Thursday, June 29, 2023

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921)


            “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” is one of the most famous silent war movies.  It was directed by Rex Ingram and was based on the novel by Spaniard Vincente Ibanez.  June Mathis wrote the screenplay.  She went on to become one of the first female executives in Hollywood.  She was second in power only to Mary Pickford.  She was the one that tabbed a little-known actor to play Julio.  She wrote the tango scene just for him.  Rudolf Valentino rocketed to superstardom because of the film. Mathis and Valentino became fast friends for the rest of her life.  She wrote several screenplays for him.  He was paid $350 per week for “Four Horsemen”, less than all the other important members of the cast.  The film cost $800,000 and was the first film to make more than $1 million.  It is the highest grossing silent film when you adjust for inflation.  It was such a huge hit that it created crazes for tango dancing and gaucho pants.  Valentino’s Julio became the model for “Latin lovers”.  But does it hold up as a great movie?

            The movie opens in Argentina before WWI.  Madariaga (Pomeroy Cannon) is a ruthless cattle baron.  He has two sons-in-law that vie for his affections.  Karl (Alan Hale) is a German and Marcelo (Josef Swickard) is French.  The family is dysfunctional.  Madriaga is fond of Marcelo’s son Julio and it is clear Julio will come before Karl’s two sons when it comes to the inheritance.  Madriaga teaches Julio to tango and accompanies the young rake on his trips to night clubs.  Julio is a chip off the old block.  When Madariaga dies, the inheritance is split between his two daughters.  The family is also split as Karl’s go to live in Germany and Marcelo’s goes to France.  Karl’s sons grow up to be disciplined exemplars of the German “super culture”.  Julio is the opposite and exemplifies French culture.  He is a painter – of women.  Paris is crazy for the tango, so Julio is taking advantage of that.  He is openly wooing a married woman.  Suddenly, some archduke gets assassinated and this causes the opportunity to prove which culture is superior.  War fever is in the air.  Even Julio’s monkey catches it.  A Rasputin-like mystic warns of the four horsemen using a Durer etching.  Julio goes to war for France (with his monkey) and his German cousins join the German army.  The last act has the war coming to Marcelo’s mansion.  The army happens to include Karl’s boys.  It won’t be a pleasant family reunion.

            When I started this blog it was with the goal of compiling by own list of the 100 Best War Movies.  I was inspired by Military History magazines 100 Greatest War Movies list and began by reviewing those movies.  From the beginning I made the decision to rate movies based on how good they are, not how important they are or how great they were at the time they were released.  Obviously, 21st Century war movies have advantages in technology and ability to realistically recreate combat.  That does not mean that a war movie has to be modern to be good.  War movies are still driven by plots and that levels the playing field. 

            The reason why “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” is not a good movie is not because it is old, silent, and black and white.  It’s not good because it is not entertaining.  The plot is weak and heavy-handed.  It has been called the “first anti-war film”, but it is not realistic in its depiction of war.  This is partly because of the inability of movies back then to recreate combat.  The way it conveys the horror of war is by showing two families torn apart by it.  But it is hard to care about them.  Julio is not likeable.  Women weren’t attracted to his personality.   He was the bad boy you imagined having an affair with.  His character arc is not believable.  He goes from rogue to warrior without us seeing the transformation.  We are told he is a good soldier, but there’s no proof and it seems unlikely.  In fact, Valentino is not on the screen for long stretches.  He does show some acting chops and the rest of the cast manages to avoid the over the top mugging of most silent films.  Only Swickford chews scenery.

            There is no doubt the film is an important one.  However, importance does not always equate to quality.  I doubt many of my readers would find it entertaining if they have not seen it already.  Plus, it’s a long movie and could be a chore to watch.  Naturally, females might find it more appealing because of Valentino, but I’m pretty sure most women’s ideal man today does not wear gaucho pants.  On the other hand, I do feel that if you are a war movie fanatic, like me, it is a must-see.  If only to see how far war movies have come.  Plus, guys can learn the smoldering look. Women still like that.  And you could learn the tango.  I’ve been told it takes two to do it.

GRADE  =  D+   

Monday, June 26, 2023

Admiral (2008)


                “Admiral” is a Russian movie that tells of a love triangle reminiscent of “Dr. Zhivago”, but using historical figures in the backdrop of the Russian Civil War instead of the Russian Revolution.  It took 4 years to make, with a total of 210 shooting days.  The twelve-minute battle scene took a month.  The movie won Golden Eagles (similar to Golden Globes) for best actor (Konstantin Kharensky), cinematography, costumes, and sound.

