Monthly Archives: September 2013

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – Valentino in World War I

4horsemen deathThe ambitious anti-war film Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is mainly known now as the springboard for the career of Rudolph Valentino and the impetus for the tango craze in the U.S.  While Valentino is certainly nice to watch, the film is far more complex than a single role, and deserves to be more widely viewed and reconsidered.  It’s the masterwork of Irish director Rex Ingram, once one of the most popular directors of the silent era.  Four Horsemen, in fact, was one of the hits of 1921 — which is a bit surprising, considering that it was made immediately after the end of World War I, is completely anti-war, and in fact doesn’t choose a side. The point of the film is that all are brothers, and the war had no winners.  Pretty radical thinking, really, by a UK filmmaker when you consider how many Allies died and that the Irish, Welsh, Scots, and Aussies made up much of the front lines. But World War I seemed to inspire this type of questioning among artists, and the number of books and films that were against the war is surprising.  (It reminds me of the number of anti-war films and memoirs that appeared post-Vietnam.)  Ingram was only twenty-nine and fresh out of service with the Canadian Royal Flying Corps.  Four Horsemen pulled no punches in its anti-war perspective, and still brought in audiences who were impressed by the film’s epic scope and our favorite Latin heartthrob.rudy as soldier

The film, based upon a Spanish novel, unfolds like a parable.  A Spanish rancher with beautiful daughters has several grandsons.  One is a beloved and spoiled rogue, with a French father, played by Valentino; the others have a German father, and they are not nearly so lovable.  They abide by rules and spend time studying, while Valentino lives the sensuous life (being more like his grandfather).  Thus each character stands for a European type, and the stage is set.  Though types, this actually comes across realistically; the acting is quite good, and the contrasts between the various characters are interesting, and neither side is presented as being right.  (Strangely, the character actor Alan Hale is excellent as the German father, and I even forgot that he was the father of the Gilligan’s chum The Skipper.)  Valentino is actually one of the weakest performers, but he can get by with it because of his beauty, his dancing, and his youth — which is all that the part really asks of him.  And he looks beautifully sad as the movie goes on.4horsemen valentino

After the doting grandfather’s death, the families split, with one going to France and the other back to Germany.  When the war begins, the sons are, of course, on opposing sides.  It’s that simple.  What makes the film strange and even disturbing is the visual way the story is told.  Much is made of portents which are told through the Book of Revelations by a mysterious prophet (who appears to be a kind of Jewish mystic crossed with a Bolshevik; it’s a bit unclear).  While my print of the film was pretty bad — and probably no better exists — this scene of the prediction is still disturbing (to me, anyway).  I can only imagine how striking and strange it must have seemed to audiences of the period.  There is a kind of poetic, hushed quality to this scene, which is punctuated by the soldiers gathering on the streets below and a woman who leaps to her death from a balcony.  4horsemen prophet at tableAs young Julio is told this story he begins to realize that the war will not only get in the way of his success as a tango dancer, but might be a good deal scarier.  It’s the end of his innocence, which represents the death of a kind of happy innocence held by nearly everyone then.  It’s hard to imagine, really, that this world war really was the first; it was supposed to be short — a few months.  No one imagined years of trench warfare that would kill most of the young men of Europe.  No one really imagined a reality of fighter planes, gas, and machine guns — mechanized destruction that we take for granted now.  If immediately after this war, films are referring to the apocalypse — well, seems a sensible reaction.

