August 10, 2014
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921)
Grade: 55/100

Director: Rex Ingram
Stars: Rudolph Valentino, Josef Swickard, Alice Terry

What it's about. A silent war and romance feature best known for transforming the career of Rudolph Valentino from extra to leading man. The most famous scene shows Valentino dancing the tango, although it is hardly representative of this somnolent epic.

Early scenes are set in Argentina. Madariaga (Pomeroy Cannon) is an imperious but highly successful rancher with considerable wealth at the time of his death. His estate is evenly divided between his two daughters, Luisa (Bridgetta Clark) and Elena (Mabel Van Buren). Luisa has married Frenchman Marcelo Desnoyers (Josef Swickard), who has a handsome wastrel son, Julio (Valentino) and an attractive daughter, Chichí (Virginia Warwick).

Elena has married a German, arrogant Karl von Hartrott (Alan Hale), who has three obedient and militarily inclined sons (Stuart Holmes, Jean Hersholt, and Henry Klaus). Marcelo and Karl return with their families and newfound wealth to their respective home countries, which of course are on opposite sides once World War I erupts.

The war disrupts Julio's heated affair with Marguerite (Alice Terry, wife of director Ingram), the pale spouse of older and unromantic Etienne (John St. Polis). Julio meets his strange and gloomy neighbor, Tchernoff (Nigel De Brulier), a seer who envisions the fulfillment of the Biblical prophecy of the Four Horsemen.

Marcelo, who has become an antique collector and stocked a French castle with his treasures, is obliged to defend his stash against a division of the German Army. Among the Germans is a despotic officer memorably played by Wallace Beery. Meanwhile, Chichí has married well, the brilliant son (Derek Ghent) of a French Senator (Mark Fenton).

Based on the bestseller by Spanish author Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, whose country sat out World War I while supplying armaments to both sides.

How others will see it. Although the film will always be known for Valentino's tango, critics tend to ignore Julio's romantic character, and concentrate on the film's antiwar philosophy. But it was the tango that likely inspired the National Film Registry to honor the silent classic in 1995.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was one of the greatest commercial successes of the silent era. Given its status as a silent tinted black and white movie, it has a respectable 2325 user votes at The user rating of 8.0 betrays a wide gap between young men, who grade it 7.2 out of 10, and women over 45, who bestow a remarkably high grad of 9.7. This, of course, is due to Valentino's romantic ideal. One wonders how they would feel if his character had instead been played by Wallace Beery.

How I felt about it. The first half of the movie, culminating in an Anna Karenina-style romantic affair, is of only tepid interest to male viewers. Things do pick up when otherworldly Tchernoff shows up along with the ghostly apparitions of the Four Horsemen. Cool explosions (by the standards of 1921 special effects) follow, and there are entertaining propaganda scenes of vainglorious German conquerors and their hapless French victims.

The cultural significance of Valentino's performance, and the improvement of the film's second half, combine to make the movie worth a look. Still, we wonder about the names of the Four Horsemen. They are Conquest, War, Pestilence, and Death. But Conquest is merely the victorious half of War, while Death is the inevitable outcome of the other three riders. Admittedly, the Bible is not subject to revision, but perhaps the four would be best renamed as War, Famine, Plague, and Pollution, the latter a product of the Industrial Age.

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