The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

While literary adaptations come up for discussion on this site all the time, remakes of earlier movies are less common. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1962) is both an adaptation of the novel by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez and a remake of the silent film directed by Rex Ingram and starring Rudolph Valentino. In the interests of full disclosure, allow me to get it out of the way from the get go that I have neither read the novel nor have I seen Ingram’s movie. As such, I won’t be indulging in any comparisons here, which is something I try to avoid where possible anyway. After all, a work ought to be assessed on its own merits, to do otherwise is to rob it of its integrity.

This is a tale of family, war and division yet, in the final analysis, I think it is also a film about unity. The opening is celebratory, packed with dancing, music and, above all, color. It is 1938 in Argentina and Madariaga (Lee J Cobb), in a brazen repudiation of his years, is reveling in life, for its own sake and also in anticipation of the coming together of the two branches of his family. Madariaga has two daughters, one married to Karl (Paul Lukas), a German, and the other to Marcelo (Charles Boyer), a Frenchman.  The offspring of these two couples will all be present after a long absence, so it should be an occasion for joy. However, it is, as has been noted, 1938 and joy is about to take a long vacation. During the course of the evening, Karl’s son Heinrich (Karl Boehm) comes clean about his involvement in the Nazi cause, provoking outrage in his grandfather. To the accompaniment of elemental furies within and without, the old man has visions of the horsemen of the title, representing conquest, war, pestilence and death, charging across a lightning ripped sky. And then he dies. The story moves to Paris, seen largely through the eyes of Julio (Glenn Ford), the dissipated and pleasure-seeking son of Marcelo. That storm which toppled the head of the family half a world away has followed and has lost none of its strength on the long journey. Julio is a self-absorbed wastrel, quick to seduce the wife (Ingrid Thulin) of one of his father’s friends, complacent and secure in the apathy afforded by his neutral status. When the war finally breaks out and engulfs everyone, he gradually learns the value of love, of loyalty, of sacrifice and, crucially, of what it means to be part of a family, even a divided one.

War, love and hate, but family above all. We follow the fate of the two conflicting branches of the family, one half seduced by darkness and the other coddled by decadence. The war cleaves them, tearing the younger generation in particular apart and setting them at each other’s throats. Yet by the end, when the horsemen have done their worst, the intangible and eternal core of the family remains intact, in spirit if nothing else. That finale, with those lords of chaos riding triumphantly across the sky, has an unquestionably grim quality, an ancient malignancy pressing on in a relentless continuum. Still, there is a grain of hope there too – there are, it seems, two slightly different endings and it’s possible the viewer’s perceptions may shift depending on which one is seen – hinting at the ultimate resilience of the concept of family. Both sides of Madariaga’s clan have been devastated yet even in the moment of their greatest loss those who remain have been drawn back together. Perhaps that is the message running through it all, that family in its broadest possible sense, that of society of which we are all members, still endures. The rampaging horsemen may be forever with us, but so too are those unshakeable familial bonds that hold everything in place.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was poorly received on release, with a disappointing box office and a critical drubbing. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, who never seems to have met a picture he liked, kicked the movie good and hard. Opinions are always varied and no more than an individual’s reaction to what is offered up, and of course there’s no getting away from the fact that I am simply presenting my own take here, but it is generally both poor form and somehow worthless to criticize a work for what it is not as opposed to what it is. Should anyone feel like seeking out Mr Crowther’s hatchet job on the film, it will be clear that he appeared most offended by a remake and adaptation not being a carbon copy of what came before. That type of criticism feels utterly redundant. However, what struck me as even more wrong-headed were the barbs aimed at Vincente Minnelli’s direction. To quote from that review:

“…most of it reeks of the sound stages and the painted sets of a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio These, on wide screen in color and lighted like a musical show, convey no more illusion of actuality than did “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”That much is the fault of the screen play, garbled grossly by Robert Ardrey and John Gay, and the staging of Mr. Minnelli, who should have looked at a couple of neo-realist films.”

That comment indicates to me that the writer either ignored or fundamentally misunderstood the director and his intentions. The artist is concerned with truth first and foremost. In order to address this, he searches for, he explores, and if he is truly fortunate, he finds himself in a position to present that truth via his chosen medium. Minnelli was an artist. For him, the quest for truth took precedence over any thoughts of adherence to realism. Cinema allows for the incorporation of a broad range of techniques and approaches, and there are those who try to reconcile artistic truth and realism. Minnelli, on the other hand, sought to achieve a separation, happily sacrificing the illusion of realism – and excepting documentaries, what appears on the screen can never be anything other than illusion – in order to break down those barriers which would stifle artistic expression.