4 horsemen soldiersIn its actual war scenes, Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse only hints at the actual carnage.  Gance’s J’Accuse, for one, is a far more graphic depiction, and was filmed at roughly the same time.  While Ingram’s war scenes are described in reviews of the day as being highly realistic and epic, I found them difficult to make out — dark, hazy, smoky.  I don’t know if this means that there were scenes missing from my print, or the print is in such a sorry state of fade that it’s hard to see.  At any rate, director Rex Ingram was apparently careful to keep every detail accurate, and was advised by military men from both the English and German sides concerning uniforms and traditions.  The war scenes also involved many extras (72 “principle players”) and cost $80,000 to make. (It again wasn’t as realistic as J’Accuse, which was filmed on a French battlefield during the war; Four Horseman‘s France was Griffith Park.)  Some of the best war depictions occur not during fighting, but in two key scenes.  In one, a uniformed Julio is met in a small town by his father, and we find out how he is faring now that he is a soldier and not an artist (very well, thank you).  The way Julio is standing on the road with the other soldiers is actually a direct reflection of still photographs of soldiers taken in France, and is very realistic. 4horsemen drag show4 horsemen germansAnother involves Julio’s family castle in Marne being overrun by a group of German soldiers (among them Wallace Beery), who proceed to swill beer, almost molest the women, and have a little drag show.  It’s decadent, elaborate, and fun to watch.  It’s actually good to know that not all Germans spend their time studying and plotting the overthrow of Europe.

Another element of the story involves Julio’s romance with a somewhat older married woman, Marguerite, played by Alice Terry.  This is all pretty standard melodramatic silent movie fare, albeit with Marguerite eventually becoming a Red Cross nurse.  There is a jilted husband and a scandal; the husband is blinded in the war, and Marguerite has to make a choice.  Terry is very pretty in this role, and allows for a bit of simmer between her and Rudy, but it’s not really all that important to the story.  It does allow for one spooky scene, which I will not spoil.4horsemen alice terry 2

For all of its gloominess, this film made a million dollars, becoming the sixth most successful silent film ever made.  Though it was feared that audiences would not be ready to watch anything about the war, they seemed eager to try to come to terms with it through this often beautiful and sad parable.4horsemen soldier

 

4horsemen crosses

A war comedy? – the 1926 version of What Price Glory

gloryI’ve been reading up on World War I memoirs and watching silent films trying to get some sense of depictions of the war during the lifetimes of those who were actually there.  I was looking forward to watching What Price Glory?, as it was based on a play by Maxwell Anderson and Lawrence Stallings.  Based on the title and the credentials of the writers, I figured it had to be a serious anti-war movie.  That it features Victor McLaughlin (who was so great in The Informer) and Edmund Lowe were again pluses in its favor (although I was a bit dubious at the prospect of Dolores Del Rio playing a French woman).  And it’s directed by Raoul Walsh, who just two years before directed The Thief of Bagdad and two years after Sadie Thompson, both movies I love. — Well, maybe I was expecting too much, because I was completely let downsoldier dog what price glory

What Price Glory? tries to make war look fun.  Except for about twenty minutes of battle scenes, it’s a string of gags about sleeping with French girls and/or soldiers laughing at their superior officers.  I guess if it wasn’t a war movie, I would have found some of this pretty funny — though even at that, the jokes wear thin, since they’re awfully repetitive.  It’s frustrating, really, because this movie should have been good.  McLaughlin and Lowe are both excellent as rivals for pretty much everything, particularly the affections of women.  McLaughlin is a big dumb lug (of course) who is entertaining to watch; Lowe is the handsome, serious soldier.  war is fun what price glorywar is still fun

The movie picks up considerably in the second half — once we really get into the war.  That’s when it finally shifts out of the farcical tone and lightweight character development into the real point of the film.  This isn’t to say that even then the film loses its humor; it’s that the humor no longer dominates or seems forced.  Director Raoul Walsh seems to be more confident and involved, and there are a number of great moments.  The battle scenes, while done quickly and not entirely realistically (I was always aware of being on a set), still manage to give a bit of a sense of trench warfare.  (There’s mostly, though, quite a bit of “blowing stuff up” — not nearly as boring as World War I actually was).  The later scenes with Charmaine (Dolores Del Rio) are sometimes moving as she wonders which of her suitors she will be with and what will become of them both.  There’s a good risque moment when it’s clear that she and the sergeant plan to sleep with one another; it’s handled well — it’s clear but subtle enough to slip past the censors, and really quite sweet.  And the scene when she visits the soldier’s grave is lovely and genuinely moving.  blue war what price gloryVictor McLaughlin is particularly excellent throughout this part of the film; in fact, he carries it.  HIs emotions are quietly handled, revealed through quick expressions covered by a show of humor or anger.  Even the cinematography becomes more interesting.  The dialogue is still way too heavy-handed and speech-y, possibly because it’s adapted from a stage play.  But at least it’s trying to finally live up to the promise of its title.

