Thursday 19 November 2015

Movie Review: The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse (1962)

A melodrama set mostly in Paris under Nazi occupation, The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse enjoys some juicy character dilemmas but otherwise falls foul of a turgid romance that never sparkles.

Madariaga (Lee J. Cobb) is the patriarch of a proud Argentinian clan. One of his daughters is married to Frenchman Marcelo Desnoyers (Charles Boyer), while the other daughter is married to German Karl von Hartrott (Paul Lukas). Julio (Glenn Ford) and Heinrich (Karl Boehm) are the now adult offspring of Marcelo and Karl respectively. With the clouds of war gathering over Europe, Madariaga is horrified to learn that Karl and Heinrich have joined the Nazi Party. Madariaga dies during a raucous family dinner, haunted by images of the biblical four horsemen of the apocalypse: Conquest, War, Pestilence, and Death.

Marcelo and Julio relocate to Paris along with Julio's sister Chi-Chi (Yvette Mimieux). Julio enjoys the playboy life, and wants no involvement in the world of politics and conflict. War does indeed erupt, but not before Julio meets and falls in love with Marguerite (Ingrid Thulin), although she is married to harried newspaper publisher Etienne (Paul Henreid). With the Germans threatening Paris, Etienne is shipped to the front lines, creating space for the romance between Julio and Marguerite to blossom. Paris falls and soon Karl and Heinrich make their presence felt as part of the occupation force, Karl as a local German military administrator and Heinrich as an influential member of the feared SS.

With high level contacts among the German occupiers, Julio finds himself in a position of unwanted privilege. He has to fend off the brutish advances of General von Kleig (George Dolenz) towards Marguerite, but then events turn serious when Etienne is released from a prisoner of war camp, Chi-Chi starts to demonstrate sympathies with the French resistance, and Julio realizes that despite his natural inclination to remain uninvolved, the war will demand he chooses a side.

MGM's 1921 adaptation of the Vicente Blasco Ibáñez novel is fondly remembered as a star-making vehicle for the young and virile Rudolph Valentino. By the late 1950s the studio was scrounging around for properties to help revive its fading fortunes, and settled on this epic remake, resetting the story to World War Two and bringing in director Vincente Minnelli to infuse the project with prestige. It didn't quite work as intended. The 1962 version does enjoy some moments of cinematic grandeur, but it is also relatively slow, bloated, and lacking in charisma.

A large part of the problem resides in the casting of the two central characters. Glenn Ford is most unconvincing as a Latin playboy. He instead comes across as Rick Blaine's boring cousin, an American in Paris passively observing events passing him by. Julio's romance with Marguerite enjoys an initial 10 minutes of glamour, then collapses into tiresome domesticity, bickering, and passive aggressive tension, a very poor foundation on which to build a 150 minute movie. Even when Julio swings into action in the final third, both the missions and the execution are unconvincing.

Ingrid Thulin is just as cold in the role of Marguerite, not the fault of the actress, but again a poor casting choice that shifted the romance to an older age where rationality trumps devotion. For most of the film there is hardly any genuine chemistry between Ford and Thulin, undermining Julio's reasons to hang around Paris and deal with the mess of the occupation.

As the feisty Madariaga, Lee J. Cobb expires spectacularly within the first half hour. Cobb takes his role to the extreme end of theatricality, submitting his resume to join the ranks of the horsemen as the harbinger of dramaturgy.

It's not all a loss, and despite the film's stodginess, there is plenty to admire. The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse looks good, with Minnelli recreating a wartime Paris where opulence persists behind closed doors while tensions rise on the street corners. The special effects to create the galloping horsemen in the clouds are impressive, but undoubtedly overwrought. At least Minnelli shows restraint by using them in small doses. The other cast members are more reserved and often more than adequate, with veterans Henreid, Boyer and Lukas showing that good things happen when actors are properly fitted to roles.

And eventually, the film does build some epic weight in the story of individuals caught up in the whirlpool of history, with Julio facing a triangular moral dilemma: his partial French heritage demands that he act, his beliefs require him to remain on the sidelines, and his German uncle and cousin offer him the prestige of high-level connections at a time when knowing the right people is the difference between life and death.

The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse ride into the bloodiest conflict in world history. After stumbling around in somewhat questionable manner, they emerge still holding the flag, albeit a rather tattered one.

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