                In 1916, Alexander Kolchak (Kharensky) is in the Baltic Sea commanding a Russian warship.  His ship comes under fire from a German battleship.  He lures it into a minefield.  We are treated to fake-looking CGI, but lots of action.  The explosions are vibrant and the wounds are graphic.  Kharensky proves to be as cool as a cucumber.  He meets Anna (Elizaveta Boyarskaya) who is married to his best friend Sergey Timirov (Vladislav Vetrov).  Hello, love triangle.  Kolchak is married with child and he is loyal to his wife, so his relationship with Anna does not go beyond flirting (which is noted by the spouses).  Meanwhile, Kolchak’s career is on the rise.  He is appointed a Vice Admiral by Czar Nicholas II and given command of the Black Sea fleet.  The Russian Revolution breaks out and Kolchak surrenders his command to his sailors.  When Kerensky offers Kolchak the leader of the pre-Bolshevik military, he refuses and is sent as a military attache to the Americans who are planning an attack on Constantinople.  He returns one year later to fight the Bolsheviks as a commander of White forces against the Reds of the Russian Civil War.  Sergey is a commissar with the Reds.  End of friendship, but not love triangle.  Alexander and Anna reunite and their chaste love affair is set against the backdrop of the war.

                “Admiral” is a good history lesson, but boring cinema.  When compared to “Doctor Zhivago”, it comes up short except in combat.  There is a decent naval battle and suicidal attack through no man’s land.  These can not overcome a tepid romance that is the core of the movie.  Neither Alexander nor Anna are appealing characters as each abandon spouses who don’t deserve it.  It doesn’t help that the central four are acted woodenly by the cast.  In the attempt to portray Kolchak as a selfless, loyal subject of the Czar, the movie does not allow Kharensky to chew scenery as the actual Kolchak.  He was a prickly, unsociable individual.  Hardly the romantic of the film.

                Russian war movies are divided between the Soviet WWII movies and the movies made after the fall of the Soviet Union.  The pre-collapse films are mostly black and white and many are classics.  These include “The Cranes Are Flying”, “Ballad of a Soldier”, and “Ivan’s Childhood”.  All of these were made after the thaw brought on by Khrushchev.  Ironically, this period of Soviet cinema revived the Civil War as a subject.  But these films lauded the efforts of the Reds.  The current style of Russian cinema can be traced back to the fall of communism.  Movies like “Admiral” use CGI and modern battle choreography to reach audiences who are more interested in dynamic story-telling as opposed to the more humanistic themes of the Soviet films.  “Admiral” could not have been made under Stalin.  Even after he was long gone, it still was controversial.  Kolchak was considered an anti-revolutionary when the communists ruled.  He fought against communism.  By 2008, it was possible to treat him as a cinematic hero.  The movie rehabilitates his reputation as it puts him back into Russian history, but this time as a hero.

                How is the movie as history?  Kolchak was in charge of mining in the Gulf of Riga.  He led from the front in risky night mine-laying operations.  In 1916, he was promoted to Vice Admiral and given command of the Black Sea fleet. His attacks on Turkish coal ships caused much hardship for the Ottomans.  When the February Revolution broke out, Kolchak relinquished command to his sailors.  He met with Alexander Kerensky, but his insistence on returning the military to traditional strict discipline was not the direction the new government had in mind.  Because Kolchak’s name was being mentioned as a possible dictator, Kerensky shipped him off to America to give advice on a possible campaign against the Ottoman Empire.  When the November Revolution broke out, Kolchak was sent to Siberia to run the government loyal to the Kerensky.  He became the de facto head of the Whites and initiated a crackdown on communists.  He attempted to restore property to large landowners.  He ordered villages to be burned and civilians to be killed.  It was reactionary policies like these that kept the Allies from supporting him wholeheartedly in the Civil War.  President Woodrow Wilson, in particular, found him no better than the Bolsheviks.  Because of his heavy-handed actions, a huge number of Siberians became partisans.  The movie accurately portrays Kolchak’s military efforts as being successful, at first.  This was despite him being a poor leader.  His movement forward extended his supply lines and exhausted his army. Red reinforcements allowed for a counteroffensive.  Once they gained the initiative, they never gave it up.  Kolchak’s forces retreated.  He did travel east on the Trans-Siberian railway.  He was deposed by the Whites and handed over to the Bolsheviks who executed him by firing squad.  His last words were to his wife and son.

                As far as Anna Timirov is concerned, the movie is pretty accurate.  She was married to Kolchak’s best friend and subordinate.  They did conduct an affair before Anna left Timirov in 1917 to join Kolchak and become his common law wife.  Anna divorced Timirov in 1918.  She was with Kolchak in Siberia, but as an interpreter in his government, not as a nurse.  She survived his execution, but her association with him got her in trouble with the communist government over the years.  She was arrested seven times and spent many years in various labor camps.  She was finally forgiven in the 1960’s.  She did have a role in “War and Peace”.



