by HELEN GEIB
One of Rudolph Valentino’s many gifts as an actor was his talent for playing light comedy. It is a talent that was not brought out often enough in his career, but that The Eagle, one of his last and also one of his best films, takes full advantage of. The Eagle is a delightful light adventure and a wonderful showcase for its star, showing him equally adept at drama, action, comedy, and romance.
The Eagle is set in the Russia of Hollywood’s exotic foreign imaginings. Valentino plays Vladimir, an officer in the Czarina’s horse guard who returns home to exact revenge after his father is dispossessed by a corrupt, wealthy villain and dies a broken man. In the process, he undertakes a double masquerade as a noble masked bandit known as “The Black Eagle” and a Frenchman hired to tutor the villain’s beautiful daughter Mascha (Vilma Banky) in the language of the Russian court.
The plot is so much like the Zorro story that The Eagle might legitimately be considered a Zorro film. There is an echo of the Robin Hood story as well, as The Black Eagle assembles a (little seen) band around him, but the Zorro connection is the stronger. Although Douglas Fairbanks helmed both a Zorro film and a Robin Hood film in the early ‘twenties, The Eagle does not look back to the Fairbanks’ interpretations so much as it anticipates the great films of the sound era, The Mark of Zorro (1940) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). The resemblance to the later films is far greater than to the earlier in story, tone, and performance. Tyrone Power’s Zorro and Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood are descendants of Valentino’s Black Eagle, and Flynn’s rapport with Olivia de Havilland in Robin Hood is the closest screen pairing to Valentino and Banky in The Eagle.
Valentino and Banky are perfectly matched in looks and generate undeniable screen chemistry. She also stands up to him as an actress, giving an expressive and subtle performance with range and depth. The most notable supporting performances are by Louise Dresser as the Czarina and Albert Conti as Vladimir’s military superior who becomes her lover (or in the film’s witty euphemism: his ambition to become a general is gratified). The older couple is a humorous counterpoint to the young lovers and while their screen time is small, it is memorable.
The scenarist wrote the film into a corner as the revenge plot collided with the courtship plot, and extricated it by sidestepping the issue. The courtship takes center stage for the finale and the revenge plot is left unresolved. It is a weakness that is easy to overlook in a film that is wonderfully entertaining for reasons having little to do with the story. I know I have always overlooked it because when I recently saw the film for the third time, I realized that while I remembered the story and its conclusion quite clearly, I had completely forgotten that it was problematic.
The Eagle was directed by Clarence Brown, a top Hollywood director of the period, and it has the strengths of a top-quality studio film. The pacing is fluid, the performances are consistently good, and the film moves seamlessly among its various moods. Scenes are well-staged and the camera is mobile, including several extended tracking shots, when it serves the narrative purpose at hand. The film always looks great. The sets by William Cameron Menzies and costumes by Adrian are a visual treat, art deco furnishings and 1920s fashions through the prism of Catherine the Great’s Russia.