The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921)

Today it is ecaxtly one hundred years since World War I broke out. This tragic conflict, one of the most terrible in human history, has been depicted on the silver screen many times. One of the first great films (perhaps the first) to emphasize this tragic aspect was The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the film that catapulted Rudolph Valentino to stardom.

Many people still think that Rudolph Valentino was a great actor. To me, it seems that his greatest talent was to look like he is about to burst into tears any minute. Even when he smiles. Well, even I have to admit that he was good at using small details in his facial expression and body language. Be that as it may, many of his films are wonderful; well-produced, epic and still today captivating. The Four Horsemen … is one of his best.

Bowditch Turner, Nigel De Brulier and Rudolph Valentino in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921)

Actually, the War does not begin until about halfway through the movie, and even though it is an imporatant backdrop to the later part of the film, this is a film about people and ideas, less about the war as such. It begins with a wealthy Argentine patriarch and his two sons-in-law. One French and one German. The film is clearly anti-German (at a time when the Nazi party had barely been established, the Germans in the film enbrace many ideas that would later come to be associated with Nazi ideology), and consequently, the French son-in-law and his son are favoured.

After the death of the patriarch, each part of the family moves back to Europe. We now follow the French son, Julio (Valentino) and his life in Paris as a playboy artist and dancer, constantly broke and falling in love with a married woman, thus causing a scandal. But just as things appear to go his way, war erupts and turns everything upside down.

This film is best enjoyed if you like Rudolph Valentino’s acting and good looks (he is said to be a favourite with the gay community), but if you are like me and feel some scepticism, it is still a great movie, well worth the more than two hours watching.

Rudolph Valentino and Alice Terry in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921)

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
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Year: 1921
Running time: 2 h 11 min
Director: Rex Ingram
Stars: Rudolph Valentino, Alice Terry and Josef Swickard
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (768×576)
Soundtrack: Acceptable; classical music partly adapted to the images
Sound Quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (1.0 G)

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Gaslight (1940)

Hollywood has a long history of taking some of the best European movies and remaking them for the domestic American market, usually also exporting the film to the country of origin, and many times resulting in the remake being seen as the “real” version.

Gaslight is a good example. Based on a stage play, this exquisite little British mystery takes place in a London house where a murder has been committed. A married couple move in after several years, but something is not right. The husband tries to make his wife believe she is insane, and he is hiding a terrible secret. A police investigator starts looking into the case, but will he find the truth in time?

Diana Wynyward and Anton Walbrook in Gaslight (1940)

It took only four years for it to be remade, and today it is mainly the remake that is remembered and considered a classic. In fact, MGM so much wanted their version to be the “proper” one that they included a clause in the contract that all copies of the original should be destroyed. Fortunately, they did not succeed. The 1944 remake is also available at the Internet Archive, but has very low resolution, so I must recommend the original foremost, if the IA is your only source.

It is an interesting and educational prospect to watch these two films back to back (preferably, I think, starting with the remake). They are respectively excellent examples of British and Hollywood 1940s productions, and even though the basic plot is the same, the two movies are very different. Not only in the details, but also in the entire build-up of the plot and the interplay between the main characters.

As an aside, it is interesting to note that the Hollywood remake is uncommonly European. Not only does it retain its London setting (something rather unusual for Hollywood remakes), but it also has a British director, a French leading male, and a Swedish leading female.

The original is best enjoyed on its own merits. In spite of what I said about comparing the two versions, the original stands perfectly well on its own, and is in some ways the better of the two.

Anton Walbrook and Diana Wynyard in Gaslight (1940)

Gaslight
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Year: 1940
Running time: 1 h 24 min
Director: Thorold Dickinson
Stars: Anton Walbrook, Diana Wynyard
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (544×400)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (701 M)

The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes (1935)

I have previously written about Basil Rathbone, one of the most famous Sherlock Holmes actors. Rathbone’s immediate predecessor, Arthur Wontner, is not so well remembered today, and there are several reasons why. Wontner was a good actor, yet does not succeed as well as Rathbone in giving Holmes a distinct personality, and his balding head (poorly painted over) does not exactly help to maintain the image of the famous detective.

Still, Wontner made five Holmes films before Rathbone took over, and they were the last British Holmes productions for a couple of decades. One of the Wontner films is now lost, but the other four are all avaiable at the Internet Archive. For a true Holmes fan, these are of course a must, but even the occasional Holmes viewer will enjoy Wontner’s best, The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes.

Arthur Wontner and Ian Fleming in The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes (1935)

This film holds up well in comparison with many of the later Rathbone productions. The plot is a fairly traditional Holmes murder mystery, and in fact it is closely based on one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original Holmes stories.

Wontner as a Holmes actor must be put in perspective in order to be fully enjoyed. Compared with the Holmes of modern productions, he is old rather than young; well-mannered rather than rude; calm rather than energetic. I think that a more knowledgeable person than myself could probably present a timeline of Holmes films and TV productions, tracing how today’s interpretations gradually emerged through generations of actors.

The other Wontner films available at the Internet Archive are Sherlock Holmes’ Fatal Hour (1931), The Sign of Four (1932) and Murder at the Baskervilles (1937).

This film is best enjoyed if you have a good sound system. If you watch it, do not let the extremely poor sound during the first few minutes put you off. It does improve after a while, but even then poor reproduction would make the dialogue hard to make out in places.

Arthur Wontner in The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes (1935)

The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes
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Year: 1935
Running time: 1 h 19 min
Director: Leslie Hiscott
Stars: Arthur Wontner, Ian Fleming
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Poor
Best file format: h.264 (466 M)

And Then There Were None (1945)

Agatha Christie’s most well-known book (possibly together with Murder on the Orient Express) was published in 1939 as Ten Little Niggers. That title, of course, cannot be used today for reasons of political correctness, and even back then was an impossibility for the American market. Hence, movie adaptations and various editions of the book have had other titles, such as Ten Little Indians and Ten Little Soldiers.

Film and TV adaptations are numerous (Wikipedia lists over twenty). Even though I have only seen a couple, I feel fairly certain that the very first one is also one of the best. Fortunately, it is available at the Internet Archive, under the nowadays most common title: And Then There Were None.

Barry Fitzgerald, Walter Huston, Richard Haydn, C Aubrey Smith, Louis Hayward and Judith Anderson in And Then There Were None (1945)

Christie’s story is very well though-out. I sometimes find Christie’s whodunnits to be easily outguessed, but in this case it is almost impossible to be clever and guess the solution to the mystery. Clair’s adaptation also features a good bit of humour, and the ten actors playing servants and guests invited to an isolated island (the only actors you will see during most of the film) are all excellent.

This film is best enjoyed if you are unfamiliar with the ending. Some people have complained that said ending is different from the book, but in fact the movie’s ending is just a slight variant of the ending of the stage play Ten Little Niggers (later changed to Ten Little Indians), written by Christie herlself.

Roland Young, June Duprez, Barry Fitzgerald, Louis Hayward, C Aubrey Smith and Judith Anderson in And Then There Were None (1945)

And Then There Were None
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Year: 1945
Running time: 1 h 37 min
Director: René Clair
Stars: Barry Fitzgerald, Walter Huston, Louis Hayward
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (800×608)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: DivX (700 M)