Sunday, June 25, 2023

Mulan (2020)


            “Mulan”, the live-action version, spent ten years in developmental hell before it got the green light to shoot.  Disney was well-aware of the dangers of “whitewashing”, so only Chinese actors were cast.  Unfortunately, the first two choices for director turned down the project, so a white female was chosen.  This was controversial, of course.  Niki Caro ended up helming the most expensive movie ever directed by a female.  The movie cost $200 million, but made only $70 million.  Part of its failure was due to the pandemic preventing good box office.  The film was nominated for Oscars for Costume Design and Visual Effects.

            Mulan (Yifei Liu) is an amazing, but misunderstood girl.  She “doesn’t know her place in Chinese society”.  She is reaching marriage-age much to the consternation of the village match-maker.  Marriage gets put on the back-burner when the Rouran come a-raiding.  The Rouran are a tribal confederation that loved to raid China, specifically the Silk Road.  We know they are evil because they wear black.  Their leader is Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), your typical Disney villain.  He is assisted by a witch who can shape-shift.  Because of  the threat, the Emperor (Jet Li) orders conscription to create a large army.  Each family must provide a male.  This means Mulan’s crippled father will have to go.  Mulan steals her father’s armor and sword, disguises herself as a man, and goes in his place.  Under the training by Commander Tung (Donnie Yen), she goes from “fights like a girl” to warrior very quickly.  The army marches to a fortress which is attacked by the Rouran.  Although greatly outnumbered and facing a cavalry army, they sortie out.  (You didn’t expect Disney to be strong on tactics, did you?)  This results in a huge melee.  Mulan duels with the witch and then kicks ass on the battlefield.  The ingrates kick her out of the army when her identity is revealed, but she’ll be back.

            Disney had a huge hit with the live version of “Beauty and the Beast” and tried to replicate the success with the live “Mulan”.  Unlike Beauty, which kept the music, “Mulan” (2020) is not a musical.  There is no singing, but some of the songs from the animated version are given instrumental shout-outs.  The score is excellent and thank goodness the actors don’t break into song.  Or crack jokes.  The movie is serious, with little humor.  There is not even a comic relief character.  Or a funny animal sidekick.  Some of the characters are adjusted.  Mulan does not fall in love with her commander.  Because of the MeToo movement, it was deemed unacceptable that this relationship between a powerful male and a vulnerable female be depicted.  Instead, Mulan is connected to a fellow recruit named Chen Honghui, but its not really a romance

            The acting is stellar, with Yifei Liu outstanding as Mulan.  The two main villains make for worthy foes.  The witch is bad-ass, but her change of sides makes little sense.  The character development is shallow.  The characters are mostly stereotypes, so you won’t need much elaboration.  Besides, you’ll be more interested in the mesmerizing scenery and visuals.  Mulan is able to do some “Crouching Tiger” moves.  The battles are well-choreographed.  They are oriental style.

            This “Mulan” does a better job of advancing its themes.  Women can defy traditions, but they better be special.  Only Mulan could have done what Mulan does.  The movie added a younger sister who is traditional to contrast with the iconoclastic Mulan. Honor is everything is another theme.  And devotion to family.

            It’s a shame that “Mulan” was such a bomb.  Disney might be discouraged from making any more live action versions of their classic films. We probably won’t get a “Finding Nemo” with real fish.  This “Mulan” is more of a war movie than the other, although you wouldn’t immediately place it in the genre.  I wouldn’t call it a must-see, but if you want something different, it is entertaining.


Mulan (1998)  -  It was Disney’s 36th animated feature film and the first to have war as an important part of the plot.  It made over $300 million compared to a budget of $90 million.  It was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Score.  In this version, the Huns are invading China by climbing over the Great Wall.  Mulan fails her audition for the match-maker. She goes off to war to spare her father.  She is accompanied by a dragon (Eddie Murphy).  During training, she falls for her trainer Li Shang.  The rest of the plot is similar to the 2020 version, but with no witch.  Although not considered at the pinnacle of Disney features since “Little Mermaid”, “Mulan” is a visual treat.  Its animation is superior to CGI.  As a war movie lover, I wish animation would be more of an option than a CGI-reliant film.  With animation, anything is possible.  For instance, you can have a horde of Huns.  Or a spectacular avalanche.  Besides the visuals, the movie is pleasing to the ears with its collection of songs. The humor, provided mostly by Eddie Murphy’s dragon, adds to a well-balanced movie.  I would put it slightly less entertaining than the live-action version.


            Both movies are based on the “Ballad of Mulan”.  In the original source, Mulan goes off to war in place of her father.  She tells them where she is going.  She disguises herself as a man and spends the next decade fighting nomadic raiders.  She is never discovered to be a man.  After long and valiant service, she is offered a position by the Emperor, but she turns it down to return home to the traditional life of a woman.