Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Movie review - "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" (1962) **

A fascinating disaster, one of the movies that (along with Mutiny on the Bounty and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm) helped end the Vogel-Siegel regime at MGM. It would have to be one of the most miscast movies in history - a few basic decisions sunk this to the bottom of the cinematic ocean even before the cameras rolled.

It updates the story from World War One to World War Two, which wasn't in itself fatal, it just makes the movie more obvious - lots of talk about Nazis and standing up to Nazis. Mortally wounding is putting Glenn Ford in the role which made Rudolph Valentino a star; Ford was a competent actor with a decent range but he's hilariously inappropriate as an Argentinian playboy and wastrel who dabbles in painting - far too American and stiff, and way too old to be a drifter. (The younger Ford of Gilda may have gotten away with it - but someone of Ford's age in this film who is without a solid foundation... that suggests an entirely different sort of character) They occasionally have Ford do a bit of Valentino - ride a horse, fly a plane, do a little dance (though not a tango), paint - and it's always a mistake. A bunch of other actors were considered - Vincente Minnelli says he wanted Alain Delon, press reports say George Hamilton and Maximilian Schell were looked at - and all would have been better than Ford.

Secondly they got Minnelli to direct. He says in his memoirs the studio forced him to do it, but surely the person behind Gigi could have gotten out of it? I think he was just embarrassed when it turned out to be such a disaster... and Minnelli must take a lot of the blame. It's a candy coloured MGM look at the war, with some snazzy art direction and costumes that make the whole thing seem unreal. You couldn't do that in 1962 - especially not for a serious drama about war, love, family and passion.

 The casting is dreadful - good actors have rarely been so wrongly used. You've got Yvette Mimieux, who I normally like as Ford's Argentinian younger sister who gets involved in the French resistance - blonde Mimieux who specialised in ethereal types (notably in The Time Machine) isn't convincing for one second as an (a) Argentinian (b) sister of Ford (c) daughter of Charles Boyer (d) someone who cares enough about politics to join the French resistance.

There's also Ingrid Thulin as the married woman Ford loves.... Her performance isn't bad but she's dubbed very distractingly by Angela Lansbury (very unfair on Thulin to get such a distinctive actor to do it, completely undermining her). She's not helped by her subplot, where she has an affair with Ford despite being married to an anti-Nazi.... played by Paul Henreid. This brings in echoes of Casablanca this movie really shouldn't have done, because it doesn't do well by way of comparison. (For instance, Casablanca nodded at the complexity of Vichy politics of the time - here everyone descended from the Germans is a Nazi, everyone descended from the French is an anti-Nazi, even if it takes some time for them to get violent about it.... there's no mention of collaborationists here.)

Lee J. Cobb is ridiculous as an Argentinian patriarch (described by Ford as "pure Argentine"), in a bad wig and moustache, delivering an outrageously over the top performance, even by Cobb's standards (he has this ripe death scene, railing against Nazis, saying the four horsemen of the apocalypse are coming, then collapses and dies in the rain).

Having vented all that spleen, I should point out that Charles Boyer (Ford's French father), Karl Boehm (Ford's German cousin), and Paul Lukas (Ford's German uncle) are all very comfortably cast - but the film never recovers from the quadruple punch of Ford, Cobb, Mimieux and dubbed Thulin.

Dramatically the movie is hurt by the fact we never see any friendship between Ford and Karl Boehm (they are cousins) - even just a scene between them early on would have helped. The change to World War Two I think could have worked but it makes the whole thing about Nazis - Cobb doesn't prefer Ford to Boehm because he's a bit of a prick, like in the original, now it's political; Henreid ignores Thulin because he's devoted to fighting Nazis. Mimieux hates the Nazis and wants to fight them; Ford and Boyer don't like the Nazis either, it just takes them a while to get into it. I'd wish they'd given the characters different points of view - there's no really differing attitudes towards Nazism from Lukas and Karl Boehm, for instance, they are just "Germany is awesome". There's no differing attitude towards the war from Boyer or Ford, as well - Boyer has a bit of guilt for ducking World War One service, but that's it.

There's also no real big dramatic set piece the movie makers could bank on. Ben Hur had the pirate battle and the chariot race - plus also the resurrection scene, I guess. There were director and actor proof moments. The original Four Horsemen didn't have those - it had a tango scene plus a tragic ending. And so they get rid of the tango scene.  This movie was a big budget production but it actually didn't have to be - there are no balls, or battles, or scenes on water. The final action scene is bombs dropping on a building but that's it. Most of the action consists of people talking in a room - and usually only two people. Its a monument to MGM's (and Minnelli's) inefficiency.

Could this have worked with Ford's casting? Maybe - I think the family needed to be American, not Argentinian. The story as written needs to have them as Argentinian in order that Ford can stay in Paris through the war - but you could have set it prior to Pearl Harbour when America was neutral.
There are some effective moments - Thulin and Ford consummating their love during an air raid, Minnelli's use of colour, Boyer chastising Ford for seeing a married woman. The second half is better because they refer less to the fact that Ford is Argentinian. But it's still pretty poor.

1 comment:

Artslady said...

I actually like this film a lot. Ingrid Thulin is so beautiful and elegant and there is a lot of chemistry between her and Glenn Ford.
The music is ravishing by Andre Previn. The violin solos by Lou Raderman are so gorgeous I wanted to throw my violin out.
A lot of old movies mix accents and that is too bad. Genuine French and Argentine accents would have helped.
Todays actors seem to be able to do accents.
While not a great film it does say a lot about peoples loyalties during horrific times.
Perhaps Paul Henreid getting cheated on twice(Casablanca) while he was off fighting evil was a little too much.
I think the old reviews are too harsh.