Rudolph Valentino will always be remembered for The Sheik, where he abducts a European woman and carries her off to his tent in the desert. Stockholm Syndrome then sets in. He was also known as The Latin Lover, so my vision of him was always of a rather intense wooer of woman, sweeping them off their feet in intense, hammy fashion, staring into their eyes and kissing them while the ladies swooned away.
But there is nothing hammy about The Eagle or about Valentino (though I have not yet seen The Sheik). It is an extremely fun and entertaining Robin Hood-like romance set in Russia during the reign of Catherine the Great. I wouldn’t go as far as to call it a swashbuckler – there are no sword fights, or really, any fights – but it is a romantic adventure story.
Based on a short novel by Alexander Pushkin, Vladimir Dubrovsky (Valentino) is a member of the Russian guard under Catherine the Great (Louise Dresser). She watches him gallantly rescue a runaway carriage containing the lovely Mascha (Vilma Bánky). Mascha seems grateful, but he is smitten. However, the Czarina is also rather struck with Dubrovsky, both by his bravery and by his extremely good looks and invites (orders?) him to come to dinner where she asks him if he wants to be a general (which is evidently her pickup line of choice).
Dubrovksy, however, is appalled at the idea of becoming the Czarina’s gigolo and leaves the palace quickly, with the Czarina less than pleased (though not so put out that she can’t ask Dubrovksy’s captain if he would like to become a general). As Shakespeare said somewhere, sorrow (or trouble) comes not as single spies, but in battalions. Such is the case for poor Dubrovsky. His father then loses his estate through the shady dealings of Kyrilla Troekouroff (James A. Marcus) and now lies dying, while the Czarina has declared him a deserter and wants him brought to her, dead or alive.
Displaced and homeless, he travels to his home village, where the peasants entreat him to right the wrongs that are now being done to them by Kyrilla. Dubrovsky says he will help them and vows that he will avenge his father’s death. He takes up a life of masked banditry and becomes known as The Black Eagle.
The only difficulty is that Kyrilla has a lovely daughter (villains always have lovely daughters) who turns out to be Mascha, and Dubrovsky is just as smitten as before. He infiltrates her home as a French tutor, the better to woo her and still wreak revenge on her father (how he thinks he’s going to have her and kill her father, I’m not sure – people do tend to frown on the murder of their parents).
Vilma Bánky has good, flirty chemistry with Valentino and makes Mascha the equal of Dubrovsky in brains and determination. Most of the silent adventure films I have seen so far are Douglas Fairbanks swashbucklers and the ladies tend to be rather hapless and uninteresting. They look lovely and get rescued. But Bánky’s Mascha is spunky, stands up to him, has a sense of humor and is not taken in by him. She wants, as my sister says, to have her cake and eat it, too. She wants Dubrovsky, but she also doesn’t want him to kill her father; which is why she does not betray him, but is also working hard to prevent him from killing her father.
My sister and I have often laughed at how, in costume dramas, the women always reflect their own era. In the 1920s, this means that no matter what era the movie is supposed to be set in, they always look faintly (or not so faintly) like flappers. The Eagle is no exception and Vilma Bánky almost looks like she stepped off the streets of New York, though perhaps with a Russian flair about her attire.
The film is more romance than action/adventure, but is charming and exciting. I now understand the appeal of Valentino. He is, of course, good looking, but also quite charming and even a bit goofy, at times: such as when he wants to give Mascha his ring and cannot get it off his finger or when they are at dinner and he is so enthralled by her that he puts too much pepper in his soup.
The DVD I saw was adequate. There was an organ accompaniment that was nothing special, but at least not offensive. The film has clearly not been cleaned up, either, though it is still quite watchable. There is also a fair version on youtube, that is a transfer of the laserdisc version of the film and has an actual score that matches, though the image is less clear than on the DVD. I do hope that someday, a cleaned up version with a good score is released on DVD or Blu-ray. It deserves it!