Nov 29, 2014

On DVD: John Gilbert in The Cossacks (1928)

The Cossacks is the perfect introduction to the swashbuckling, romantic persona of John Gilbert. While the actor proved himself to be capable of playing more than the romantic hero, this is how audiences expected to see him: chasing a girl around a wagon, holding her in a passionate embrace and racing into battle on horseback. In a new DVD from Warner Archive, with a sparkling score by Robert Israel, I enjoyed watching Gilbert at his peak, one year before his disastrous talkie debut in His Glorious Night (1929).

Very loosely adapted from a short novel by Leo Tolstoy, The Cossacks explores the lusty life of these hardy southern Russian peasants. Among them is the lazy outcast Lukashka (Gilbert), son of a burly chieftain (Ernest Torrence), who is mocked because he is not willing to participate in their ongoing battle with the Turks. He instead spends his time attempting to woo local girl Maryanna (Renée Adorée, his Big Parade [1925] costar), who finds him attractive, but wants him to fight with the men.

When Lukashka has finally had enough mocking from the villagers, he takes a whip to his overbearing father and then leaps into battle, proving himself even braver than his peers. In his absence, a czarist prince (Nils Asther, looking prettier than them all with his cat-eye guyliner) arrives in the village, in search of a sturdy peasant woman to be his bride and juice up the royal blood.

Of course the young royal sets his eyes on Maryanna, who excites him by rejecting his advances and threatening him with a heavy candlestick. He relishes the challenge, and sets out to break her like a horse. She finds him attractive, but remains loyal to Lukashka, that is, until he returns from battle behaving noticeably cooler towards her.

Gilbert rocking one of many fur hats.
Broken-hearted, Maryanna marries the prince. Jealous Lukashka, who was only being a guy with the whole aloof thing, and who actually still loves his peasant girlfriend, attacks her as she dances with her groom, and the two later end up in a clinch, but the deed has been done. As the married couple races across country in their lavish carriage, they are attacked by the Turks, and find themselves in dire need of some serious swashbuckling. Enter Gilbert.

While The Cossacks doesn't quite rate with the classics in Gilbert's career, it is an entertaining film. This has a lot to do with the star's lively presence. He projects enjoyment so well you can almost see it shivering down his spine. It's easy to understand why silent film was his medium. As good as he could be when he spoke, Gilbert communicated best with his body, and even when he goes a bit over the top with bug eyes or frenzied lovemaking, he's still appealing, because he can make you feel what he feels.

There was also a remarkable amount of detail put into this production. I found it hard to believe that most of it was filmed on a studio back lot. Everything looked lived-in, and while I can't say whether or not it was all authentic, the sets, furniture and especially the costumes were definitely approached with scrupulous care to detail. The look of the wedding scene in particular felt almost like a documentary.

I loved the fast-paced action of the final scenes. There's an amazing special effects shot of an avalanche in particular that I had to go back and check out a second time. It was an intense sequence, ending with some surprisingly brutal torture scenes that that greatly increased the tension. There were also a couple of impressive earlier scenes featuring trick horse riding which were all the more thrilling because it clearly took daring stunt work, and not effects, to film them.

The Cossacks covers just about every cliché of silent movie action, and it does so in a delightful way.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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