In which a man finds enemies on all sides of Russia.
Drawing on the swashbuckling success of Douglas Fairbanks in 1920 film The Mark of Zorro, The Eaglefollows the adventures of a Russian outlaw on the run from Czarina Catherine the Great. Something of a comeback for star Rudolph Valentino after a few flops, The Eagle is now regarded as one of the best of the decade.
I was unsure coming to The Eagle what to expect, knowing nothing about it beyond the rather bland artwork on Amazon Video. It’s been on my watchlist for a while and I only happened to put it on as I wanted a relatively short movie as a break from some of the longer, more intense silent films I’ve been reviewing lately. Coming in at a brisk 79 minutes, The Eagle, though not without some parts that drag, fit the bill for the evening.
The story is something of a cross between Zorro and Robin Hood, with Valentino playing Russian Lieutenant Vladimir Dubrovsky who’s made an outlaw after spurning the advances of the ruling Czarina. Embracing his position on the run, Dubrovsky takes up the mantel of The Black Eagle to seek revenge on the powerful Kyrilla who terrorises the countryside.
Infiltrating Kyrilla’s household in the disguise of a French tutor, Dubrovsky begins to fall for his enemy’s daughter. Now reluctant to kill his nemesis, The Black Eagle must decide whether to reveal his identity and risk capture or lose his love forever.
The Eagle (I’m not sure why it’s not titled The Black Eagle as a later 1946 Italian adaptation of the source novel was) is Valentino’s film through and through. Much influenced by Fairbanks’ Zorro, he balances his multiple roles well – from proud Lieutenant, to roguish outlaw and then gentle French tutor.
As Lieutenant, he’s strait-laced but charming and quietly hilarious as he realises the Czarina wants to give him more than a medal. He squirms his way out of her advances, preferring to desert than give in. As The Black Eagle, he rouses the public against their oppressors and buckles his swash in fights against Kyrilla and his men. His finest work though is in disguise as a hired French tutor for Kyrilla’s daughter, blending a taste for vengeance with a softer desire for her hand. In one moment, she walks in on Dubrovsky seemingly strangling her father only to realise it’s an oddly strenuous neck massage.
The balance of charm, charisma and comedy drive the movie’s success. Valentino’s work is complemented by self-assured co-star Vilma Banky and the well-handled direction of Clarence Brown brings each aspect of The Eagle to life.
As Movies Silently notes in their review, “the action scenes are exciting, the love scenes are sexy and the flirting scenes are adorable”.
The whole film comes together in one of those rare examples where everything seems to fire in sync. It’s an orchestra of talent with everyone combining to produce an adventure movie that doesn’t miss a beat.