Sunday, February 24, 2013

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921)

Director: Rex Ingram                                       Writer: June Mathis
Film Score: Louis F. Gottschalk                       Cinematography: John F. Seitz
Starring: Pomeroy Cannon, Josef Swickard, Rudolph Valentino and Alice Terry

Watching The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, it’s easy to see why Rudolph Valentino was the great lover of the silent screen. Though the available prints vary wildly in terms of quality and length, Valentino emerges as supremely confident, darkly mysterious and overtly romantic. The copy of the film I opted for is an inexpensive version that includes a documentary. There is no score but the source music used, while uneven, is ingeniously edited into the film in a way that shows some reverence for the film, unlike some silent films that stick unrelated music on the soundtrack and let it run. This is an edited 134 minute version, and while there is a wonderful 152 minute version with a new score by Carl Davis, it has only been shown on the Turner Classics cable channel and is not available on DVD.

The story comes from the novel of the same name by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, published in 1919. It concerns an Argentinian family who has roots in Europe. The father is Spanish and one of his daughters marries a Frenchman, and the other a German. After the father’s death the two husbands decide to go back to Europe. The son of the Frenchman is played by Valentino, and he becomes the talk of Paris for his womanizing and his tango dancing. When World War I breaks out he is torn because, as an Argentinian he cannot be drafted, but he feels the pull of patriotism, and since the married woman he is having an affair with is serving as a nurse he makes the decision to volunteer.

The second half of the film attempts to show the horrors of war, with an emphasis on the Germans as the bad guys. As I’ve said before in writing about war films, while the Germans are usually stereotyped as evil, it’s not like it happened in a vacuum. For the most part they earned their reputation during two world wars and whatever propaganda value they have does not exist without culpability on their part. Some of the Germans in the film would become stars later in the sound era, including Alan Hale and Wallace Beery.

The camerawork is pretty typical for the time. But there are a couple of tracking shots in the early scenes that are particularly arresting, where Valentino and his female partner dance toward the camera. This is replicated once in the Paris section, and with good effect. Valentino doesn’t appear much in the second half, and the film suffers for it. At the same time there’s an odd sense of American Victorian morality overlaid onto the Europeans in the film, that diminishes the impact as well. In the end it’s a fascinating look at the war from the perspective of the time, but it’s not a great film. Though Valentino is impressive here, as with most of his films, he is about the only thing that is. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is definitely worth watching for its historical value alone, and also delivers a fair amount of entertainment in the bargain.

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