The 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.
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.
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. As 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.
In 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. Another 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.
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.