Thursday, September 12, 2013

Rudy Can't Fail

Film: The Eagle
Format: Internet video on laptop.

One of the biggest holes on The List in my opinion was the lack of anything featuring Rudolph Valentino, the greatest screen idol of the early years of cinema. Don’t get me wrong—there have always been plenty of holes on The List, but this was the first really noticeable one. Valentino may not have been a great actor, but it’s unquestionable that his presence on the screen was in no small part responsible for the popularity of early film. Given the choice, I’d have selected either The Sheik or The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse as the best representations of his work. Instead, we get The Eagle, one of his last films.

Vladimir Dubrovsky (Valentino) is a lieutenant in the Russian army. Under review by the Czarina (Louise Dresser), Dubrovsky spies a runaway carriage and uses the Czarina’s horse to catch up to it and stop it. This introduces the lieutenant to Mascha Troekouroff (Vilma Banky), his immediate love interest. But it’s not going to be that easy; his daring rescue also inflames the desires of the Czarina who asks for a private audience. She offers him a generalship, but when it’s also apparent that she wants him for something else, Dubrovsky balks, and the Czarina puts a price on his head for the affront.

Just as this happens, Dubrovsky receives a letter from his father saying that a neighbor, along with some legal assistance, has essentially cleaned out the family. His father asks him to go to the Czarina for assistance, but of course that ship has sailed. Dubrovsky returns home just in time for the death of his dad and vows revenge. He does this in the most cinematic way possible: by donning a mask and becoming an outlaw, naming himself The Black Eagle. In short, this is a Robin Hood story with a lot less altruism and a lot more revenge. He even has a hideout in the middle of nowhere and a gang of thugs.

It’s worth stopping the summary for a moment to comment on the masks. These are the sort that cover only the eyes—essentially a bandana with eyeholes. I’ve never really understood why someone would think that that’s an adequate disguise. I think in general that I’d be able to identify most of the people I know if they were wearing a bandana across their eyes. Whatever.

Anyway, Dubrovsky, despite being a wanted criminal now lives pretty much openly. He discovers much to his chagrin that Mascha, the girl he saved way back at the start, is the daughter of the man who has ruined his father (James A. Marcus). Oh, what to do? Enacting his revenge would mean destroying the woman he loves. Loving the woman would leave his thirst for revenge unquenched. To start, he waylays a man sent to the girl’s house as a French tutor and takes the job himself.

Once he gets there, the rest of the film trades on this particular bit of tension. He is the Black Eagle, but finds himself unable to continue his attacks. She realizes that her French tutor is actually the Black Eagle himself, but can’t bring herself to turn him in. And what of the Czarina’s desire to see Dubrovsky dead for the affront to her? Yeah, that’s going to come up eventually, too.

The Eagle wants very much to be thought of in the same vein as something like The Thief of Bagdad or something similar. It has all the earmarks of wanting to be a film of high adventure and derring-do, but it simply isn’t. There’s not nearly enough action in it to warrant that sort of comparison, and most of the action we get is very unsatisfying. When Kyrilla, Mascha’s evil father decides that he doesn’t want her French tutor making flirty moves on his daughter, he tosses Dubrovsky into his wine cellar where he keeps a bear chained up. Eventually, Mascha goes to help him and the bear gets loose. Dubrovsky draws a weapon and shoots the bear. And that’s it. What could have been built up into a scene is over in a second with a single pistol shot.

There’s some truth to the idea that Valentino’s films were, in a way, the Twilight of their day. They didn’t have to be that good because Valentino had a built-in audience that would go and sigh over him no matter the quality of the film. And since it’s a film from the early days of the art, there’s not really much question about how it’s all going to end. All of this is evident with The Eagle. The film’s creators took everything they could think of, tossed it at a wall, and kept what stuck, which makes for a messy, silly film that has no idea what it wants to be.

In short, there are a lot of problems. Everyone at Kyrilla’s house gets worked up when the Black Eagle shows up, but we only got one minor robbery as establishment for the persona, so it’s impossible to understand why anyone really cares.

I’m happy to have Rudolph Valentino represented on The List finally, but this is not in any way the film I would have chosen to represent him.

Why to watch The Eagle: You should see at least one Valentino film.
Why not to watch: It’s not close to Valentino’s best.


  1. I thought this was a fun film, but I agree it's not his best. From what I read in the book's entry on it it sounds like they picked it because it had more humor in it that most of his films.

    In regards to the mask not doing much to disguise him, he literally signs one of the threats to the man with his real name after referring to himself as The Black Eagle in the note.

    The recent Green Lantern movie, while not the greatest, had a funny scene where the hero meets the love interest for the first time in disguise (which includes a mask). Superman and Lois Lane from the 1978 movie it's not. You can see it here:

  2. At another point in the film, he robs somebody and then takes off his mask to give the money to someone else. Hi, I'm Dubrovsky, the Black Eagle, and I'll be your robber today...

    The biggest problem is that it's got three or four concurrent plots, and at only 75 minutes, not enough time for any of them.

  3. A very puzzling choice, this. I haven't seen it in years, but I certainly don't recall it being that good. Like you, I think I'd have picked 4 Horsemen to represent him instead.

    1. I'd suggest The Sheik, too, except that I'm doing that on reputation--I haven't seen it.

      Your recall is accurate. It's not that good.

  4. Here I thought I was the only one who thought this was a poor film.
    The scene with the bear is actually unintentionally funny. Dubrovsky has a gun the whole time and could easily have saved himself. Instead he only draws it when it threatens the girl. Almost like the famous Indiana Jones scene where Indiana faced with a badass swordsman just draws a gun and shoots him.
    The final scene is beyond silly. It is outright stupid.

    1. Agreed. There are better Valentino films out there. I've only heard about The Sheik and I'd pick that one based on reputation alone (since it was the one that turned him into a star). From those I've seen, I'd go with The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. It's melodramatic, but not bad.

    2. When you see The Sheik, you'll understand why a different Valentino film was picked.

      I saw The Eagle a long time ago and I liked it a lot. Fast-paced and entertaining. It's much better than The Sheik, which I saw with a crowd and an organist. The audience couldn't stop laughing at all the wrong moments.

      The Son of the Sheik is also very good.

      I think The Sheik was just made at such an early date, at a time when the movies were getting a lot better a lot more quickly.

      I think one of the reasons that they made Son of the Sheik was that The Sheik was already looking dated a mere five years after it was made.

    3. My choice of Valentino films would have been The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. In fact, one of the first posts I did on this site was a list of 25 films I thought were missing from the 1001 Movies list, and that's the Valentino film I named.

      The Sheik, which I still haven't seen, I named based on its reputation. It's the film that made Valentino who he was--and the 1001 List is more about importance than it is about greatness. After all, Vinyl is on the list, and no one sane would call it great.