Saturday, February 07, 2015


The Cossacks consider themselves a tribe of "free men and warrior kings" and they are locked into traditional roles: the men go off to fight the Turks and the women stay home and work the land. But Lukashka (John Gilbert, pictured) is a lover, not a fighter, and though he has a very masculine manner, he prefers to stay home, lollygagging in the fields, and work at getting Maryana (Renée Adorée) into the sack. Despite her fond memories of him from childhood, she doesn't like what the villagers perceive as laziness or cowardice in him and rebuffs his advances. The worst aspect of Lukashka's attitude is that his father Ivan (Ernest Torrence) is the bloodthirsty leader of the Cossack men. After fellow Cossacks trap Lukashka one night and humiliate him by tying him up and making his stomp grapes (women's work), he retaliates and bests his father in a fight. When Turkish prisoners escape, Lukashka joins his fellow Cossacks and tracks them down, and once he draws blood—and suffers his first battle wound—there's no going back: he is now a warrior. But now Maryana finds that he has perhaps gone too far in the "fighter" direction, especially when he dallies with a gypsy whore. The arrival of Prince Olenin (Nils Asther), a messenger from the Tsar, complicates matters: the Tsar wants peace between the Cossacks and the Turks, and the prince has been ordered to marry Maryana as a way to mix the blood of the civilized and the savage.

This silent movie, based on a novel by Leo Tolstoy, is usually summarized as being about a young man who refuses to follow his fellow villagers to war, and his eventual turnaround. But that is actually less than half the story; Lukashka is "reformed" in the first half-hour of this 90 minute film, and the rest is taken up with the Lukashka/Maryana/Olenin triangle, and the attempts of the Cossacks to get back legitimately to their warrior ways. This is generally a dandy action film, with some surprisingly brutal scenes of battle and torture. Gilbert is very good, as usual; I particularly like the fact that the peace-loving Gilbert of the first part of the film doesn't behave in stereotypical "sissy" fashion—he just thinks there's more to life than war. His rather sudden change of heart doesn't seem realistic, but the fighter Gilbert is just as compelling as the lover Gilbert. Adorée is fine, and Asther, though not around for long, makes his character memorable. A grand physical production adds to the film's appeal. [TCM]

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