Although, to be honest, the selection is rarely completely random. In fact, if it’s not a flick I’ve consciously targeted for consumption, for Club assignment or personal enrichment purposes or whathaveyou, then it’s probably a movie which happens to be available to stream for free on my Kindle, and furthermore preferably an older silent movie that I can watch with one eye and the soundtrack turned down low while I’m at home, ostensibly keeping the other eye and the rest of my ears on the kids while my wife is at work. Or something like that. (Pretty much just that.)
Which brings us to The Eagle, a classic from 1925 directed by Clarence Brown and starring Rudolph Valentino. I expected the exchange of 75 minutes of my multi-tasking time would be worth one more checkmark against The List, but I ended up more than pleasantly surprised. It’s not a perfect movie by any means, but parts of it are absolutely amazing.
I can’t understand how no one has managed to remake this film so far, especially considering that it’s, at least in part, a superhero movie. Or more precisely a combination Robin Hood/revenge movie, set in Russia during the reign of Catherine the Great. It is in fact based on an Alexander Pushkin novel, so the source material is clearly in the public domain. It’s also, it probably goes without saying, right in my wheelhouse, the derring-do of masked men and all that.
Granted, it’s hard to improve on Valentino. I swear I alternated between idly wondering how many different makeup techniques they used on Valentino, as opposed to everyone else in the cast, to make him pop off the screen in comparison, and then simply being stunned like Mugato at the end of Zoolander thinking things like “MY GOD LOOK AT THOSE CHEEKBONES.” It’s not hard to understand how Valentino emerged as the romantic idol of millions.
But he wasn’t just dreamy, he could act. And not only could he act, he could be funny. The Eagle is actually equal parts blood oath melodrama and outright comedy, with multi-layered gags that still work today. Valentino’s character, Dubrovsky, falls in love at first sight with Mascha, the daughter of the main antagonist, Kyrilla. He sees her again later when, in his masked Black Eagle guise, he stops his Merry Men-esque followers from robbing her. Mascha hates the Black Eagle because of his campaign of harassment against her father, but she takes note of the Black eagle’s signet ring. Later still, Dubrovsky infiltrates Kyrilla’s home by posing as a French tutor for Mascha. When they are introduced, Mascha immediately recognizes the signet ring on his hand. Dubrovsky’s expression when he realizes his mistake is pretty amusing. He immediately concocts an elaborate story about how he, too, was abducted by the Black Eagle and got away by explaining how he was expected at Kyrilla’s, and the Black Eagle gave him a ring to pass on to Mascha as a token of esteem, and the sheer audacity of that cover story is funny, too. Then Dubrovsky has to hand over the ring, but can’t get it off his own finger, and has to struggle with it for a good minute, including sticking his finger in his mouth, and Valentino totally sells the physical comedy of trying hard to dislodge the ring, while also trying not to look like he’s exerting any undue effort. Finally he hands it over, and of course after all that effort Mascha throws the ring back in his face, spurning the Black Eagle. As usual, by explaining the joke I’ve gone a far way toward ruining it, but trust me, it’s impressive how the whole encounter plays out and escalates.
In effect the whole narrative is rooted in comedy. Dubrovsky becomes the Black Eagle, avenging outlaw, after the death of his father, but he’s an outlaw first, a deserter from the Russian army. Partly he abandons his post because his father is dying, but also partly to escape the unwanted attentions of the czarina. So the inciting incident is really a Catherine-the-Great-and-her-legendary-appetites joke, which plays out almost like modern cringe comedy in early scenes between Valentino and Louise Dresser. Almost every character gets their moment as a punchline, from Mascha’s elderly nursemaid who carries a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named Caesar and urges the toy dog “Sic ‘em!” when the Black Eagle’s men attack (our auxiliary dog at home is, of course, a CKCS, and I am predisposed to regard them as ludicrous little clown animals), to Kyrilla himself, who boasts over dinner about his own bravery, having faced down cannon fire in military campaigns himself, only to hilariously freak out when a bottle of champagne pops behind him.
But there’s more to Kyrilla than bluster, too. He is a consummate villain, not merely responsible for the financial ruin of Dubrovsky’s family, but a master of putting himself at the top of the heap, supported by those who believe it’s better to be with him than against him, and making life miserable for everyone else. He basically qualifies as a supervillain, in the Bond sense if not the Batman sense, because he keeps a fierce bear chained up in his wine cellar, and one of his favorite gags is to send a hanger-on who fails to impress him as sufficiently sycophantic down to pick out another bottle, whereupon the poor doomed soul meets a gruesome ursine fate. What really distinguishes The Eagle is that, where any other movie would of course be building up to an ironic third-act comeuppance in Kyrilla being mauled by his own bear, in this film the bear doesn’t make it out of the second reel. Kyrilla tries the gag on Dubrovsky, once he senses his daughter is taking too much of a shine to her tutor, but Dubrovsky keeps his cool and does not provoke the animal. Then the plan backfires when Mascha follows Dubrovsky to the wine cellar, and is herself attacked by the bear. Dubrovsky saves her life by pulling a concealed pistol from his vest and shooting the bear in the back. (My wife the veterinarian assures me this would, at best, annoy the bear rather than kill it but, you know, Hollywood.)
In fact, not only is there no ironic resolution to Kyrilla’s reign of terror, there’s almost no resolution at all. Dubrovsky reveals himself as the Black Eagle to save one of his own captured followers, Mascha reveals that she’s also in love with him, and the three of them escape from Kyrilla’s estate, after which the villain is never heard from again. The movie makes clear that Mascha was the apple of her father’s eye and surely he would be heartbroken to have lost her, but as revenge scenarios go, it’s not quite as visceral as losing his fortune or his life would have been. Nonetheless, the rest of the movie details Dubrovsky’s recapture by the Russian army, his death sentence, his last request marriage to Mascha, and his execution by firing squad. The last turns out to be a sham, however, a face-saving maneuver which allows the czarina to feel her honor has been satisfied, while at the same time she pardons Dubrovsky and sends him with Mascha to live happily ever after in France.
It’s all strangely anticlimactic, so much so that it sent me to the Wikipedia entry for the source novel to see just how condensed the movie version was. Unfortunately whoever wrote that particular article decided that encyclopedias should avoid spoilers, and only refers cryptically to “tragic results”, which I think means that Dubrovsky actually fails and dies in his quest for vengeance (ahh, Russian literature), since that would explain both the lack of fitting punishment for movie-Kyrilla and the general made-up-on-the-spot hokeyness of the movie’s contrived happy ending.
Oh, but up until then it was so good, so charming, so entertaining, so much so that it basically overcame the biggest flaw, which was not so much in the original movie itself but its modern presentation. Lest I sound like too big a shill for my Amazon Prime membership, I have to say that while I appreciate the opportunity to see The Eagle for nothing, I took exception with the music that had been used to score the version in the streaming library. Clearly it was not composed with the movie in mind, since it consisted of long instrumental compositions which started and swelled and stopped according to their own internal logic, rarely synching up with the visuals and sometimes working against them diametrically. It just felt cheap and lazy, which was unfortunate. I probably shouldn’t blame Amazon for it, it probably is more deservingly laid at the feet of whichever distribution company got the rights to reissue the The Eagle and slapped a few cheesy backing tracks on it before licensing it to Amazon, but whoever is at fault, they should be ashamed. Valentino’s legacy deserves a little more respect.