The Volga boatmen ain’t got nothing on the vulgar horsemen, as evidenced by the 1928 late silent MGM action-romance THE COSSACKS, now on made-to-order DVD-R from the Warner Archive Collection.
Based on the 1863 Tolstoy novel, THE COSSACKS, adapted by the always-reliable Frances Marion (titles by John Colton), tells the tale of a violent band of Russians who thought nothing of ravishing and ravaging their own to satiate their primal animal lust. Of course, this is partially understandable, as it was decades before the advent of karaoke, so what’s a goy to do?
Amidst these extra chromosome-carrying ruffians emerges Lukashka, spectacularly envisioned by era superstar John Gilbert. Lukashka is unlike his fellow Neanderthals (and Neanderthallettes); he enjoys the beauty of nature, and even reads. Not surprisingly, he is the pariah of the tribe. This is unfortunate for two reasons: one, Ivan, his brute of a father, is the village alderman (a robust performance by Ernest Torrence; Donald Crisp presumably being otherwise detained torturing Lillian Gish) and the love of his life, Maryana (gorgeous Renee Adoree) despises girly-men like Gilbert (“Keep away, lover of sunflower seeds!,” she spits at him, the ultimate Rooskie mean devushka snap).
But things are about to change. After a victorious skirmish with the hated Muslim Turks, Torrence and Company celebrate by belittling the prisoners almost as much as their own women and sickly clan members. The escape of some of these jackals proves to be the last straw, as they have stolen some horses – the most prized commodity of the Cossacks. It is here where Lukashka has no equal, an expert equestrian of the Will Rogers Barnum & Bailey variety. Rape, pillage and kill, but dare not touch a hair of the mane of our steeds…Or something along those lines. In an incredible sequence of stunt work, Lukashka gallops after the thieves and nearly singlehandedly snuffs ’em flat like yesterday’s blintzes.
Papa is so proud of the carnage, but, more remarkably, Lukashka has piqued his inner Cossack, instantly developing a taste for blood; Ferdinand the Bull is now Sammy the Bull. It’s an amazing transformation – again a nod to Gilbert’s abilities as an actor. Of course, all the local babe-booshkas are now warm for his form, including Adoree who gets a dose of her own medicine; it’s Gilbert’s turn now to be a mean girl…well, you follow what I’m saying. As all movie buffs worth their salt know, Lukashka’s and Maryana’s mutual growing animosity can only imply one thing: they’re mad about each other.
But there’s yet another anvil blow to the head about to be delivered: the arrival of Prince Olenin Stieshneff, the Tsar’s royal messenger (Nils Asther). Asther’s mission is two-fold: to promote peace between the Cossacks and the Muslims and to choose a Cossack woman for upper crust breeding purposes; in effect, to add some of that wild, hotcha spice into the sluggish blueblood line. Guess whom he chooses? Asther, who refers to the village females as turnip women, indoctrinates Adoree into believing that pure Cossack love is reserved for the lower forms of animal life, an affectionate sweet nothing which she passes on to her mother (Dale Fuller, la femme pathetique of von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives, Greed, The Merry Widow and The Wedding March).
Meanwhile, Torrence refuses to relinquish his title of Turk Killer, and commands his progeny to compose a rather rude FU letter to the nearest Wizir (aka, Sultan Pot Boy). These high school antics take on horrendous repercussions far exceeding the most severe Lifetime Movie.
The royal carriage transporting Adoree and Asther back to the Tsar’s palace is attacked and Adoree taken hostage.
When word of this outrage reaches Gilbert and Torrence, they lead a charge to the Muslim camp, determined to “slit every throat that gurgles in these mountains.”
As one might expect, THE COSSACKS isn’t your standard MGM bit o’fluff. Truth be told, it’s one of the most sanguine, raw movies I’ve ever seen – silent or sound. The climatic, grueling torture scenes make the Saw and Hostel franchises look like an Ace Hardware ad.
Not surprisingly, the studio’s response to the rough cut was akin to the initial first-nighters’ gasp at Springtime for Hitler. Director George Hill (who would embellish his later 1930 pre-Code classic The Big House with this same kind of visceral, savage energy) was chastised by the powers that be. Clarence Brown was called in to humanize the highfalutin’ Cossacks. Hill argued that these were passionate people – scumbags, but passionate people. Indeed, the unorthodox pagan activities of the orthodox Christian denizens of Cossackville was not all that different from the goings-on in Gogol’s Taras Bulba; but, literally, that’s another story. Hill’s beseeching fell upon lopped-off ears, and Brown prevailed.
The picture, the seventh of eight teamings between Gilbert and Adoree, was a huge hit in 1928, and why not? The production is nearly as gorgeous as its leads, with no expense spared, including the plasma.
THE COSSACKS is a textbook of classic screen design (Alexander Toluboff) and art direction (Cedric Gibbons), sumptuously photographed by Percy Hilburn. Actual Cossacks (hopefully, retired) were recruited to append the riding expertise of the troops of Gower Gulch cowboys. While the picture never gets to play the Palace (where a Stroheim version, no doubt, would have just begun), and, arguably looks rushed in its last act (the Muslim-ambushed carriage emulating the kind of stuff Apaches vented upon untold stagecoaches), THE COSSACKS is Grade-A entertainment, a superb example of silent screen excitement at its peak. That said, the most difficult demand on modern audiences is not unspooling a non-speaking photoplay, but rather its unspeakable the (female-penned) narrative’s rampant misogyny and racism (the one cultural idea both Gilbert’s and Asther’s characters embrace is to “treat women like horses and horses like women”).
Aside from the aforementioned thesps, THE COSSACKS also features Paul Hurst, Mary Alden, Sidney Bracey, and, supposedly, a young would-be stuntman later turned comedian named Lou Costello. I couldn’t find him, but, honestly, wasn’t meticulously looking, being caught up in the non-stop goring and whoring.
Like many top 1928 releases, THE COSSACKS had a synchronized track (by Dr. William Axt) and sound effects. Bizarrely, it’s the picture portion that survives while the audio discs appear to have be lost (usually it’s the other way around); the Warner Archive transfer has been mastered from (mostly) terrific 35mm materials. A recent excellent score by Robert Israel accompanies the stunning and startling visuals.
The original poster art for THE COSSACKS (that graces the Warner Archive cover) comprises Gilbert, galloping away – a half-naked Eastern European woman straddled over his saddle – conceivably returning from a robust weekend of Muslim-killing. It’s like a Donald Trump Club Med fantasy. Again, if one can overlook some of the more dicey aspects of the scenario, one might gain a better hook on the enduring Gilbert mystique; I suspect novice viewers will far more prefer the most famous of the Gilbert-Adoree pictures (The Big Parade) or the Gilbert-Garbo pairings. In any event, I heartily suggest those interested to pick up a copy of the wonderful biography 2013 John Gilbert: The Last of the Silent Film Stars by Eve Golden (University of Press of Kentucky; http://www.kentuckypress.com/live/title_detail.php?titleid=3162#.Vtx11fkrJD8). I guarantee that regardless how your 2016 psyches respond to any or all of the above, but particularly THE COSSACKS, you won’t be bored!
THE COSSACKS. Black and white. Full frame [1.37:1]; 2.0 stereo-surround [Robert Israel track]. Warner Archive Collection. CAT# 1000541751. SRP: $21.99.
Available exclusively through the Warner Archive Collection: www.warnerarchive.com