dolores what price gloryI kept wishing I could rewrite this movie, and I found it strange that so many cliches could come from a play by two good writers.  (And I think these were cliches even back then.)  The men who turned the play into intertitles must have been slumming.  Of course, since the film is silent, we’re not going to “hear” most of the dialogue, so it’s possible that much of the real wit and tragedy was lost in the transference to silent film.  It shouldn’t have had to be that way, though; certainly there were extremely effective silent war movies, including some adapted from novels.  It made me curious enough try to find the actual stage play.  Except – wait….It’s very difficult to actually find this play.  It’s out of print and there seem to be no digital copies lurking around on the internet.

Finally I’ve come to accept that I can appreciate the film for its good moments and for its historical value.  The play was, after all, a huge hit on Broadway, so perhaps the humor-battle mix was something that people felt they needed then.  And I think I’m fascinated with the way it uses a kind of unironic slapstick humor and tries to meld it on to a war film with a message.  That doesn’t mean I’d go out of my way to watch it again, though.

This film isn’t currently available on DVD except for some cheap-o versions on movie fan sites (which is how I got mine).

This is Victor McLaughlin's tattoo of "Sapho" -- a pretty good joke, really.

This is Victor McLaughlin’s tattoo of “Sapho” — a pretty good joke, really.

 

 

 

a letter by Robert Graves

I was looking up some information about the poet Robert Graves and his attitudes about Americans — trying to get a sense of it for a scene I’m working on.  Anyway, although it had nothing to do much with my book, I ran across this funny letter that Graves wrote to Commentary magazine in protest of an article about him.  I get a kick out of Graves.

 

Robert Graves Demurs

(the November 1956 issue of Commentary magazine)

To the Editor:

Gratified as I am by being considered worthy of a profile in Commentary, I find that Mr. Arnold Sherman has made a number of misstatements which greatly embarrass me. Here are a few:

1) He did not accidentally meet me on a beach. He first came knocking at my door, without an introduction, and asked for a brief interview for a local Palma paper. I gave it to him, telling him just what to say. He printed it, and that was that. I gave him no authority to publish an interview in the U. S.

2) My only comment on American swimmers was that most of them like the water warmer than it ever gets in Britain; hence on cold days one can distinguish Americans from British.

3) I did not dive into the Mediterranean on the beach where we afterwards met. The water there is only about a foot deep for some twenty yards out.

4) I do not stack my books several feet high in my study nor do I litter the floor with magazines. I have bookshelves like everyone else, and keep things as tidy as I can.

5) The subjects of my books “range from the life of Jesus to the reign of Claudius,” do they? Not a very extensive range, since the two men were close contemporaries.

6) I have brought up eight children, but only four in Majorca.

7) I do not translate obscure Latin treatises. Lucan’s Pharsalia and Suetonius’s Twelve Caesars, which will soon be on sale in the U.S.A., are neither treatises nor obscure.

8) I am not convinced that my poetry will endure, and never said so; and am not interested in posterity anyhow, as I have specifically recorded.

9) My remarks on Dylan Thomas, Eliot, and Pound have been printed accurately in The Crowning Privilege. I repudiate MT. Sherman’s version in toto.

10) I do not claim to be a scholar in any language.

11) I do not believe that I am the best living writer today, and will punch anyone’s nose who says either that I am, or that I claim to be.

