a second pulls it away, so he falls to the ground with his legs splayed in the air. A farmer waters his crops with a bucket of water, but a prankster holds it upright; when the farmer pours the bucket over his head to see what’s wrong, he gets soaked. It is not sophisticated comedy, granted, but there is a spirit of mocking fun to it; yes, it plays upon the weak and the vulnerable, but no one gets hurt, no one gets savaged, and certainly no one experiences the sort of carnage that is awaiting them at the end of the siege. Some historians have tried to read a political subtext into the extracts, but I think that can be exaggerated. One of the more (justly) admired sequences is of a beggar, or tramp, who at dinner sticks a knife into two vegetables and proceeds to do a puppet dance with them. In siege times food was scarce, and this flagrant disregard for its value can be seen as something deliberately provocative, a renunciation of the very crisis that would have caused the food shortage in the first place, and thus a renunciation of war. But what attracts us to the film is not its message, but its simple beauty; there is such elegance to the dance, and to the comic conceit of it, and for the duration the tramp smiles out at the viewer in childlike innocence.
One might have expected that there would have been a pronounced propaganaist element to the films. But the Ottoman Turks are never referenced, and instead what is offered to us is cheap comedy and heightened melodrama. The longest extant extract – and, sadly, one of the most tedious – is a case in point. A moustachioed villain, sniggering silently to camera, ties a damsel in distress to a set of railway tracks. The damsel is left there for no fewer than six minutes of static inaction, as we wait in train for a train to come and flatten her; however, since we are many centuries shy of the invention of a locomotive engine, it is unclear how much jeopardy the girl can really be in. The tracks are not the important part; it is the villain. Wearing a gabardine common in fashion at the time he looks like an everyday Byzantine. He’s not given a turban, or a Muslim beard, or shifty Oriental eyes. It’s the ideal opportunity for the film maker to identify and feed off a common threat to the audience, but it refuses to do so; even in its monsters, Byzantine cinema remains stubbornly domestic.
Many eyewitnesses recorded the siege of Constantinople for posterity, and the most celebrated is George Sphrantzes. Sphrantzes recounts the conflict from a mostly militaristic perspective, and pays depressingly little heed to the day to day to and fro of the thriving visual arts scene. Nevertheless, he does record in his diary how, one evening, shortly after the siege had been raised, he was ushered into a big hall, alongside some other hundreds of citizens. There he took a seat, and the windows were covered with sacks, and the room was cast into darkness. He describes an expectation in the audience, something apprehensive, like fear, but more pleasureable than fear. And then, at the end of the room, facing them all, a large piece of white cloth was illuminated. He writes: “At first I thought there was a stain upon it, and then the stain enlarged, as if by magick.” It was no stain; it was the image of a horse and cart, and its approach towards the camera. George Sphrantzes describes the awe and wonder as the ‘moving painting’ flickered upon the makeshift screen – and then the rising panic as it became clear that the horse and cart were coming directly at them. People rose from their seats; they stumbled towards the exit; they fell over in the darkness – if they didn’t escape, within minutes the cart would reach them and there might be an irritating bump. Sphrantzes records how the authorities arrested the man in charge of the exhibition for disturbing the peace.
No name of any actor has survived the fall of Constantinople. But the name of that man has survived, and he must be regarded as the first maverick genius of cinema. His name was Matthew Tozer.
It is all too easy to be seduced by images of the Byzantine Empire as a thing of great glory. That was true at its zenith, but its zenith was centuries past. By the time the Ottoman Turks lay siege to Constantinople, the empire had shrunk to little more than a city state, and the population within were a random ragtag of different nationalities from different backgrounds. Matthew Tozer (or Toza, or Tusa) was probably a Greek Cypriot, but his name is peculiar, and no one can say for sure. There is no physical description of the man. There is no record of his beliefs, or anything he stood for – save his obvious love for the cinematic medium.
