APOCALYPSE THEN: 15 THINGS ABOUT FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE
1. In studying the movies (not least the silent variety), we owe it to the medium and to ourselves to come prepared as historians. So, let us recall that it is now nearly 100 years since Gavrilo Princip fired those shots on a back street of Sarajevo and so began the gravest and most far-reaching disaster of modern times, the Great War. But this movie shows how far that gravity was not grasped fully in 1921, despite the sea of crosses at its ending.
2. In the full understanding of 1, let us be clear that Rex Ingram’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) is older than this mere anniversary. This is not the Great War as noted in the poetry of Wilfred Owen or as measured on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916 when 60,000 men were killed. It is not a lesson in how the archaic and corrupt structures of European society were ripped out like dead teeth and have never been replaced. This is not the sensibility of Kafka, Stravinsky, and Schiele. No, this is a 19th century romance in which war triggers the headiest flights of coincidence, honor, self-dramatics, and sexless love. In short, this astonishing movie has little idea what the war was about or how it was fought. This is a gorgeous, high-minded saga, a leisurely story, shot through with hysterical beauty and lunatic chivalry. It can take decades before the lessons of history come home.
3. This is a film made by a woman. It was June Mathis (then 32) who read the novel by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez (published in 1916), who believed that it could be a successful motion picture, who wrote the script, persuaded the young company, Metro, to make it (at an eventual cost of $1 million), who chose Rex Ingram to direct it, and who insisted against much evidence and advice that a young Italian, Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguolla, should play the part of Julio Desnoyers.
4. This fellow (adjusted to be Rudolph Valentino) had made a few films without attracting a great deal of attention. But Mathis had noticed him and she had seen him dance, so she instructed Ingram that in filming the tango he was to keep the dancers in full figure—because this boy could bring it. (Note: By 1921, Fred and Adele Astaire were the dancing rage on Broadway and in London, and Fred always believed in full-figure dancers on-screen.) Mathis also gave orders that the most complete, tailored gaucho costume be made for him—this is a film about clothes. Apart from that she told Rudy to go out and buy 20 fashionable suits and to be unswayed by the chance that he might, one day, be seen as a knockoff of George Raft. She also saw that his face had a blend of hardness and softness, of sentimentality and cruelty, that was golden. So, apart from the dance, shoot him in close-up and realize it was 1921 and time for a man in movies to be beautiful.
5. Rex Ingram was a Dublin protestant (birth name Hitchcock) educated at Yale, a man famous for his exotic visual imagination, and, by 1921, he was on a par with directors D.W. Griffith and Erich von Stroheim.
6. But he was irked at the way June Mathis doted on Rudy. Rex and June had had a little thing going, but then June seemed swept away by the tango dancer. So Rex tried to snub Rudy and fell for his actress, Alice Terry, who was astonishingly if rather monotonously beautiful. Ingram married her and kept her in most of his films.
7. As to the plot, the setup in Argentina, the family entanglements—relax.
8. Yes, it is Wallace Beery as a very Hunnish German officer.
9. The film was photographed by John Seitz and just as it is crammed with exquisitely lit and composed close-ups, you may enjoy remembering that the same Seitz later photographed Sunset Boulevard and the iconic moment when Norma Desmond stands up in the light to celebrate the way people had faces then.
10. The horses themselves may seem rather placid. Even in 1921 it was a stretch to keep plugging the idea of conquest, war, famine, and death trotting through every scene. Never mind. No horses were hurt in making this picture.
11. There was a remake in 1962 (a year when the end of the world was centered on Cuba). It was directed by Vincente Minnelli and shifted forward to the German occupation of Paris in 1940 (another big end-of-the-world moment). Glenn Ford played Rudolph Valentino (Minnelli had wanted Alain Delon), Ingrid Thulin was Alice Terry, and Lee J. Cobb was the Argentinian patriarch, a role filled with unstinting vigor by Pomeroy Cannon in 1921.
12. The 1921 version was a smash hit (it earned more than $4 million). The team of Mathis-Ingram-Valentino made one more film at Metro, The Conquering Power, before the studio lost interest in Valentino and he was acquired by Paramount for a few years of sensational sexual imagining (for women and men—no one on-screen before had got the medium’s androgyny). He and Mathis stayed close, and she wrote a couple of his Paramount pictures. Rudy died in 1926 at the age of 31—100,000 lined the streets for his funeral. Did Mussolini really send a black-shirted honor guard? No, that was a stunt put on by the New York funeral home, Campbell’s, still in business.
13. Ingram and Alice Terry were married but, at odds with MGM, they went to Europe where Ingram found a base at the Victorine studio in Nice. He made several spectacular romances there (Mare Nostrum, The Magician, The Garden of Allah) and died in 1950 without ever quite forsaking the narrative aura of 1890. His last film, Baroud, 1932, was his only sound picture.
14. One of the young people who joined Ingram in Nice and learned to love the movies was Michael Powell (The Red Shoes, A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus).
15. So this is history, and we are left to decide, in 2014, whether we celebrate the Great War or admit its damage.
Presented at SFSFF 2014 with live music by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra