Finally caught this after all these years. Of all reasons, I was prompted to pursue this after my pastor used the film as a sermon illustration. As it turns out, while his illustration was well received, it was also only tangentially tied to Bergman’s film.
He related the film as ending with Death putting the knight in checkmate. Then, the curtain drops. The illustration goes that young Bobby Fischer is in the audience and cries out to his companion, “wait a minute—that’s not checkmate, the king has one more move!” A fine illustration for a sermon—when death cries victory, the King still has one more move remaining.
You can find versions of this story attributed to various preachers over time. There are a couple of problems, immediately obvious to anyone who has seen the film. One, there’s no checkmate scene (Death puts the knight into Check, and tells him “mate in one move”), and two, the film doesn’t end with the chess match.
If you think about it, the story is great but not feasible. The details are that Bergman places the board in such a way that only an expert chess player can tell that it is not really in checkmate, and while the common viewer would just accept the proclamation of death, the filmmaker wanted to hide the true statement that death was wrong, and the chess player has the opportunity to beat death. The further story of young Bobby Fischer calling it out so that it can be used in a sermon illustration is too goo to be true. And of course, the film ends with the knight and his companions led away in the danse macabre, so the one move was not apparently enough!
But there’s perhaps an even more powerful illustration available, one true to the events of the film and accessible to the common Christian. The final scene of chess begins with the knight accidentally losing his queen. I didn’t see that, he says. Death placates him with a bit of condescension. While he does so, the young family escapes as Death is distracted. Apparently this knight was not completely honest with Death—I think the knight, understanding now his role, sacrifices himself and his party so that the innocents can escape their doom. The illustration is not that of the King having one more move, it is that of the self-sacrifice of the true martyr giving up his life for the rescue of others. He wanted to see God; through his intentional loss of his queen, he became Gods agent of grace for the family of actors. The move is not a game of chess, bound by the rules of the game; the move is the counterintuitive nature of giving up all to gain all.
anyway, that’s my $0.02.