Ivan Mosjoukine plays a heroic soldier to the despotic Caliph who becomes disillusioned with his treatment of the slaves in his kingdom and fights to free them.
Similar to plot lines in previous Wolkof-Mosjoukine collaborations the difference with this film is that it was produced in 1932 and therefore has synchronised dialogue, something of a challenge to the film-makers since Mosjoukine, one of the biggest silent stars, spoke very little French and even when learning lines phonetically had a marked Russian accent.
In Sergent X this issue was elided by casting him as an immigrant, learning the language as the picture progressed. However, whilst this worked well as a one off, it couldn't be done on every film.
So in his second talkie Mosjoukine's character appears as a somewhat exotic outsider, a man of action and few words. During his initial escape from the Caliph, he dives off a cliff into the sea and is rescued by a young fisherman, who becomes his compatriot and gets to do some of Mosjoukine's talking for him. The court of the Caliph also gets a great deal of the dialogue and there's a surprising musical number midway through the action. Interestingly Mosjoukine's real life wife Nathalie Lissenko appears as his love interest in this, and like her husband speaks relatively little.
The film plays like an old fashioned English pantomime, with exaggerated villains and fawning underlings very much in the Chu Chin Chow mould. It's pleasant, expensive, occasionally exciting, with dazzling bejewelled costumes by Boris Blintsky and must've seemed completely irrelevant in a period when Renoir, Clare, and Pagnol were rapidly approaching their best work.
Mosjoukine, is still very effective in his scenes, and particularly so in a climactic duel to the death with the Caliph. When he does speak, his voice is resonant and authoritative - and to a non French speaker like myself his speech sounds remarkably clear. However since there's so much for the film to show with a musical number, scenes of slave auctions and villainous plotting from the Caliph, Mosjoukine is quite often off screen.
I'm not sure how this film fared at the box office. It was released in an original French version and also a dubbed and slightly re-shot English version both of which I have viewed. Since Mosjoukine immediately moved on to two disastrous talkie remakes of his silent hits "Casanova" and "Enfant d'Carnival" - neither of which I've seen at the time of writing - one can only assume his box office draw was slipping.
The English version which I saw first is interesting for a few unrelated reasons. Of the French cast only Mosjoukine is billed in the credits and all the voices are dubbed by English actors who are credited with their respective parts. Mosjoukine's voice double is particularly inappropriate, supplied by Jack Livesey, brother to Roger. His voice is much too light and prissily English for the darkly glowering Mosjoukine.
The French version which I only saw in the last few weeks features some casual nudity - some of the slaves are topless in the slave auction scene (they are discretely veiled in the English version.) and the duel scene at the end is slightly longer but otherwise it's identical.
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