It was a gross oversight when the editors of The List ignored Rudolph Valentino in the first nine editions of The Book. Admitted, The Eagle is now the only Valentino film I have seen in its entirety, but even an ignorant like me will know what a huge impact Rudolph Valentino has had on not just cinema, but western culture in general. Even today to call somebody a Valentino is not uncommon. It ranks somewhere between a Don Juan and a Casanova but its meaning is more romantic and maybe a bit tacky. In any case the image of Valentino as the sheik riding off into the sunset with his girl is printed forever in my mind and probably in many other’s as well.
Now, the reason Valentino did not get his entry in the first 9 editions could be that his movies were just not that good. Based on my very thin experience with Valentino films I tend to think that may be the case. If “The Eagle” is representative of Valentino’s film then they were just vehicles for the romances that sold the tickets. Certainly in this case the consistency and integrity of the story is as thin as a modern mainstream romcom, meaning paper thin.
The story is that Rudolph Valentino is Vladimir Dubrovsky a lieutenant in a regiment belonging to the czarina of Russia (Louise Dresser). You know, those honor guard horsemen that are more about looking good in uniform than doing any real soldiering. In fact their role is mainly to please the czarina in her vanity and she frequently picks from their ranks a lover-boy to please her in bed and in return elevate him to the status of general. You can imagine what a ridiculous echelon of old and new lover-boys her general staff consists off! The right people to wage a war, no? Anyway, Dubrovsky is picked out to be her next companion and he has the audacity to refuse! No wrath is worse than that of a refused woman and the czarina has power to boot. Soon Dubrovsky is on the run with warrant hanging over his head for treason.
The next chapter is interesting in the sense that it sets up a very interesting conflict. A man named Kyrilla (James A. Marcus ) has taken over the (impressive) Dubrovsky estate in a scam and is shown to be a cruel and evil man who feeds his enemies to a bear in his wine cellar. Vladimir Dubrovsky swears vengeance and becomes The Black Eagle, a Russian version of Robin Hood complete with a take-from-the-rich-and-give-to-the-poor agenda. He means to take back his family estate with his band of outlaws. We see a bit of his plundering and he is really the gentleman thief.
The interesting part is that Kyrilla has a daughter Mascha (Vilma Bánky) and that Dubrovsky falls in love with her. So on the one hand he wants to give Kyrilla the boot and on the other he wants her daughter. That is a difficult balance and Dubrovsky struggles with it awhile. Instead of choosing he wants both and loses both. I will not go into detail with that except to say that Dubrovsky infiltrates the mansion as a French teacher and gains the confidence of both father and daughter before the scam collapses around him.
His dilemma carried me through the second half of the film. I was wondering how he would manage to kill or at least dispossess Kyrilla without losing the girl. The resolution was however both ridiculous and romantic. First Mascha tries to kill Dubrovsky when he is pointing a gun at her father. Then she falls into his arms knowing well that the teacher and The Black Eagle is one and same person and finally she rides off with him when he reveals himself to protect one of his men only to be caught by the czarina’s men and brought to prison.
Kyrilla is still in possession of the Dubrovsky estate and Vladimir Dubrovsky is sentenced to death. No girl, no vengeance, only death at the hand of a vain empress.
That is where the story takes a really silly turn. The new lover-boy and captain-turned-general has changed the execution orders and when the czarina learns that Dubrovsky has just been executed she changes her mind and gets sooo happy when her boy-toy reveals that he has disobeyed her insane order and arranged for them to be sent out of the country. And then they all wave happily at each other as Vladimir and Mascha drives away in a horse cart.
That ending just ruined the entire film for me there and then. I can live with Dubrovsky as a romantic fool who sacrifices his cause and all his men for a girl. I mean, this is Rudolph Valentino we a talking about. The girl is more important than anything, I am sure the majority of his mostly female audience would agree. But the combination or a czarina so entirely out of touch with the basics of ruling people and the happy-all-is-forgiven-and-we-all-love-each-other finale is just far far out.
Had Vladimir been executed after marrying his sweetheart in prison I would have bought the story. That would have been a nice and romantic end, sort of Titanic style. Though it would still leave the outlaws and Kyrilla hanging unresolved, but who cares anyway, they were just a vehicle for the romance.
If we cut away the ridiculous story and focus just on the romance we get what we came for. Valentino is the great lover. He is masculine and feminine in on. Lithe and sharp with his dark lipstick and trimmed eyebrows and awesome sideburns. He is immaculate. He is not the he-man Douglass Fairbank who defeats all his enemies with wits, strength and cunning nor the happy-go-lucky Errol Flynn whose laughing bravado wins him fame and women. Valentino is the knight of flowers, the wet dream of the maidens in their towers or at least of bored women who wished there was a bit more fire in their men at home. And Valentino delivers. They get all their money’s worth of puppy looks and kisses and gallantry. The full Valentino package.
So do I agree with the editors that it was right to leave out Valentino? No, of course not. He was way too influential to be ignored like that. You would have to have seen at least something of him. But I do understand at least to some degree why he was left out. If The Eagle is representative of Valentino’s film I would prefer “The Thief of Bagdad” any day as a romantic adventure.