It is not even clear what Tozer’s part in the craze was, merely that he was at the very centre of it. Had he invented the principle of moving photography himself? Was he instead the director of the films, exploiting someone else’s discoveries? It is possible that he merely ran the cinema in which the movies were shown. Scientist, artist, entrepreneur – scholars argue which of them he may have been. Maybe there is no single Matthew Tozer. This essay does not purport to take any great interest in specious biography. For simplicity’s sake we shall assume Tozer is all three rolled into one; not so much a man, but a personification of a new art form; we can never know Tozer the individual, let us instead study Tozer the wave of revolution.
The earliest account we have of Tozer is what we now refer to as the Horse and Cart Debacle. Punishment in the middle ages was typically severe, especially in times of military crisis. But within days Tozer has been freed, and moreover, is showing new films, we can only suppose with the blessing of the authorities. Sphrantzes writes again, after a turgid account of a day setting up the city’s defences, and his concerns of a maritime engagement with the Turkish fleet: “And, in the evening, to the picture house, there to see a comedic play about three men and a mule. Silly stuff. Amiable.”
Sphrantzes might dismiss it as silly stuff, but it is clear that Tozer was doing something right. He set up a cinema just a stone’s throw from the Hagia Sofia, and there he’d show the latest movie releases – and the people of Constantinople began to flock to them in droves. It is important to remember what siege conditions were like in the fifteenth century. They were frightening, yes, and they were desperate, and they were hungry; but mostly they were very boring. With the Ottoman Turks on one side, and a naval blockade upon the other, there was really very little for the Byzantine folk to go and do in the evenings. However silly the movies on offer may have been, the distractions they provided were hugely popular, and tickets became highly prized; one anonymous commentator writes that to get into see one particular blockbuster a family bartered a week’s supply of precious bread. Tozer was forced to put on more and more screenings, sometimes letting his cinema run all night until dawn. He employed janissary bands to accompany the films with the music of harp, lyre and zither; he employed young girls to serve sweet snacks in the intervals.
And what Tozer was accomplishing was not merely artistic, but also sociological. Because if these citizens of a dying empire were merely desperate stragglers with no real identity, here, at least, they could find something that unified them. They could sit in the dark together and laugh and cry as one collective. Is it too much to hope that at last they discovered that they had more in common with their fellow man than they had realised – that the same stunts thrilled them, the same custard pie fights kept them amused? Is this the irony of the end of the Byzantines, that only in their final days they became a proper people?
As for Tozer, he appears to have worked tirelessly. With almost superhuman energy he released several new movies a week, filming them during the day and presenting the results on screen once the sun went down. To satisfy the appetite of a citizenry starved of entertainment, he produced an oeuvre that makes Steven Spielberg look like some dilettante hobbyist. And with the introduction of a new art form, inevitably the people are inspired; they are no longer content to be mere spectators, they want to take part in the art form too. Sphrantzes complains, but when does Sphrantzes not complain? He writes that the most pressing concern the Byzantine population faced was the Muslim hordes outside the gates, and that work should be done repairing those gates, building new walls, training all able bodied men to fight. Instead everybody wanted to be an actor, to star in the movies, to see themselves flicker on the white cloth screens, to be famous, to be adored.
The greatest tragedy of the fall of Constantinople is that not one frame of Matthew Tozer’s masterpiece, ‘The Ten Commandments’, survives. A true epic, it ran for nearly six hours, and used over a thousand extras. It was a gamble on Tozer’s part; to find time to make it he had to close the cinema for three full days, and there was civil unrest and small scale rioting whilst the people were left starved of their fix. But the gamble paid off. It is a testament not only to Tozer’s vaulting ambition but to his commercial canniness – even if you weren’t in the movie yourself you knew someone who was, and if you saw only one movie this season it had to be ‘The Ten Commandments’! The sets, by all reports, were sumptuous. The cast were on peak form. And the special effects were remarkable: to achieve the parting of the Red Sea, Tozer had used up a half of the besieged city’s water supply.
It was Tozer’s greatest achievement. Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos took time off being the champion of the Orthodox Church to attend the premiere, and had even taken a cameo role as a burning bush. Could Tozer have suspected that it was all downhill from here? And that all that ambition would prove his undoing?