12) I did not say that I bad the misfortune of visiting America. I said that while in America in 1938 I lost a lot of weight and a lot of money. It was a most important experience, which I would not have missed for anything.

13) There are no American writers seeded in my village “who write under my tutelage” and I never said there were.

14) I never said that my White Goddess is “illuminating and suggestive.” I never use either adjective.

15) I did not say more about Negroes than that I particularly liked two American Negroes who had come to Majorca: Alston Anderson the short-story writer, and Camilla Heron the anthropologist.

16) I did not say that there are parts of Majorca where a Jew cannot buy land. I may have said that no foreigner can buy land within five kilometers of the sea, without special permission—even Jews.

17) My children are learning Latin and French, not Greek.

18) I do not think that “women are the bane of the world”; but I do think that amateur journalists are.

19) Alec Guinness has not been hired for the leading role in a screen version of my I Claudius. It is not even sure Whether the picture will be made.

20) I did not say that Majorca has no tradition of art: it has a long and magnificent one.

21) I have written about thirty books in Deyá, not ninety; ninety is the grand total.

22) I did not meet Ezra Pound at a dinner; I met him in Colonel T. E. Lawrence’s rooms at All Souls College, Oxford. Lawrence’s sensible introduction was: “Graves, Pound; Pound, Graves. You’ll dislike each other.”

23) I did not say that American literary life is “unimaginatively dull and unproductive.” It is certainly far from being either.

24) My wife has never said: “Robert, will you do nothing today?” On the contrary, she is always trying to persuade me that I am overworking. On the occasion quoted she may have foreseen, with her usual intuition, that Arnold Sherman’s visit was going to do me no good in either the short or the long run. . . .

Finally, I must confess that Mr. Sherman is a nice guy and that I am sure he has not injured me on purpose; but his study of Oriental philosophy and his natural reluctance to face hard facts have combined to produce a caricature of me which, I fear, only my friends will recognize as irresponsible and absurd.

Robert Graves
Deyá, Majorca, Spain

J’Accuse! – World War I in the trenches & at home


j-accuse crosses
J’Accuse, directed by Abel Gance, is a long, intense, & strange exploration of World War I filmed during the time the war was happening. Released in 1919, the film by the early French auteur is a raging look at war and love that uses a romantic story to link the menage a trois relationship between its three central characters with the horrors of the front. One woman (not a very interesting one), a husband (very intriguing brute), and a lover (moony poet) are pulled into an ever-more-horrible situation as war makes victims of all of them. While the story might seem hackneyed and even befuddling today, I had no problem with the melodrama and found myself becoming involved in the ways that their threesome played out.jaccuse couple The long film brings the two men together on the battlefield and continually plays with the questions of who is strong and who is weak; who is ultimately kinder; who is most willing to sacrifice (and what). Back at home, the woman makes sacrifices of her own that impact the course of the story in even more complex ways. This is the plot that ties the strands together. The plot is not important. What matters are the scenes of war and the story of war’s impact; makes them matter is the way J’Accuse is filmed.

Watching J’Accuse is like falling into some slow and deliberate dream (not a nightmare, really). This makes its subjects of domestic violence, trench warfare, multiple betrayals, and pointless sacrifice all the more disturbing. We’re used to seeing random violence in contemporary films to the point that it’s barely noticeable. To see moments of brutality in a silent film that is beautifully composed is  jarring. That they slip in almost unannounced is even stranger. That everyone serves as a symbol, as a representative type, implies vast levels of darkness.

jaccuse face

An example of a quick moment of brutality comes early in the movie, before we even get to the war. This is when the husband, also known as the Brute, maritally rapes his wife. We don’t see the rape. What we see is her quaking by the bed, his hand coming down on her hair and pulling her up, and, for a moment, a glimpse of an exposed breast. That’s all. But I’ll never forget that image. This is only one of such moments in this film. Over and over, Gance juxtaposes beauty with evil and/or death, sometimes quite literally, as in a montage in which a closeup of a flower is contrasted with corpses in a trench.

