Last time out we had to skip 1919 as The Miracle Man is now a lost film so we moved onto 1920’s Way Down East. This time we head to an anti-war WWI film in 1921s highest-grossing film The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
An Argentinian landowner Madariaga’s two daughters marry a Frenchman (Josef Swickard) and a German (Alan Hale). Unconsciously Madariaga favours the French side of his family years later when World War 1 arrives. His family now based in France and Germany will be pitted against each other on different sides of the war, leaving his family in tatters.
Based on Vicente Blasco-Ibanez’s novel the story goes along as you would pretty much expect for the time. A forbidden romance in the midst of a family feud DURING A WAR. It has it all for a silent-era epic and one that said audiences would lap up. Only this time instead of the war being the civil war this one is set during WWI which was only a few short years previous.
In a lot of ways, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse could be considered the first blockbuster. It had an exorbitant production cost, which was already deemed a massive project before going over budget and then went on to be the 6th highest-grossing silent film of all time (Way Down East is 4th) while making sure-fire stars out of it’s cast.
What helps the film immensely is that it does have that slow build . We see what life was like for this family long before the war and we see the first devastation in the family, the patriarch’s death. This starts the domino effects of both sons in law wanting to return home to give their children a better life. It has been said that you could remove this first portion of the film as it does not fully relate to the proceeding events. I would disagree and say that while an hour is a tad long it is important. We need to build to forming these characters and how without war their lives would have been completely different. We need to see how they truly lived (whether rightly or wrongly) to feel for them when hell comes to them.
It is important to remember how soon after the war this film was released. Now we have interviews and essays about the topic. This wasn’t the case back then. By showing these characters have these wonderfully normal lives makes what happens next all the more relatable to audiences. It is why the film performed so well at the box office, it was just so relatable. Of course, it was a very melodramatic film, but it was one that had to be to help distract from all of the goings-on. This was an era of people still in the form of the shock of what happened in the world. To solely focus on the war would make the film unwatchable for audiences of this time. So if the first half feels a tiny bit bloated, it is entirely forgivable and helps reflect the history of the picture more.
As mentioned The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse helped some of the cast become superstars overnight, none more so than Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filiberto Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguella or Rudolph Valentino (The Latin Lover) who would reach incredible heights after his very first scene in the film, the famous tango scene. It isn’t untoward to suggest that while Valentino has an immense amount of charisma, he is fairly limited in his range as an actor. This was shown in later films of course, but here Ingram utilises Valentino’s strengths and focuses on them. It truly is a star-making performance for him, he gets to play the lovable rogue as well as the typical melodramatic lead, all during a film where his character throws himself into a World War. It is a great performance from him and it is a shame that we did not see more of them in his short career.
Having the Germans have no regard for others never mind their own family is a tad too harsh and is merely an idea to show how good the rest of the world was to fight back and to accentuate how villianous the Nazi Party were. An example of this is the scene in the castle when the Germans invade France. There is little subtlety or nuance here in relation to the story and the actions of each side of the family. This is something that could and should have been reconsidered. We know that not all German troops were evil. Yet, again it is clear why they are portrayed this way in the film. The wounds are still so fresh that to portray them as anything else but monsters are impossible.
The title characters, the Four Horsemen are of course a metaphor for not only World War I, but War itself. They only appear on the fringes of the film and promptly leave at the end of the final battle. Today their appearances would be a tad too heavy-handed, here, so soon after the war, it feels apt. Everything is still so fresh that the needless loss of human life had to be put on someone, it packs a pretty powerful bunch, especially in the knowledge that just over 20 years later it would be repeated again.
The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse is such an impressive and important film for its era. Thanks to its anti-war position it is able to focus on the emotions and thoughts of its characters who try to cope with life during World War 1. It is very much still worth your time.
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