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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

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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World’s Fair photos, 1904 – people on display

As promised, here are more photos from the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.
The woman on the left is an unnamed dancer at the Fair.
The people on the right are a fortune teller and his client from an elaborate display of the City of Jerusalem. (The display included reproductions of David Street, the Mount of Olives, the Mosque of Omar, and plenty of vendors.)

Next are shots from Mysterious Asia and the Streets of Cairo — a contortionist and a snake charmer, an assortment of Egyptians, and a “Nubian Runner.” Orientalism was the vogue at the Fair, and people came away with the impression that Asians and Arabs were geishas, gurus, camel riders, elephant herders, sword swallowers, harem girls, etc….

The Fair celebrated colonialism and literally put conquered people (or to-be-conquered people) on display. These displays were considered to be “educational” and “anthropological,” with an argument running through it all that these people were so “primitive” that their lives were bound to be much improved when the Caucasian Americans, Brits, Dutch, and the like took their land. So there were displays of aboriginal peoples from every continent, set up in recreations of their “real” environments (even though the climate in St. Louis is either too hot or too cold or too muggy, etc., to fit anyone’s ideal climate). So there were “authentic” displays of cliff dwellings, teepees, Japanese tea houses, even the Taj Mahal.


Since this is before good film footage and documentaries, it was a way that white Americans could imagine that they, too, were travelers on the Grand Tour, no matter how broke they might be. As offensive as their may be to us now (and it really is), there was a lack of information available to most people that made even the smartest ones among them incredibly, well, ignorant. — more to come.

Pola Negri in The Wildcat

Veering briefly off my World’s Fair posts, I had to mention that I’m on a silent film kick.   I’d say that I’m watching them for research, but that’s really only how it began.  I genuinely like them.  And for many reasons, but to boil it down simply, it’s because they (obviously) rely on images and a few (usually) written cards to tell the story.  And most of the time, the story does not hold to any single plot line, but veers about.  There seemed to be fewer expectations then that a story follow a particular structure–and here we think we’re the ones who are so experimental.  They did it before and they often did it more inventively.

Most early “classic” films we’ve seen are scripted sound films.  By the time most of these hit the screen, the censors were already clamping down.  So most people think of early films (and their eras) as sentimental and sweet, comparatively unsexual, with little violence.  But really there was a time when far more was done–before movies became a huge commodity.  For a time, when nobody was cashing in, risks could be taken.

Anyway, I’m going to post here a clip from a 1920 German movie by Ernst Lubitsch (who later went on to direct some funny, sad sound  comedies in English).  This is The Wildcat, starring Pola Negri.  Pola, as seen in this clip, had some men-whipping abilities, and she later went on to play mysterious sighing characters.  In this movie, she’s funny.  She was apparently in real life the ultimate drama queen who slept with as many men as possible; the most well known stories revolve around Rudolph Valentino and Charlie Chaplin.   The humor is the movie is incredibly goofball, poking fun at the men who become completely dominated by the women.  It’s  a *snicker, snicker* kind of humor, and there’s something kind of perverse and, well, Germanic about it.  The “whipping the elf guys” scene is particularly off the wall, especially since the guys have skulls on their snow hats.   What? I suggest just skipping around in the clip if you get bored; the pacing of these movies is slower than we’re accustomed to.

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To me, the oddest thing about this film is how nearly every shot is surrounded by a decorative cutout.  I’ve seen other silent movies using this effect, but this one uses it to an unusual extent.  I actually got a little bored with the effect after awhile, but I think it’s cool that they were trying to do something different with the camera.  And not to get to analytical, but Pola’s character here is very similar to Mountain Girl in DW Griffith’s film Intolerance, completed  four years prior to this one.  And Mary Pickford sometimes played this type, though she had more of an obvious heart o’ gold.  I’m a sucker for these sexy wild woman characters from the mountains.

Pola’s career basically ended with the invention of sound film (such was also the fate of the great German actor Emil Jannings–we Americans just didn’t like those accents, especially in the World War eras) and because of her own melodramatic tendencies — she just wasn’t in style anymore.   I’ve read that even though Pola ran with royalty, she died of a brain tumor in San Antonio.  Pola slunk away into the desert.

1904 World’s Fair dancers

Today I finished (I hope) my revisions on my World’s Fair chapter, wherein Sara, her friend Zoe Akins (who eventually becomes a famous playwright–a real person), and others go off to see the 1904 World’s Fair.  While this is the World’s Fair that appears in Meet Me In St. Louis, the Fair is WAY weirder than anything shown in that sweet sentimental film.

(Sara Teasdale on left; Zoe Akins on right)


Before I started this book, I had this idea that in America the 1960’s hit and suddenly everyone got sexual.  Or maybe the Twenties had a little of the leg showing, but just from flappers — but before that, it all seems like this haze of Victorian repression.  I have learned not to underestimate the submerged spiciness that was really going on.

I have a few photos of dancers that I need to scan and post.  For now I’ll just post a fairly chaste film clip and then a photo.  (Film was new then, remember, so they’d pretty much stick a camera on a tripod and shoot.  And much film disintegrated and is lost).   Most existing film of the fair is just crowd shots, so after this dancer, I’ll go back to posting photos.YouTube Preview Image

This is Princess Rajah, so they say.  She is overly dressed, compared to some photos I’ve seen, so I think this must have been an official video shot for the Fair people and then distributed on a newsreel.  She does an interesting balancing act with a chair.

This next photo can be found from the Library of Congress.  It is of a dancer named Fritzi and is apparently taken a little later than the World’s Fair, 1910.  She’s dressed here as Salome, which was quite the obsession in this era, especially (surprisingly?) among young women.  References to Salome come up many times in letters between educated, artistic women of the day, particularly as several plays feature her as a character.  Anyway, the mysterious belly dancer Fritzi: