Vintage Robots, Part One

The Mechanical Man [aka L’Uomo Meccanico] is a real find — a silent film, made in Italy in 1921 and directed by André Deed. It features a female evil genius, a “giant” rampaging robot and even a climactic battle between the Mechanical Monster and a second robot, built to the same specifications in order to stop the first one’s rampage. Until very recently The Mechanical Man was considered a lost film, but a fragmented copy of it was discovered by the Brazilian Film Studio of San Paolo, Brazil, and it has finally been released to DVD by Alpha Video.

Alpha Video DVD of The Mechanical Man

In fact, the robot isn’t quite as big as the cover suggests. Nevertheless, for 1921, it has considerable presence and in many ways represents a significant starting point for the giant monster/mecha subgenre that was to develop over the following decades.

The film is not in great shape. The print used by Alpha (the only one available) does not appear to have been digitally enhanced or significantly cleaned up, and is blurry and faded in places. Severe damage means that it has been truncated due to lost footage. Originally it was said to have been 1,821 metres long, but all that remains is 740 metres worth of film, with lots of gaps. Alpha Video has done a decent job of stitching it together using explanatory cards, and the mere fact of having it available is enough to justify it’s less-than-pristine condition. Certainly there is sufficient of it existing to give a real feel as to what the film would have been like in its original state.

By applying our imaginations to the viewing, even through the ragged editing that is a consequence of its fragmentary nature, it’s easy to see that it must have been a compelling experience for contemporary audiences. The Mechanical Man is full of excitement, odd snatches of humour, control mechanisms with large wheels and impressive dials, romance, intrigue, giant robot rampage, ballroom spectacle, violent destruction (such as doors being kicked in and metal walls being cut apart with the robot’s blow-torch appendages) and, of course, climactic dueling robots. None of it is good enough to have the sort of undated fascination of the classic silent scifi/horror films (such as Nosferatu, The Phantom of the Opera, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Hunchback of Notre Dame or even The Lost World) — but as a historic document it is priceless and Alpha Video is to be congratulated for making it available at all. Despite my earlier comments on the poor shape of the print, they have done as well as they could in its presentation here — with explanatory “narration”, very canny colour tinting, an effective music score and some unpretentious interpolation of English translations of on-screen writing. For giant monster film historians, The Mechanical Man offers what may be the first cinematic sign of tropes that would become central to the subgenre.

The DVD also contains Will Rogers’ 1922 version of The Headless Horseman.

Below is a series of screenshots capturing classic giant robot moments from the film.

The Mechanical Man approaches the door of the house where the protagonists are hiding out:

Mechanical Man 1

The robot breaks into the house to the horror and consternation of all:

Mechanical Man 2

After hunting down the comic-relief protagonist, and failing to throw him over the parapets in a cupboard, the robot seeks to rectify its mistake:

Mechanical Man 3

At the masked ball, the robot is at first thought to be someone who has cleverly disguised himself as the Mechanical Man, and for a while cavorts with the revellers — quite the mechanical man-about-town:

Mechanical Man 7

But evil intent will out!

Mechanical Man 4

And the robot takes on a soon-to-be-time-honoured pose, diaphanous heroine fainted in his arms:

Mechanical Man 5

But a second robot turns up to deal with him:

Mechanical Man 6

Hopefully, one day, a complete print of the film will turn up in someone’s dank and gothic cellar. Have you checked yours lately?

This entry was posted in Giant Monsters, News, Review, Robots. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Vintage Robots, Part One

  1. Avery says:

    I highly recommend this film to all fans of giant robots,kaiju,and silent classics!!Praise Alpha Video for bringing this gem to us!!Not only is it the first giant robot/mecha film, it’s the first giant monster vs giant monster on screen battle as well.Also one of the first sci-fi films ever.

  2. Pingback: Undead Backbrain » Blog Archive » When Film Commentary Loses the Plot

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