All of those elements which have been pointed out as flaws or weaknesses are deliberate choices on the part of the director.  While Minnelli might have had some reservations with regard to aspects of the script and casting, the staging and presentation feel very characteristic of his work. He was a very visual director, making bold choices when it came to color and that balletic sense he brought to set piece scenes: the debauched Parisian parties, the Latin nightclub, the riot that leads to the initial arrest of Yvette Mimieux. There is a oneiric quality to all of this, heightened sensations brought to life on the screen in order to stimulate the viewer’s emotions. The striking colors are very effective too; the predominance of red is notable, from the drenched and saturated newsreel footage, suggesting danger and violence, to the decor of Glenn Ford’s apartment. The contrast of red and grey is marked in that set, and also in the costuming in one key scene. The color scheme of the apartment is reflected in the intense, passionate red of Ford’s smoking jacket and the cooler, more practical grey of Ingrid Thulin’s suit, mirroring their contrasting characters when they reluctantly acknowledge that circumstances have left them no alternative but to part.

In terms of casting, the most widespread complaint seems to relate to that of Glenn Ford, mainly due to his age. Admittedly, he is old for the part, in his mid-40s at the time. The early scenes in Argentina, and also pre-war Paris, where Ford is supposed to be gliding along fueled by youthful hedonism, feel a bit forced. However, the role of Julio is one which requires the character to mature fast as the war takes an increasingly heavy personal toll and the option of simply sitting on the fence becomes no option at all. It is here that Ford grows into the role, or it could be said the role grows around him. Either way, that internalized dissatisfaction which the actor was able to exploit so well in his classic western and noir roles in the preceding decades serve him well. As the character of Julio begins to live a double life, so Ford gets the requisite psychological squirming across. Minnelli is said to have initially wanted Alain Delon for the part and it’s interesting, if not especially productive, to speculate on how he would have handled the part. Ingrid Thulin (dubbed by Angela Lansbury) has a certain Scandinavian aloofness about her – Ava Gardner is said to have been the first choice for the role – but she plays well off Ford and their relationship feels credible.

Charles Boyer’s turn as the head of the French side of the family is nicely judged. He is as suave as one would expect of a man in his position, but there is discomfort too, and it comes out in two scenes with Ford, one where he confesses to the cowardice which has hounded him all his life, and then on a rain-soaked Parisian bridge, racked with grief after the death of his daughter, as he begs his son to be a braver and better man than he had ever been himself. Boyer also shares a poignant moment with Paul Lukas, where both men are screaming at each other in bewilderment as the horror of their personal tragedies mounts. Paul Henreid is simultaneously chilling and stoic as the hero of the resistance, slowly being destroyed, physically by the attention of the Gestapo and mentally by  the loss of his wife’s love. As for the others, Yvette Mimieux is fine as the impassioned younger child of Boyer, while Karl Boehm is a textbook Nazi. Finally, Lee J Cobb plays it large in the  opening scenes. Is it all too affected? Well, that is something the viewer will have to decide. For me, in a movie where many aspects are heightened and intensified with the aim of raising the dramatic temperature, Cobb’s performance can be considered to be just another dab of color.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse can be found on DVD in the US as part of the Warner Archive, and editions are available in France, Italy and Spain. This is a film I came to relatively recently and one which I quite like. It has its flaws and it drifts in places but there are enough of Minnelli’s characteristic flourishes to draw me in, and Glenn Ford is someone I can always watch. It is not perfect but the pluses outweigh the negatives for me and I reckon it is a good deal better than some of the criticism leveled at it would have us believe.

35 thoughts on “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

  1. I saw this as an impressionable young lad and was really taken by its bold, striking imagery and very operatic feel. I haven’t rewatched in a long time, and have seen the Valentino version since, but it does fit in with most of Minelli’s somewhat overheated later work at Metro that while often a little turgid, it has to be said, has an overwhelming pictorial sense that is very hard to shake off. One wishes the story were maybe a bit less soapy and had just a touch of humour to leaven the melodrama, but it is beautifully designed and in a way stands in for the end of Metro and the studio system as a whole. Thanks for giving this so much space, great chance to think about it again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • i mostly like Minnelli’s late period ‘Scope films where he creates spellbinding images and performs some breathtaking, hypnotic magic with the colors.
      This won’t appeal to everyone of course, and perhaps not everything works in the movie, but I find that most of it does, for me at least.


      • It’s interesting how he would alternate between a screwball comedy with Lucille Ball say and then one of these supercharged authored dramas. I have really strong memories of the impact this and TEA AND SYMPATHY, LUST FOR LIFE, HOME FROM THE HILL etc had on me as a teen. All dubbed in Italian of course 😆 And I still think BELLS ARE RINGING is fab too!


