‘By The Law’ or — Yukon Ho!
Lev Kuleshov’s ‘By The Law’ (1926) depicts the tale of five prospectors in the Yukon searching for gold. One of them snaps, kills two of the team and is then tied and bound to await trail, by the law, by the two surviving members. Their intention is not to descend to the level of primitive justice even though the vast forces of nature seem mindlessly intent on destroying and eroding any vestiges of humanity. The murderer must be tried by a civilised court and not simply lynched. The only question is how long can a human cling into their humanity and just what is meant by ‘civilisation’?
‘By The Law’ is based on a story by Jack London and is fairly straight-forward. It has a small cast of characters in a single location presented with a simple dilemma — to take the law into their own hands or not. The simplicity of the narrative results in a sense of inevitability to proceedings (there’s not much in the way of surprise going on here) so we all know where this is going to lead; it’s like watching a river slowly burst its banks.
However, what Kuleshov does with this story is very impressive. Working with a limited cast and on a limited budget the focus is powerfully centered on the three surviving prospectors attempting to resist both psychological and geographical pressures. Tensions rise and so do the waters; the mind undergoes intense pressures as though a shack was being crushed by an ice-floe.
Within this psychological autoclave the actors give, unsurprisingly, exaggerated performances but ones that are absolutely committed, with Aleksandra Khokhlova being particularly impressive, her grin of moral mania preempting both ‘The Man Who Laughs’ (1928) and Batman’s The Joker by a few years. Iced rain slashes faces into masks of risus sardonicus heightening the growing madness whilst everything else, every inch of space or piece of material is drenched by water or illuminated by light that’s incapable of providing warmth, only highlighting the cold.
It is this sense of light, the play of shadow and glare, where ‘By The Law’ excels. Some of the imagery Kuleshov captures — faces dazzled by candle-light, clouds blazing with apocalyptic radiance — is startling, sucking the air from lungs as effectively as the cold. There is no theological terror here, no sense of a judging god, but this might as well be the end of the world.
What’s also interesting about Kuleshov’s film is that it isn’t the gold, the lust of greed, that turns the team on each other. Instead it seems to be class, racial and social prejudices along with a sly contempt for Western morality. Then again, why should this be a surprise? This is a Soviet film after all.
‘By The Law’ might not grab you narratively or keep you on the edge of your seat but the flare (literally) with which Kuleshov brings this tale to life is remarkable, aided by energetic performances and some of the most beguiling lighting (and reflections of light) I’ve seen.
It’s almost one hundred years old yet it’s doing things films today would struggle to keep up with.