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Vladimir Dubrouvsky, a lieutenant in the Russian army, catches the eye of Czarina Catherine II. He spurns her advances and flees, and she puts out a warrant for his arrest, dead or alive. Vladimir learns that his father's lands have been taken by the evil Kyrilla Troekouroff, and his father dies. He dons a black mask, and becomes the outlaw The Black Eagle. He enters the Troekouroff household disguised as a French instructor for Kyrilla's daughter Mascha. He is after vengeance, but instead falls in love with Mascha. Written by
John Oswalt <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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Action, romance, comedyand Rudolph Valentino in his prime!
I rarely see this title mentioned on lists of great silent films, and perhaps it doesn't belong in the same heady company with the works of Murnau and Eisenstein, but surely The Eagle belongs on anyone's list of the most entertaining movies made during the silent era. It is first-rate escapism, a real "movie-movie" that can hold its own with the best swashbuckling sagas of Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn, and that counts for a lot in my book. It's also one of the best movies Rudolph Valentino appeared in (along with his next film, The Son of the Sheik, which unfortunately proved to be his last), or in any case it's one that holds up well for modern viewers, offering just the right blend of action, suspense, comedy, and romance, all presented at a brisk tempo. Valentino rapidly improved as an actor during his brief career, so in these last appearances there is no trace of the nostril-flaring histrionics on display in some of his early performances. At the pinnacle of his career as a movie star, Valentino is at the top of his game in this action hero role, charismatic and self-assured, but displaying just a touch of self-mockery to keep things in perspective.
Rudy plays a Cossack officer, Lieutenant Dubrovsky, stationed in the court of Catherine the Great. (The Czarina is played by Louise Dresser in a brief but memorable turn.) Dubrovsky catches the Czarina's eye when he manages to regain control of a runaway carriage just outside the palace gates, and in this way he also meets a beautiful young lady named Mascha (Vilma Banky), with whom he becomes involved. The plot kicks into gear when Dubrovsky rejects the Czarina's advances and soon afterward assumes the persona of the Black Eagle, an outlaw devoted to avenging his father, whose lands have been appropriated by an evil count named Kyrilla-- who just happens to be Mascha's father. Valentino's character in this film is often described as a "Russian Robin Hood" but the parallel with Zorro is stronger, especially when he manages to operate under the very nose of his arch enemy in the guise of a foppish French tutor, Monsieur Le Blanc. Much of the film's humor comes from these scenes, but when the time comes for action The Black Eagle is all business, and Valentino proves himself as dashing and gallant as Douglas Fairbanks while cutting a more romantic figure.
The Eagle points up the importance of silence in Valentino's career, for while he was said to have a pleasant voice there's no way audiences could have accepted him as a Russian officer in a talkie; let's face it, Rodolfo Alfonzo Raffaele Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentino d'Antonguolla would have a hard time persuading anyone of his Russian heritage if we could hear him speak. Leading lady Vilma Banky, who was as beautiful as Rudy was handsome, spoke limited English with such a thick Hungarian accent that talkies ended her American film career, so this movie could never have been made with the same cast as a talkie, even if Valentino had survived into the 1930s. And besides, the highly stylized 19th century "Russia" of this film is very much a Hollywood fantasy concoction anyhow, the sort of thing that worked best in silent cinema. One of my favorite aspects of The Eagle is the elaborate Art Deco design scheme by William Cameron Menzies, which at times almost suggests the world of Dr. Seuss (a bit of an exaggeration, perhaps, but not by much). Combine Menzies' sets with the stylish cinematography of George Barnes, spice the mix with George Marion Jr.'s witty title cards, top it off with the slyly tongue-in-cheek performances, and you have all the ingredients for a cinematic feast.
In sum, I feel it's the comic elements of The Eagle that make it such a winning film, the sense that the filmmakers are discreetly giving us a little wink to let us know they're well aware this is all cotton candy. And speaking of comedy, the cast features a couple of Keystone veterans in supporting roles: Mack Swain, who was so memorable as the delusional prospector in Chaplin's The Gold Rush, has a brief uncredited bit as an inn-keeper who misunderstands Monsieur Le Blanc's needs; and veteran character actor George Nichols, who plays the corrupt judge, directed a few of Chaplin's earliest comedies, including The Star Boarder and Cruel, Cruel Love. Maybe it's the Keystone pedigree that boosts the comedy content here, but whatever the case this film stands as a highly enjoyable example of what Hollywood craftsmen were capable of when the silent cinema was in its prime.
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