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.