(director: Clarence Brown; screenwriter: Hanns Kraly; cinematographer: George Barnes; editor: Hal Kern; cast: Rudolph Valentino (Vladimir Dubrovsky), Vilma Banky (Mascha Troekouroff), Louise Dresser (Catherine II, The Czarina), Albert Conti (Capt. Kuschka), Michael Pleschkoff (Lieutenant of the Black Eagle), James Marcus (Kyrilla Troekouroff), Spottiswood Aitken (Black Eagle’s Father); Runtime: 77; United Artists; 1925-Silent)
“Valentino is dashing in the role, but it is difficult to see what made him so popular from this movie.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Inspired by a Pushkin novel, which it considerably watered down, “The Eagle” has been adapted to the screen by the sure handed Clarence Brown. It’s a tribute to the kind of adventure story Douglas Fairbanks popularized in his silent 1922 Robin Hood film and in his Zorro role in 1920 The Mark of Zorro. This film is a tale of adventure, romance, and intrigue, with a good deal of tongue-in-cheek comedy thrown in to help the predictable story out. It was a very popular film in its time. The star, Rudolph Valentino, was a matinee idol and when he died unexpectedly a year later at the age of 31, after making his last film “The Son of the Sheik,” he became a death-cult idol for many years afterward. This, his penultimate film, is a good example of how his mannered acting and striking Latin looks made him a ladies’ favorite. The great art designer, William Cameron Menzies, did the breathtaking sets. Carl Davis does the musical arrangements in the updated film version, adding the Russian music of Tchaikovsky, Rimski-Korsakoff, and Prokofiev.
Lieutenant Dubrovsky (Rudolph Valentino), of Catherine the Great’s Imperial Guard, catches the lecherous eye of the man hungry Czarina and is invited to supper. She makes a pass at him, promising to make him a general, but he not only rebuffs her advances but leaves the palace grounds. She is so miffed by his rebuff that she calls him a deserter and issues a warrant for his arrest: dead or alive.
Valentino gets a letter from his father’s deathbed telling how he has been cheated out of his estate by his false aristocratic friend and fellow wealthy landowner Kyrilla (Marcus), asking him to get the Czarina to intercede on his behalf. When his father dies Valentino takes an ‘oath of vengeance’ and gets help from the loyal serfs on his father’s estate, who form a Robin Hood gang of masked bandits robbing only from the wealthy. Valentino becomes known as the legendary Black Eagle, since he can swoop down at any time. Kyrilla gets the Cossacks to be his bodyguards, as they hunt down the wanted Valentino. They don’t realize the Black Eagle is the son of the one Kyrilla swindled.
Valentino falls for Kyrilla’s pretty daughter Mascha (Banky) and when his men capture her, he liberates her by saying women are not his enemies. Valentino will forcefully change places with the French tutor Monsieur Le Blanc and will come to live in his enemies’ household, falling head over heels in love with Mascha to the point where he forgets about his revenge. No one recognizes him at first, but Mascha will in due time through his mannerisms. But she has also fallen for him by that time and responds positively towards his love.
Valentino gets captured when he gives himself up to protect one of his loyal men (Michael Pleschkoff ) who got caught on Kyrilla’s estate. Turned over to Catherine to be executed, his fortune changes when his former captain (Conti), who is now the Czarina’s lover and a general, tricks the Czarina into signing a passport for him as the French tutor. Catherine approves of sparing Valentino’s life after finding out about the deception, and proves that even she’s not so bad.
The film was set in the 18th century, but the costumes were from more modern times.
The simplified moral story becomes a lesson reinforcing that love is stronger than vengeance. Valentino is dashing in the role, but it is difficult to see what made him so popular from this movie. I feel the same way about James Dean when I see his films. But there must have been something beyond what was seen onscreen to explain his tremendous appeal. This satisfying film is a good one to determine for yourself what there is about him that had his lady fans swoon over him. It is a large-scale picture giving him a chance to do both action and romantic scenes, the kind of serious acting he wasn’t asked to do in his previous films.
REVIEWED ON 10/28/2000 GRADE: C+