  2. I saw this film when it was new and found it dull; but I was young and impatient then and could not have appreciated Minnelli (though I had kind of liked SOME CAME RUNNING). I have grown to love Minnelli in more recent years, and would like to have another look at this film, so thanks for bringing it back into focus for us, Colin. I do recall even at the time being struck by Previn’s beautiful score, and I’d like to revisit this film if only for that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think I neglected to mention the Previn’s score, and Milton Krasner’s cinematography. Thanks for bringing it up and allowing me to acknowledge that here, Bob. I guess, if anything, that highlights just how many positive elements there are to be found in this movie.


  3. Your comments about Bosley Crowther ring true, and over the years he seemed to sour. Initially, I thought about his name. A guy named Bosley must have been tormented in grade school. If not, he should have been.


      • I have a series of hard-cover books covering each of the major Hollywood studios (you probably have them too, Colin). At least two of them are compiled by Clive Hirschorn and he also seems to have never met a film he actually liked, like Crowther. So many professional critics seem to think negativity and/or smart put-downs are expected of them.
        I tend to avoid.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I wouldn’t dignify those folks with the term “professional critics”–or “critics” at all. I draw a distinction between critics and reviewers. Reviewers are journalists whose primary interest is in entertaining their readers (and nothing entertains like a rant or a witty pan, no matter how much of a disservice it does to the film and its makers). Critics are people who know and love movies and whose joy and mission is to discuss them seriously, generously, enthusiastically with others, through writing or talking, in a spirit of mutual discovery. There aren’t many real critics.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Reviewers are journalists whose primary interest is in entertaining their readers (and nothing entertains like a rant or a witty pan, no matter how much of a disservice it does to the film and its makers).

            Yep. Most reviewers (including most online reviewers) don’t really have the slightest understanding of movies. So if a movie is even the slightest bit unconventional they take the opportunity to indulge in snark, because it’s so easy.

            That’s why so many truly great and interesting movies have over the years attracted so many vicious negative reviews. And once one reviewer gives a movie a savage snarky review all the other reviewers pile on as well, because movie reviewers are essentially herd animals. They don’t have the ability to form intelligent views of their own, so they go along with what seems likely to be the popular view.

            That’s why I come here. It’s one of the very few places on the Internet where it’s possible to find people who actually do understand movies.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Absolutely, and not just film reviewers, but theatre as well. It seems those focused on books of various kinds and descriptions, are much better.


        • Yes, I have those books you’re referring to, Jerry. It’s been many years since I looked at them though and my memory of the writer’s views is so vague it’s not even cloudy! I know I was impressed at the time by the visual presentation of the books and the fact that I was able to find out about the existence of so many movies I’d never even heard of, but that’s about it.


  4. What a great review of this ambitious, if not perfect, film, Colin. A superior piece of writing, chum.
    I first saw this film when in my late teens or early twenties (on TV) and was very impressed as I recall and the cast is pretty top-notch. I have seen it once since and it didn’t hit me quite in the same way. I think, therefore, I need to pull it off the shelf for another re-evaluation. Your piece has me very curious.


  5. >what appears on the screen can never be anything other than illusion

    I agree. I very strongly agree.

    Movies don’t take place in the real world, because the real world isn’t suitable for telling interesting stories. Movies take place in a variety of imaginary movie worlds, each of which has its own advantages and disadvantages for a film-maker.

    Critics like Crowther who are obsessed with realism just don’t understand movies.

    Even documentaries only offer the illusion of reality.


    • I think if artistic veracity or integrity wedded to a close semblance of reality is what the filmmaker is aiming for, then that’s fine, although I’m not sure it’s so easy to achieve and it’s not an approach which appeals to me all that much. On the other hand, with someone like Minnelli, whose intentions never really lay in that direction, I fail to see what’s to be gained by criticizing the work on those terms.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. R.I.P.
    Actor Bo Hopkins has left us at age 84
    While never a leading man, he was a top notch supporting player in many films and tv episodes. He started out on tv in GUNSMOKE, WILD WILD WEST, THE RAT PATROL etc.


    Sleep well, Bo.


    Liked by 1 person

  7. Colin
    I must admit I have never seen the film you posted about. Of course it now goes on my must watch list .

    Thanks for the heads up.



  8. Folks

    Last night I watched the doc. THE TRUE ADVENTURES OF RAOUL WALSH?
    I recorded it off TCM here last week. It is about the life and films of director Raoul Walsh. It was new for me and I am glad I recorded it. Tells his story in films from the silent era till his last film. It also speaks of his friendship with Errol Flynn, Jack Warner and others. Well worth a watch if it pops up again on TCM.



  9. Weekend films

    BAD COMPANY from 1973, a interesting western with Jedd Bridges, Jim Davis, David Huddlestone, John Savage and written and directed by Robert Benton.

    HOUSE OF GAMES 1987 A wicked and twisted film about con-artists. from David Mamet.. Cast includes, Ricky Jay, JT Walsh, Joe Mantegna and Lindsey Crouse. A superb film IMO.






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