The 100th anniversary of the release of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) next month calls for further celebration — so here’s a contemporary synopsis and analysis I discovered last year while researching the Silent Era spectacular. For those who never saw the film it’s a really great intro. And for those who did, a sweet refresher, as to the main features of this main of all main features. For anyone interested, it was located on pages 63 and 64 of the Photoplay Plot Encyclopaedia, written by Frederick Palmer, and published by his Palmer Photoplay Corp., in 1922.
“THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE.”
(Metro production; all-star cast; adapted from the novel of Vicente Blasco-Ibanzez, by June Mathis; directed by Rex Ingram.)
While in no sense a prologue, the opening scenes of the story in South America prepare the way for the tragic drama which is enacted later in Paris and on the Marne. Madariaga, the Centaur, the enormously rich old cattle herder of Argentina, lusty and lustful, whose daughters have married outside of their own nationality, is the undisputed ruler of his broad acres and army of servants. He hates his German son-in-law. Toward his younger daughter’s French husband he has an entirely different feeling. But the German is the father of three sturdy sons, while the Frenchman’s wife has only presented him with a daughter. Madariaga does not relish leaving his vast estate to Karl Von Hartrrott’s sons. When Julio Desnoyers is born, the old Argentinian is so overjoyed that he embraces Marcelo, the boy’s father. Until the hour of his death, the old Centaur lavishes all his affection upon Julio and takes him with him on wild debauches in the towns, as soon as he is old enough to accompany his grandfather.
At the old Madariaga’s death, the estate is divided and all of his family go to Europe to live, the Von Hartrott’s in Germany and the Desnoyers in Paris. Here Julio’s father sets up an expensive establishment and buys a castle on the Marne, and becomes a collector of costly antiques. Julio, true to his training by his grandfather, begins a gay life and opens a studio where he paints pictures and entertains his friends and his models.
One of his guests is Marguerite Laurier, the youthful wife of the elderly Monsieur Laurier. Julio falls desperately in love with her and Marguerite returns his passion. Her husband discovers what is going on, and drives his wife from his home. Then comes the outbreak of the war and Laurier enlists at once, but Julio still continues his painting and his gay life. The sight of Marguerite putting on the garb of a Red Cross nurse does not arouse him, but when he sees her attending a blind soldier and recognizes the man as he husband, he commences to feel the call of war. Enlisting at last, he is sent to the front.
Meantime his father, learning of the advance of the Germans toward Paris, goes to his estate on the Marne, only to be captured by German soldiers and have his castle
turned into the headquarters of the officer in command, Von Hartrott being one of the lieutenant-colonel’s staff.
Julio and his cousin meet at night in a ditch between the lines. Both have been sent on dangerous missions. They recognize each other, but the game of war must be played to the bitter end. Both fire at close range and fall dead, side by side. Marguerite determines to stay with her husband before she learns of Julio’s death, the blind man having forgiven her. Later the father and mother of Julio meet a stranger in the graveyard who leads them to their boy’s grave. “You knew him?” they ask? “I knew them all,” replies the stranger, pointing to the thousands of graves. The symbolism is unmistakable.
As compelling, sincere, beautiful, as Blasco-Ibanez’ literary classic, this screen classic stands out,—a splendid exponent of the cinematic art. It is a powerful story, powerfully delineated. The action runs the whole gamut of the human emotions from bitterest tragedy to lightest satire and most fantastic humor.
The story’s dramatic quality makes itself felt early,—in the initial situations of the plot, where the seeds of hatred and of potential conflict are sown between the two sons-in-law of Madariaga. Steadily throughout the action, this dramatic force increases its momentum until it culminates in the soul-stirring encounter of the two youths—the son of the German, and the son of the Frenchman, on the field of battle. This racial antagonism, which is developed in a sound psychological way, is what gives the story its epic impact.
The theme: the upward struggle of humanity, is vivified and made concrete through the symbolism. The four horsemen, enemies of mankind,—Pestilence, Famine, War and Death, on their gigantic chargers, trample over the trivial concerns of mortals, strewing disaster and destruction in their wake. The idealism of a suffering world is symbolized in the character of the quiet, thoughtful Russian, the philosopher who speaks of peace and brother-love. He is “the stranger” that comes forth to meet the bereaved parents, the Christ who “knew them all.”
The tremendous situation VI (“Disaster”), is, patently, the foundation of this plot. VII (“Falling Prey to Cruelty or Misfortune” is used with great pathos when the bewildered Desnoyers is made a prisoner at his own castle. ix (“Daring Enterprise”) enters at several points in connection with the war incidents. Upon XIII (“Enmity of Kinsmen”) is based the climax. XX (“Self-sacrifice for an Ideal”) motivates the action of several of the characters. The love element brings XXII (“All Sacrificed for a Passion”) into play. The tragedy of the story is expressed through XXIII (“Necessity of Sacrificing Loved Ones”). The action is dramatic from beginning to end.
“The Four Horsemen” is a screen play that deserves study and re-study. The structure is not weakened but rather strengthened by the lapse of time, for it would be impossible to show the onward sweep of a world cataclysm more briefly, and, at the same time, as convincingly. The dramatic construction is good: the plot progresses logically to a logical termination. The characterizations cannot be improved upon. The characters, while typifying certain racial proclivities, are distinct individuals, with personalities of their own. Such material as the infidelity of the heroine, Marguerite, might be condemned because of censorship regulations, in a story less strong than this. Here, the sin of the young lovers is purified through suffering, and idealistic sacrifice. The boy turns bravely to face his death, the girl as bravely to face duty. The ending is tragic, and rightly so: it is an ending that grows out of the story itself. The terrible devastation is unforgettable. But there is hope and optimism too,—in the wistful, loving face of “the stranger.”
As long as the World War is remembered, it is safe to prophesy that this faithful screen version of it will endure.
And endure it has! I want to thank you for taking the time to read this intelligent 1922 synopsis and analysis of The Four Horsemen… Personally I like it very much. I hope you did too. At the time of writing I’m busy with completing my look at Rudy, Joan, Jack and Blanca, which will now be the March post. Swiftly followed by my entry for a Blogathon. There’s much to say about Valentino in 2021; and as the months pass I’ll be saying it. Do join me!
6 thoughts on “Synopsis and Analysis of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921)”
Thank you Simon for finding this review and bringing it to us. It’s wonderful to know the movie was appreciated and respected back when it was originally released as well.
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You’re most welcome. And thanks for commenting. I hope you’re well in these trying times!
Thank you for sharing this, Simon. I will admit that, as many times as I’ve watched this film, much of the heart and soul of it has been missed by me. This has offered much appreciated and needed insight for me!
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And thank you, Carol, for reading and commenting. In a few short days a century will’ve passed since Valentino shot to fame as Julio. We’re still celebrating that. And talking about it. STILL interested in this most interesting of interesting screen personalities. See you here next month I hope!
June Mathis was brilliant. Not only in the screen play but in her choice of Valentino. Basically an unknown
actor at that time. Ibanez writing was no were as good as Mathis screen play! After seeing the film I read his book
and was disappointed to find it was not nearly as good her work..
Thanks for the reminder re this wonderful film.
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Visionary. Trailblazer. Genius. All of these and more apply to Mathis. Thank you so much for your interest and your comment.