During the First World War, two French soldiers are captured and imprisoned in a German POW camp. Several escape attempts follow until they are sent to a seemingly impenetrable fortress which seems impossible to escape from.
This interminable biopic of the Californian pioneer John Sutter demonstrates just how important Preston Sturgess' screenplay was to the artistic success of 'Diamond Jim' Universal's similarly lavish biopic, also starring Edward Arnold, of the previous year. Where Sturgess made the most of that story's rough edges, the cavalcade of writers who worked on this (rarely a good sign) not only sand them off but substitute some very dull fiction in place of fact.
Production values are high - they could not help but be, given the film's massive budget - and under the direction of James Cruze, famous for his nation-building epics of the silent era, visuals are impressive. None of this can overcome a plodding, overlong and exposition-laden script, in which characters tell us exactly who they are and how they feel at every possible moment.
Edward Arnold gives a sincere performance in the title role and certainly looks the part, but Binnie Barnes sleepwalks through her role as his love interest. At the other end of the scale, Lee Tracy hams it up as Sutter's right hand man, particularly in the later scenes as his character ages.
The bare bones of the story are not uninteresting, but they're conveyed in such an uninspiring fashion that you never come to care for Sutter, his vast ambitions, or his downfall.
The financial failure of this film is often cited as having sealed the fate of Universal Pictures head Carl Laemmle and his son, Carl Jr. By the end of this, you might wish you were the one who signed the termination letter.
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