Mare Nostrum

Directed by Rex Ingram, USA, 1926
Alice Terry, Antonio Moreno, Uni Apollon, Kada-Abd-el-Kadar, Hughie Mack, Mlle. Kithnou, Michael Brantford, Mme. Paquerette, Fernand Mailly, and Andrews Engelmann Production Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Print Source Warner Bros.

Presented at SFSFF 2018
Live Musical Accompaniment by Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius

Essay by Kevin Brownlow

Dublin-born director Rex Ingram had his biggest success with 1921’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, from the Vicente Blasco Ibáñez novel, which made a star of Valentino, saved the Metro company from bankruptcy, and earned the director the undying gratitude of the head of Metro, Marcus Loew. Alas, in 1924, Metro merged with two other companies—Goldwyn and Mayer. Ingram, a renowned stickler for authenticity and location shooting (like his friend Erich von Stroheim), so loathed Louis B. Mayer that he refused to allow his name on his pictures, crediting only Metro-Goldwyn in Mare Nostrum’s main titles.

Before making Mare Nostrum, a retelling of the Mata Hari story set during the U-boat campaign, Ingram had longed to make Ben-Hur. It was in his contract that even if the picture were made by another company, he would be released to direct it. But Metro production chief June Mathis gave the film to Charles Brabin. When the merger took place and Brabin was fired, Mayer did offer Ingram the job, but Ingram demanded so many conditions that Mayer selected Fred Niblo instead. Still under contract, Ingram emigrated in 1924 to the south of France, where he took over a rundown former Gaumont studio built on the estate of Napoleon’s famous General Massena. Using MGM money, Ingram reequipped it, building extra stages and a water tank, and La Victorine went on to a prominent place in film history, long before French director François Truffaut immortalized it in 1973’s Day for Night.

Shot in picturesque locations such as Barcelona, Naples, Paestum, Marseilles, and Pompeii, Mare Nostrum took fifteen months to make. As Ruth Barton put it in her 2014 biography of Ingram, “Mare Nostrum was to test the will of those who had made the move to France with Rex.” The film’s scenarist Willis Goldbeck later wrote, “Ingram did Mare Nostrum not with any idea it would make money but because he felt it had a chance for a great deal of beauty.” Ingram’s first biographer, Liam O’Leary, felt that Ingram wanted to capture the mystery of the Mediterranean, with which he had fallen in love. “Filming proceeded under grim conditions,” O’Leary wrote. “The glass roofs of the studio created a furnace in the daytime, while at night, when a lot of the filming took place, arctic temperatures were recorded … French laboratories were found to be unsatisfactory. The London laboratories were too far away. Equipment set up in the studios developed defects and much negative was found to be unusable and necessitated many retakes. Eventually, technicians had to be brought in from Hollywood for this work.”

Ingram chose Spanish-born romantic lead Antonio Moreno to play David Glasgow Farragut, named after the American Civil War admiral whose order “Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead” passed into legend. Freya Talberg, the Mata Hari character, is played by Alice Terry, married to Ingram since 1921. She considered Mare Nostrum the justification for her career—“I felt it was the only picture I ever did.” Terry had come from the cutting rooms and never regarded herself as an actress, nor did she enjoy the experience. Naturally brunette, she only worked wearing a blonde wig. Making everything more difficult, Ingram took multiple takes of each scene. When it came to the symbolic love scene with an octopus in a tank, she balked. “I wasn’t used to playing anyone that thought,” she recalled. “I said ‘You’d better get rid of me now. I can’t look at anyone amorously, let alone a fish.’” In fact, Ingram did one take. It was the quickest scene she ever had to do. (The scene is missing from this print but it influenced Orson Welles to try something similar in Lady from Shanghai.)

Perhaps the finest sequence Ingram ever shot was the execution of Freya. For the sake of atmosphere, he hired the same bugle band that had attended the execution of Mata Hari. The 24th Battalion de Chasseurs Alpins, “the Blue Devils,” also appeared in the sequence, photographed at Vincennes, near the Pathé factory, where such executions had so frequently been carried out.

Editor Grant Whytock estimated that the rough cut of the film reached twenty-three thousand feet (more than four hours). “We must have thrown away ten or twelve cut reels and we still ended up with two hours of film.” When Ibáñez saw this version, in October 1925, he wrote to Ingram, “Of all the stories I have written, Mare Nostrum is my favorite. For that reason, only to a great artist like yourself could I trust it to be put into motion pictures.” It is safe to assume that many important scenes were eliminated on orders from MGM’s front office, including some anti-German scenes after complaints from the German Embassy. An abbreviated version of 115 minutes had its premiere at the Criterion Theatre, New York, on February 15, 1926. The initial reviews and public response were encouraging. But according to Motion Picture magazine, it was a cold premiere. A flop. The aquarium love scenes were the most annoying they had witnessed.

Variety considered it “draggy” and reported that the depiction of the enemy drew snickers on the first night. “Besides which,” Variety continued, “it’s a gruesome tale without a solid laugh during the entire telling.” Nonetheless, the picture did good business in New York for a while thanks to the Italian and Spanish population, smashing records at the Capitol, grossing $118,249 in two weeks.
In August came the French premiere, attended by the prime minister, infuriating the Germans who banned the film. Andrews Engelmann (the U-boat commander) became a figure of hate in Germany. An angry Fritz Lang told him “You are no longer German!”—which was correct. He was Baltic Russian. MGM, facing a boycott from Central Europe, gave a formal promise to refrain from the production of pictures “tending to provoke international animosity.” The studio began making films portraying the Germans in a more favorable light, as in Flesh and the Devil and The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg.

Mare Nostrum gradually slumped at the box office. The title didn’t help: Ingram had fought as hard to retain the original Latin as he had to keep the tragic ending. He had even been reluctant to add the subtitle “Our Sea” until he was reminded that some people thought the picture was a western. (Broadway wags called it “Horse Liniment.”) Perhaps the most wounding criticism was that Mare Nostrum was out of date. “Ingram has been away from these shores a long time,” said Variety. “It wouldn’t do any harm to take a jaunt back here if for nothing else than to sit around, talk with the boys and glance over what they’re doing in picture work.”

“For my part,” wrote Ingram in 1928, “I am not racking my brains to find a novel form of expression. My aim has always been to tell my story as directly, as simply and as naturally as I could ... To take people out of their seats into the land where my drama is being unfolded. To interest them in my characters rather than in my players. Whether I tell them they are on the Marseilles waterfront, inside a German submarine, in Baghdad, or in the Sahara desert, I want them to accept my statement without question; something they will never do when they know that my Sahara was in Bakersfield, my Marseilles waterfront was built at Venice, California, and my bit-actors and extras were all seen in a sexual epic the week before.”

Ingram made only four more films. When he refused to return to America, MGM did not renew his contract. He made a British-financed film about industrial conflict, The Three Passions. After a long gap, he produced his only sound picture, Baroud, filmed in Morocco, in which he also played the lead. It was a failure, although Hollywood offered him an acting contract. In 1934 he moved to Cairo, traveling around North Africa and writing a novel. He returned to California in 1936, rejoining Alice Terry and occupying himself with sculpture and writing and travel. He had apparently lost interest in filmmaking, although he formed a friendship with John Wayne and they discussed projects for a couple of years before the director’s death in 1950.