CMBA Film Passion 101 Blogathon: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921)

Rudolph Valentino portrait by Nelson Evans as Julio

Accepted cinema history tells us that Rudolph Valentino’s star-making film was the 1921 blockbuster The Sheik.  While this is, in part, arguably true, the real landmark was a small film entitled The Eyes of Youth in which Valentino played a paid correspondent to help Milton Sills win a divorce from poor Clara Kimball Young.  This small landmark performance put Rudolph Valentino under the gaze of the powerful scenarist June Mathis who was in the process of writing the gigantic film The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.  It was Mathis who fought hard and pushed for Valentino to win the coveted part of Julio Desnoyers. 
My first exposure to Valentino was in another film, also based on a novel by Spanish author Vincente Blasco-Ibanez, Blood and Sand.  It was, however, my first viewing of the 1921 epic that really exposed me to Valentino’s terrific talent and ability as an actor of range.  A range far beyond the display of The Sheik which is commonly referred to as the star-making film.

Ibanez’ sprawling novel tells the tale of two branches of a family, split by cultural differences and values and, ultimately, by World War I.  Mathis expertly culled the massive tale down to a tightly told story that is as gripping today as it had to have been in late 1920 when the film was first released.
Valentino’s appearance comes relatively early in the film, dressed in his gaucho attire and with his doting grandfather (played by Pomeroy Cameron) in the seedy Boca district where Julio revels and dances the tango.  If ever there were a moment on screen that a star was truly born, the famed “Tango Sequence” is it for Valentino.  Once he has eyeballed Beatrice Domiguez on the dance floor with her lesser partner, it’s easy to see he absolutely will take what he wants and what that is, is her.  Once he has disposed of the pasty opponent, he slinks into the dance like a panther taking her with him.  As they circle the floor, the various miscreants and patrons nod and applaud their approval.  The dance progresses and ends with a slow, lingering kiss in profile.  It is said the women in the audience grew faint, in 2013, you can still have a great understanding why.  It is not only a star-making moment, it’s a terrific piece of filmmaking.

While I had an appreciation for Valentino long before I saw this film, I’d seen a few silent films (often on my bedroom wall in super 8 in the pre VHS and DVD days).  But seeing this film spoke to me of the power of silent film.  The epic story distilled down to the stories of the two families and, in particular, the story arc of Julio, was quite simply engrossing story telling.  This film was made at the mid-point of the silent era.  Itself only five years gone from D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation and technically a much more complex film.  It could have been 20 years ahead with the progress made in the art of telling the story.  Similarly, if you look at F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise of 1927, the leaps in technology and the changes in the visual story arc from Four Horsemen and Sunrise, they’re like night and day.  Sadly, Sunrise was very nearly the mark of the end of the silent era with the synchronized soundtrack.  What a film to exit on, however.
For this viewer, however, even without Valentino, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is a film that still stands the true test of time.  It helped inspire a passion for early cinema and it is a film that still holds up with repeated viewings.  To me that is the key point, if you find a silent film you love, it will inspire you to seek out more of them.  Tragically, the Photoplay Productions restoration of Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is not commercially available, at least not yet.  It is shown in semi-regular rotation on Turner Classic Movies.  Happily, if you have an interest in Valentino, loads of his films are available on DVD.

Six-Sheet poster from the original release

That said, lest you think I obsess too much over Valentino, here are ten silent films (most on DVD) that I think, in my humble opinion, will bring you pleasure and suck you into the vortex of early film. You won’t regret it.
In no particular order:
Stella Maris; Tol’able David; Sunrise; The Thief of Bagdad; The Son of the Sheik (I HAD to put a Valentino in there), The Wind (run on TCM); The Patsy; The Student Price of Old Heidelberg (run on TCM); Our Hospitality; and Ben-Hur (available as an extra on the later DeMille Ten Commandments set).

This post of part of the Classic Movie Blog Association's Film Passion 101 Blogathon. Click here for the full blogathon schedule and for links to other members' posts.


Caftan Woman said…
The film sounds fascinating and the casting of Valentino in the role a great moment for movies. Thanks for providing the clip as well. It truly whetted my appetite for more.
This is an amazing choice for the blogathon, simply because silent films were part of my gateway to a love of classic movies (The Gold Rush, The General, The Mark of Zorro, etc.) and even today, it's impossible to overlook the Valentino "smoulder," Great write-up!
Fritzi Kramer said…
Marvelous! And I really enjoyed your recommended early film list. I first saw Valentino in THE SHEIK, pure kitsch but it got me hooked on him as an actor.
Hamlette said…
Great review! I've only seen this movie twice, but I've watched the tango scene dozens, thanks to good old YouTube. There's just no one like Rudy.
Ah, Rudy! I love that he wore his spurs throughout the dance. His body movement is beyond sexy - truly one of a kind. Thank you so much for this glimpse into the film that started a lifelong swoon!
The Lady Eve said…
I've only seen clips from "The Shiek" and all I know of Valentino, beyond that, is his legend. Enjoyed the clip much - he certainly did have star quality. I watched "Sunrise" for the first time a few years ago and was just stunned by how visually expressive and beautiful it was. Thank you for a fine introduction to "The Four Horsemen" and Valentino, the actor.
I'm ashamed to say I've never seen a Rudolph Valentino film. (I know! What is up with that!) However, after reading your post, I know I'm missing out on something.

This sounds like a remarkable film. Thanks for sharing your infectious enthusiasm for it! :)
Page said…
I was thrilled to see that you wrote about a film starring Valentino!! I adore the silents and I just wish my mother had watched more of them when I was a kid since I've come to appreciate them a lot more than the 30s and 40s. I especially love anything with Ramon Novarro and Gilbert Roland. They certainly were handsome devils like Rudy.

A very entertaining piece and a nice glimpse into how your love of this era got started.

Rick29 said…
Donna, I'm embarrassed to say that I have not seen this Valentino picture. Based on your review and its stellar reputation, I definitely need to look for it s next appearance on TCM. I agree about the power of some silent films. The inability to use dialogue led filmmakers to create some of the most iconic film images (e.g. Mary Philbin's removal of the mask in PHANTOM).

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