On 29th May 1453 the Ottoman Turks broke through the walls of Constantinople. Their troops numbered some one hundred thousand to the Byzantines’ seven thousand. The Turkish flag was flown from the battlements, and many of the Christian defenders lost heart. Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos himself declared, “The city is fallen and I am still alive,” and he tore off his purple cloak of majesty, and entered the fray as a common soldier. His body was never found. The Byzantine people fought bravely, but with a certain dispassion perhaps, a certain defeatism.
The talkie movies had not been a success.
Matthew Tozer had been experimenting with sound for a little while now. He would have the orchestra time their drum beats to the exact moment an explosion appeared on screen, to give the impression that the bang had come from the movie itself. It was witty, but it was a gimmick, and the audience enjoyed it as a gimmick. When at the end of May Tozer announced the premiere of the first proper talking picture, with full dialogue and a prerecorded score, the people were incredulous, then doubtful, then baffled.
Some extracts survive. As film historians it is impossible not to appreciate what Tozer is attempting. But in practice, as casual viewers, we would have to judge it doesn’t work. Tozer has not found a way to make the sound sync accurately to the image; it is rarely more than a second or two out, but that jarring second makes everything seem imprecise and unreal, even eerie. And the voices of the actors are not what we might expect. We see the tramp again. In the silent movies he demonstrates a charm that is both winning and humane. In the sound rushes, he reveals he has a high-pitched voice like a strangled dolphin. The charm is gone. So, too, is the illusion.
As the Turks invade, so Tozer’s picture house is burned to the ground. It is not clear whether the Turks or the Byzantines are to blame.
Matthew Tozer’s fate is unknown. Many people fled the city, and there is every chance that he too might have escaped. But if he did, there is no record of his attempting to make any more films. Either Tozer becomes like Emperor Constantine, one of those anonymous casualties who were lost in the battle – or he survives, in exile, disillusioned, thinking himself a failure and his art form a failure, rejecting his talents and never returning to them for as long as he lives.
Is it wrong to hope that he was butchered by Turks? Is it wrong to wish for him that one little mercy?
Historical opinion has turned against Tozer in recent years. The argument is that without his interference the population would not have been distracted, and would have been better prepared to repel the Ottoman conquest. Professor Kettering has even published his theories that Tozer was a Turkish spy, deliberately undermining the morale of the Byzantines from within with his dreadful movies; it is a theory that I find at once both absurd and heinous, though nothing Kettering says any more should surprise me.
What is harder to dispute is Tozer’s legacy. Sadly, it is negligible. The footage of Tozer’s movies was only discovered in a basement in Ankara in the 1920s. By the time Tozer’s advances came to light, the motion picture industry was already in full swing. The great film makers of the 1890s, Lumiere, Michon, Melies, all reinvented cinema without ever realising Matthew Tozer had been there first. Mack Sennett produced his movies without Tozer’s influence; David O Selznick, head of production at RKO Pictures, famously viewed the recovered prints of Tozer’s films, shrugged, and asked what all the fuss was about: “It’s already been done.”
And yet surely we cannot write off Matthew Tozer as a failure. We must not.
When we see the history of the world put before us, it’s easy to think it’s just a catalogue of wars and genocidal atrocities. Of peoples conquering peoples, and then getting conquered in turn. That the development of mankind has been nothing more than an exercise in studying new acts of brutality to be turned against still larger sizes of population. That, in effect, all Mankind’s inspirations are directed towards evil.
But what then of Matthew Tozer? What then of that spark to create, to produce art for art’s sake, if only because it wasn’t in existence before? To take a population and want not to decimate it or enslave it, but instead crowd it together, into one room, into the dark, and make it laugh? And maybe with Matthew Tozer the spark didn’t die. Maybe the spark lasted out the centuries, just waiting for the right conditions in which to take fire. Maybe, in spite of all, Matthew Tozer and the better impulse will win out.
We can speculate. And, oh, we can speculate, we can imagine, we can dream. Sometimes I think that’s the true gift Matthew Tozer left us.