The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse Silent Cinema FIRST CYCLE: MELODRAMA AND THE STAR SYSTEM

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

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Ana Vega

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (USA, 1921), by Rex Ingram, starring Rodolfo Valentino and Alice Terry. (132 minutes)
Presentation: Ana Vega Toscano

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, directed by Rex Ingram, is based on the 1916 novel by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, which told of the division of a family on its French and German sides as a result of the Great War, depicted with pro-allied sympathies. It became a best seller in the United States and its film version caused the blazing rise to stardom of the Italian emigrant Rudolph Valentino, who prior to this had worked as an extra or secondary actor. Valentino introduced the archetype of the Latin Lover into film, inherited from Don Juan and Casanova, and excelled in the film dancing a memorable tango with Alice Terry. It was simultaneously premiered in New York and Nice, where it was presented by Blasco Ibáñez himself, and became the highest grossing north-American production of its time.


With a tango of impossible choreography and undeniable erotic force, Rodolfo Valentino, until then an unknown actor, transformed with unusual speed into the cinema's great lover. The star-system hardly was 10 years old, but had already reached full maturity, and the myth of Valentino is a proof of this. Rex Ingram was the person capable of seeing the ability of the young star's dancing movements, as well as his extraordinary facility to pose. He was one of the greatest directors of Hollywood in the 1920's, the period of time in which the rapidly obtained advances in cinematographic language became established. Like Murnau, his love for the plastic elements took him to a precious visual style that had in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) its most well-rounded example. Ingram had studied sculpture, and his capacity to transmit mysticism and romance was the perfect vehicle to make a film of the novel by Blasco Ibáñez, a true best-seller at the time, which allowed for the recreation of very different atmospheres, from Argentina to Paris, and the creation scenes of great force in diverse emotional terrains, like the battle of Marne, or the famous initial tango. The composition is at all times the most important element for the director, nothing is left at chance in any moment, nor the scenarios, nor the characters moving within them with elegance. To obtain this, it was necessary to count with a photography of great beauty, realized by his usual collaborator John Seitz, as well as with the precise work of an excellent cast of secondary actors who framed the central love story. And with all these elements Imgram proved to be an important figure to understand the evolution of the expressive force of images in the audiovisual language. In his time, the director was a sure name for the public: a pure-breed Irishman, defined by James Joyce as "the master of flamboyance", who always showed a visual richness that left no one indifferent at any time. But for Ingram, films were above all a great fresco developed in time, and the aspects of combining sound and word where not part of his speech, and thus, his creations remained only in silent movies. Watching once again The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse allows us to understand the emotional intensity achieved by the masters of melodrama through strategies that were fixed by them in the first years of cinema, and that remained as a fundament of the posterior cinematographic genre.