Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Based on a bestselling novel by the Spanish writer, Vicente Blasco Ibanez, Rex Ingram's 1921 The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was one of the silent era's top-grossing films.  The film, directed by Rex Ingram, is sumptuously mounted and was the movie that introduced Rudolf Valentino to the public.  Rex Ingram is a puzzling figure in film history, an Irish-born director who made a number of financially successful picture in the twenties but was unable to navigate the transition to sound films.  In 1933, Ingram, who was comparatively young, retired from pictures to become a professional sculptor.  Earlier in 1927, he had converted to Islam, certainly an oddity in the "Roaring Twenties." (He lived until 1950).  Ingram had brooding good looks and was much more handsome than most of his leading men -- he would be an ideal Heathcliff.   His sexuality seems to have been ambiguous.  At the time of The Four Horsemen, he was closely associated with the studio producer and screenwriter, June Mathis.  Mathis was squat and homely, with coarse features and avid, glittering eyes and she seems to have been a consort to several gay men, or, at least, men who appeared to be gay -- her close companion was the vaudeville female-impersonator, Julian Eltinge.  (Mathis was also intimate with the lesbian actress, Alla Nazimova.)  Mathis, who wrote The Four Horsemen, was undeniably talented -- her florid but effective intertitles are on display in the 1921 film -- and she had a clear understanding of the passions and interests of the popular audiences for whom she produced films.  Until her sudden death from a heart attack in 1927, she was reputed to be one of the most powerful film executives in Hollywood.  Mathis also had an interest in spiritualism and reincarnation, an aspect of her personality incongruent with her reputation has a ruthless and hard-headed studio producer and motivating much of the action during the second half of The Four Horsemen.  The film is a lavishly produced family chronicle that begins on the Pampas of Argentina and concludes in the shell-wracked moonscape of the Marne during World War I.  Ingram uses vast sets, often augmented by matte painting in the upper half of the image to extend his landscapes and interiors to lofty heights.  This lavish imagery fails on a small screen -- Ingram's characters often seem lost in cavernous drawing rooms and huge circus-like cabarets.  His mise-en-scene alternates between close-ups, two- and three-shots, and establishing shots showing amphitheater-sized sets, scenery that looks vaguely like the furniture and backdrops of a well-made Broadway play but blown-up to immense size.  (This was a characteristic of some expensively produced silent films; even the restrained Dreyer uses cavernous, outsized sets in his novelistic chamber drama, Michael made in Germany in 1924.)   In the famous tango scene about ten minutes after the film's start, Ingram stages the action in a dance-hall that is the size of basketball court, curiously imagined as below-grade -- through an upper arcade, thirty-feet above the dance-floor, we can glimpse people and traffic moving outside of the ballroom.  Since the scene focuses on Valentino's prowess as a dancer and, accordingly, requires tight shots on the star and the woman accompanying him on the dance-floor, the camera dollying back to capture the action as they promenade toward the lens, the huge size of the set is not only pointless, but, also, distracting and, even, counter-productive.  Shots from the vantage of the establishing image show the star and his tango companion dwarfed by the huge set and attenuate the effectiveness of the scene -- everything is too far away.  Valentino is nothing much to look at in this film.  He  has a puffy face and slit eyes that give him a vaguely oriental appearance.  His hair is slicked down and he has a surprisingly inexpressive body -- the tango scene, although perhaps damaged by the way Ingram stages the sequence, is remarkably unimpressive.  To my eye, the Great Lover looks a little like a seal -- he has a white inexpressive face that seems to have been flattened and smoothed and airbrushed until it is almost illegible; he is like a mammal that lives under the water with a round sleek head configured from swimming underwater.

The content of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is mostly family chronicle, the intertwined fates of an extended Argentine family, who have split into two clans and unluckily emigrated to France and Germany.  After an initial half-hour set in gaucho territory, the two feuding cohorts of the cowboy family, the Germanic Hartrott clan (Teutonic father and three grinning blonde sons) and the French Desnoyers (French papa and his raffish son, Julio played by Valentino) settle down in old Europe and, of course, become enemies when the Great War begins.  The first two-thirds of the film involves Julio's adulterous love affair with a young woman married to a much older diplomat, a man named Lauriers.  Just as the affair is disclosed, with dire consequences for the lovers, war conveniently breaks out:  the cuckolded Lauriers goes to the front where he is promptly blinded by mustard gas and committed to the care of his repentant wife -- there are many intertitles invoking the idea of atonement.  Desnoyers, who is a kind of hoarder, travels to his castle in the Marne valley, where, of course, he encounters the Hun, brutish Germans led by the Hartrott eldest son who are looting his estate.  There are battles and rapes, German transvestites dancing drunkenly on smashed pianos and long columns of marching men; a panning shot of men about to murdered by a firing squad invokes Goya and establishes a template for many later scenes of this kind in other films.   Desnoyers, who is a sort of miser, watches as shells destroy his castle.  Julio, chastened by his girlfriend's devotion to her blinded husband, enlists and finds himself in the mud and gloom of the Western Front.  Just as he is about to kill his Hartrott cousin, a shell lands on the two men and puts paid to both of them.  Julio's ghost obligingly visits his former girlfriend who is on the verge of abandoning her helpless husband.  The ghost nobly tells the woman to stay with the crippled man.  An insert shows a caged squirrel running hopelessly on a wheel, presumably a forecast of the young wife's hopeless future.  All of these calamities have been foretold by a enigmatic figure, a sort of wild-eyed religious mystic who looks, more or less, like Rasputin.  This figure studies Duerer's engravings of the Apocalypse and sights the Four Horsemen hurtling through the cloudy skies.  In the film's visionary final sequence, the surviving members of the Desnoyer's family, mutilated by the war, gather in an enormous cemetery, innumerable crosses studding an implausibly steep and barren landscape.  A young woman stands at the crest of the mountain, the sun shining through her garments to reveal her lissome body -- her husband is badly disfigured and has lost his arm.  The wild-eyed religious mystic spreads his arms and seems to assume Christ-like stature as the celestial horsemen depart through the clouds.  The ending is similar to the final reel of Intolerance as well as Ince's Civilization and Vater und Mutter Hartrott, mourning the death of their three sons, pronounce the implicit moral of the work:  it would have been better for these natives of Argentina to have remained in the New World remote from the nightmarish entanglements of European politics -- the film's slant is decidedly isolationist.  Much of this is wonderfully impressive.  This is the terrain of Tolstoy's War and Peace as refracted, of course, through D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, combat, family, weddings and funerals and, of course, adultery.  Ingram can't edit his film to achieve the rhythmic set-pieces that Griffith was able to achieve -- his cutting is a little too obvious and pedantic and he has an unfortunate tendency to allegorize his action by cutting away to animals, usually family pets or Julio's capuchin monkey whose antics mimic the human actors.  But he stages many scenes with a vivid intensity that matches Griffith and his images -- for instance,of wounded soldiers at Lourdes -- have a sober elegance and sophistication.  The film is too long and not well-preserved, particularly in the famous interlude that connects the domestic tragedies of the film's first half with the war scenes that conclude the picture -- these are the images of the four horsemen emerging from a demon's fiery mouth and, then, catapulting across the sky.  But it's worth watching and, for people interested in silent film, Ingram's mise-en-scene and technique makes an interesting counterpoint to Griffith.

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