San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2014: Opening Night: “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Four Horsemen.1

And so thus it is with the patterns of the moon and, alongside the Earth’s shift upon its axis in which, verily, as the dawn doth shine… Ah, excuse me; neo-Romantic and Griffith-esque phrasing in intertitles are addictive. Their poetry is epic in scope and therefore  quite fitting with the epic nature of the opening night film, “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”.

The film centers around, to put it offensively simple, a family of Argentines mixed with French and Germans who end up going back to their respective mother/fatherlands and eventually fight against each other in World War I. In the process, many themes are discussed – fidelity, infidelity, the apocalypse (hence the title), murder, rape, the pointlessness of war, and so on.

What is truly fascinating about this film, though, is its contemporary tone and critique of the Great War. This view is particularly anti-war in a style that is reminiscent more of immediately post-Vietnam films, such as The Deer Hunter. And perhaps some similarities could be drawn from popular perception immediately following the two wars. In Europe, the first World War was an imperialist war with no popular attachment which resulted in absolute destruction, countless dead, and artistic movements fittingly “nihilistic” in the terms of Camus, such as the Surrealists, Dada, and so on. In the USA, with the Vietnam War, for the first time the effects of a comparatively imperialist (though hegemonic) war with little popular attachment was seen in all the shades of its brutality and direct human cost.

The popular reactions took similar phenotypic shapes, but the resulting perceptions of war are strikingly similar in ways not often seen in other wars, especially those with popular attachments (such as, and especially, World War II, though Vonnegut and Heller are examples of dissenters of conscious). The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse strikes a similar anti-war tone notable due to being truly contemporary – the film was released in 1921, three years after the official closing of World War I and while American troops were still abroad in Russia.Four Horsemen.3

We see the bourgeois father obsessed with his treasures to the point of going into a warzone to try to save them, and the destruction caused by both sides in the process (though the Huns [i.e. Germans] are particularly bloodthirsty and sinister, appealing to the recent bitterness of the era). We see three men going to war for women – one loses his arm, another his eyes, and another his life. We see three more going to war for their country, all of whom die. We see the prophetic glimpses of the Four Horsemen of the title following our heroes all the time; a father is killed protecting his daughter from destruction, a mother is killed amidst her weeping adolescent and infant daughters. The destructive, awful element of war shines brightly against any idealistic idea of it, with the horses literally chasing it to the ground.

What sets this contemporary view of World War I apart from later, more reflective views of it is that it doesn’t focus on the dirt of the trenches, the stagnation, the men being cut down with no ground gained. No – that is the World War I of retrospect, not the World War I of this film’s understanding of it.  The pointlessness of this war was not in the fact that it was a tactically inconclusive war – for this idea is a political perspective of pointlessness (borders are political constructs after all, and someone in Bordeaux has no feeling of German vs. French Alsace, just as someone in Boston has no real feeling of North vs. South Vietnam). The pointlessness is that it is a war at all, and that thus all war is pointless; all war is brother against brother, humans against humans, a collective mass murder resulting in weeping mothers and fathers and heir-less dynasties.

Huge sets, lots of extras, enjoyable acting, notable bits of risqué, unafraid of disturbing war scenes, nice script by June Mathis, well directed by Rex Ingram.

The Mont Alto Orchestra accompanied the film with a fantastically dynamic score drifting from Tango to the Marseilles to the carefully constructed main themes. A great show.


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Categories: Reviews, Silent Film Festival

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