jaccuse frontAbel Gance briefly served in World War I before being discharged because of his health. He created J’Accuse because of the deaths of so many people he knew and because of all that he witnessed on the battlefield. Filming took place between August 1918 and February 1919 (armistice was declared in November 1918), and some of it took place at the front. He enlisted in the Section Cinématographique and filmed the battle of Saint-Mihiel; this footage appears near the end of the film.  The depiction of trench warfare, however, goes through half the film; recreated fictional footage is juxtaposed with actual images from the front. jaccuse dead march 1 J’Accuse builds slowly to a shocking death march that used two thousand actual soldiers. Surely they knew their fate, and of course we do; this makes this already eerie, disturbing scene particularly unforgettable. Gance said in an interview with Kevin Brownlow, “The conditions in which we filmed were profoundly moving… These men had come straight from the Front – from Verdun – and they were due back eight days later. They played the dead knowing that in all probability they’d be dead themselves before long. Within a few weeks of their return, eighty per cent had been killed.”Jaccuse march

The images in this film are exceptionally beautiful. Many frames can be separated out to create a lovely artistic photograph. To an astonishing degree Gance and cinematographer Léonce-Henry Burel are able to convey myriad meaning in single images or in particular brief scenes. It is why silent film was the perfect mode for Gance’s work; words are not only not necessary, but they actually get in the way. Gance’s career barely survived the silent era, and his sound work was never as good, though he lived for many years after it.jaccuse old people

There are a number of surreal and/or fantasy moments in the film. Sometimes these take place when a character is daydreaming of someone or imagining a situation. Sometimes they involve the dancing skeletons that appear throughout the film. Sometimes they simply come in some kind of startling closeup of an ordinary object when we don’t expect it. I found these to be fascinating even when at times they didn’t quite work. Later filmmakers borrowed from these techniques (over and over again).jaccuse dream woman

The acting in J’Accuse tends to be of the overly histrionic sort that many silent movie performers fall into. The exception was the work of Severin-Mars, who portrays the husband, Francois. His role is the most nuanced (and probably the one that most interested Gance), as he transforms himself from a killer (one of the first images involves him sitting with his dog beside a slaughtered deer) to, well, a sanctioned and heroic killer who comes to a better understanding of his fellow humans. Jaccuse brute It would have been easy to play his character as evil, but instead he becomes almost sympathetic — well, as sympathetic as anyone in the film actually is — as he is shown to be genuinely in love with his wife and very sentimental. I found this realistic, as brutal men often do also have just this type of sensitive side. Severin-Mars was also featured in Gance’s film La Roue, and he died a few years after making J’Accuse. The female role in the film is one of tragic victimization, and although the actress Maryse Dauvray is beautiful, that’s not enough to pull the character further.  To Gance’s credit, though, he at least attempts to address the situation at home for those isolated people who lack knowledge of the fate of their loved ones. jaccuse woman in doorway As for the character of the poet, his fate is not surprising — and, like Dauvray, the actor Romuald Joubé is more eye-candy than good at acting. But maybe this is all to be expected when the characters are fundamentally types placed in an epic scenario.The film was a hit in its day in its native France, giving the lie, I guess, to the notion that art films don’t make money. It did well in Britain, too, although Gance and Pathe Studios had difficulty getting it distributed in the States. Eventually United Artists came through; this was when UA was jointly owned by Pickford, Fairbanks, Chaplin, and Griffith. While J’Accuse was expensive to make, it made back far more. And its wide distribution allowed it to become an influence on countless artists.

Filming J'Accuse on location: (l to r)  Marc Bujard, Maurice Forster, Antonin Nalpes, and Abel Gance

Filming J’Accuse on location: (l to r) Marc Bujard, Maurice Forster, Antonin Nalpes, and Abel Gance

J’Accuse is currently available in a fine DVD edition from Lobster Films in conjunction with Flicker Alley.