Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Film #4: The Last Command (1928)

Note: This film not being in-print on DVD, I had to order a VHS version. I was able to catch a whiff of nostalgia as I pushed the tape into the decades-old player in my classroom. The whirring, clicking dinosaur sounded not unlike the first Terminator at the end of the film: nothing but a twisted torso and one robotic arm desperately scraping itself along the factory floor, lunging for Sarah Connor. Man, these old machines are great.

Times Previously Seen: none

Initial Release Country: United States

The Story (in which I flatly describe the plot and spoil the hell out of the movie for you):
A palsied, uncertain old man is hired as an extra in a Hollywood war movie, seemingly because he has the right look and merely claims to be a former general in the Russian Imperial army and cousin to the fallen Czar. We quickly learn through flashback that this man is not lying. In fact, he is former Grand Duke Sergeus Alexander, and the the director of the movie is a former Russian revolutionary who recognizes the old general and sees this as an opportunity to exact his revenge on the man who arrested him 10 years prior. It is also the director's last stab at the Russian aristocratic power of the past.

During the flashback, we see the general to have been a bit arrogant and blustering, but also deeply concerned about his troops and the welfare of Russia. He has loyalty to his cousin, the Czar, but does not blindly follow orders. He is a thoughtful man who develops a sincere caring for a beautiful young actress. The actress, a revolutionary herself, is captured and swayed into admiration for the general. Once the Bolshevik Revolution occurs, the young woman saves the general's life from a bloodthirsty mob, then herself falls victim to a tragic train crash. The general, torn apart professionally, spiritually and mentally, flees Russia.

Ten years later, in Hollywood, he is made to reenact his past role as general. In the middle of acting in the scene, the vivid memory of his past life is triggered, he slips into a delusional passion to defend his mother Russia and dies on the set.

A scene from the beginning of the film, depicting the distant, haunted gaze of Sergeus Alexander.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (A review done before any kind of research on the movie):

This is a great film, silent or not. Sure, there are some elements and aesthetics that I can gripe about (and I will, further down), but this film is a masterpiece. So much so that, during the last 20 minutes or so, I wasn't even taking the notes that I normally take when doing these reviews. I was that gripped. The main character, Sergeus Alexander, is that rare thing in all stories, be they in films, TV, novels or theater: a complete human. So many stories are weakened by simplified caricatures of pre-determined archetypes: hero or villain; good or evil; powerful or weak, and rarely do the twain meet. The greatest characters, however, are people in full, warts and all. Sergeus is one of those characters.

In the beginning of the movie, you feel pity for this old, traumatized and feeble man as the other extras on the movie set taunt him, thinking his claims about his identity are nonsense. When we start to see his life as a general, we quickly resent him, his arrogant posture, his belittling of disrespectful officers, and his seeming callousness toward suspected revolutionaries. Then, we start to see more aspects of him: his tenderness towards the young actress, despite her attempt to assassinate him; his genuine concern for his soldiers' lives; and his deep love for the integrity of his home country. Once we get the sense of the complete man and understand how admirable he is, despite and because of his flaws, it's truly painful to see it all come crashing down around him. He loses his livelihood, his love, and his country, all in one fell swoop when the Empire falls. During the end scene, I was completely enthralled by the general's unbridled release of emotion - emotion that had been caged in by a decade of sorrow.

One of the first scenes in which the seemingly tyrannical general subtly reveals his more humane tenderness.

Something else that you can see in this clip is how the acting has evolved. Almost gone are the grandiose movements of earlier silent films. The actors behave and talk much more realistically, being on-par with modern thespians. Thanks to this, the 21st century viewer can more easily sense the emotions of the characters and empathize with them. As exhibit A, I suggest looking at the general's walk and face when he's retrieving his mistress/would-be assassin's cigarette, pondering whether he's about to die for his love of her; maybe even dutifully accepting it. The whole movie is filled with such moments. The capper is the look on Sergeus' face as his life is ripped from him. From contented to utterly haunted, his wide eyes are burned into my mind. Emil Jannings, who won the very first "Best Actor" Academy Award for the role, was truly amazing.

Alas, it was not a perfect viewing experience. A few minor things made me wince just a bit. One was the music score. Maybe the original, in-theater score was better, but this tape had the standard silent film organ music. I realize that this was the norm for the day, but here in 2010, it made me feel like I was watching an Icecapades extravaganza during an intermission at a minor league hockey game. For a moment, I thought the Hanson brothers were going to charge onto the screen and start throwing wicked hip checks.

Another, more prominent blemish is the gaps in the story. The flashback format works extremely well, but the ten-year time jump gives you no explanation as to how Alexander gets from crying in the Russian snow to subsistence living in a Hollywood boarding house. I realize that it's not the most crucial detail, but I wondered about it all the same.

The only other bugaboo was the titles. It has nothing to do with the acting or the other, more essential components of the movie, but a few of them were distractingly hokey. The prize-winner was when the general captures his revolutionary mistress and says, "You are now my prisoner of war. And my prisoner of love!" Ouch. Not even Sir Laurence Olivier could pull off that line.

But that's it for the downside. Fairly easily overlooked, and leaving me saying that this is easily the most enjoyable film I've watched from the list so far. In fact, I had initially planned to sell the tape after watching the film. Now, I plan to keep it and watch it at least once more. If you think you have the patience for a silent flick (it's just under 90 minutes), this one's a gem.

Take 2: A Few More Thoughts After Some Research (or, "Why Film Geeks Love This Movie"):

There's actually not a ton of analysis of this film out there, perhaps because the story, while packing emotional power, is rather straightforward. The one thing that the critics of the past and present point to is the acting. As mentioned, Emil Jannings garnered the very first Academy Awards for Best Actor in this one (amazingly, he was also nominated for The Way of All Flesh in the same year). Here's the original TIME Magazine review of The Last Command. I particularly like the description of Jannings as "clumsy-faced, blacksmith-muscled" and "think-fingered," while the writer praises him.

In addition to Jannings's brilliant acting is that of William Powell, who portrayed the general's nemesis as the Russian Bolshevik revolutionary-turned-Hollywood film director (it's far less ridiculous in the film than it reads - trust me). I know Powell from a few talkie films like The Thin Man and My Man Godfrey. While he's fantastic in those later films, I agree with critics who give him the nod - his subtle facial gestures and calm, steely gazes were just as effective in silent films. He lent yet another strong presence to an incredible movie.

That's a wrap. 4 films in the can. 101 to go.
Next Film: The Crowd (1928):
I guess this film was a smash-hit in China, based on the bilingual movie poster here. Like the previous two films, this one will be a totally new experience for me. Check back in a few days for the review.