Tempest (1928) A Silent Film Review

John Barrymore is a sergeant in the Russian army who dreams of winning an officer’s commission. But he hits a snag in the form of Camilla Horn, an imperious princess who seems to stumble him at every turn. Stripped of his rank, John goes a little mad and decides the Bolsheviks kind of have a point. The revolution is on, John is nuts, Camilla smolders and we have some grade-A entertainment.

No Shakespeare for you!

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

As has become my custom, let’s start by making a few clarifications. John Barrymore was known as a Shakespearean actor but Tempest has nothing whatsoever to do with the Bard. The Tempest is Shakespeare’s 1610/1611 play while Tempest is a torrid love story set around World War One and the Russian Revolution. There is also a nice dose of fairy tale wonder, a theme I shall expand on later in the review.

Tempest was John Barrymore’s second-to-last silent film and he really pulls out all the stops. This movie has absolutely everything in it that he does well. That odd combination of romance, pathos, madness, darkness and goofiness that no one else could pull off. It really is a treat for John Barrymore fans but I think even folks that do not normally cotton to him will be pleased with this entertainment.

Let’s get down to business! First, here is a little overview of the plot.

This may not be the best idea...
This may not be the best idea…

Sergeant Ivan Markov (John Barrymore) is a model soldier, perfect to the last detail. He has to be. He is a peasant by birth but he dreams of winning an officer’s commission. Normally that would be impossible but Ivan has won the admiration of the general (George Fawcett), who views him as the son he never had and treats him accordingly.

Ivan is supported in his ambition by the soldiers under his command and by his best friend, Sergeant Bulba (Louis Wolheim). On a side note, John Barrymore’s older brother, Lionel, had been Wolheim’s mentor and benefactor when he was trying to break into acting. Wolheim had a small supporting roles in John Barrymore’s Jekyll and Hyde and Shelock Holmes.

And so I said, "That's what the actress said to the bishop!"
And so I said, “That’s what the actress said to the bishop!”

But I digress. Back to the story!

One person, though, is trying to dissuade Ivan from his path. A strange peddler (Boris de Fast, last seen burning out Ivan Mosjoukine’s eyes in Michael Strogoff) has been leaving Bolshevik leaflets around the barracks and he actively tries to recruit Ivan. Actually, “actively” is too weak a word. Obsessively is more like it. Stalking may be even better. Ivan, however, has utter faith in the general and continues to work toward his goal.

Everything would have been just fine for Ivan if not for one little problem: The general has a daughter, Princess Tamara (Camilla Horn). She and Ivan don’t exactly hit it off. That’s putting it mildly. You see, she scowls at him and he stares at her and she horsewhips him and he manhandles/kisses her and she insults him and he… oh good lord, they’re in love! But both would rather die than admit it so they are in quite a pretty pickle.

Oh, we're in THAT sort of romance.
Oh, we’re in THAT sort of romance.

To make matters worse, Tamara is engaged to a real fink, a captain (Ullrich Haupt) who is none too pleased about a peasant rising in the ranks. Ivan gets his commission all right but the captain and like-minded officers do their best to make his life miserable. Ivan responds by getting liquored up at a party and stumbling into Tamara’s bedroom. That goes over just as well as you would expect. Ivan is stripped of his rank and sentenced to prison. Loyal Bulba insults the captain and gets himself imprisoned in order to follow his depressed friend.

Tamara has found love tokens that the drunken Ivan left for her and she begins to soften. Ivan responds with sarcasm, she loses her temper and we are back to square one. Well, not exactly because the captain puts two and two together and has Ivan thrown into solitary. He’s just evil that way.

Oh goody, this means a madness scene is coming.
Oh goody, this means a madness scene is coming.

As Russia enters the first world war and the monarchy begins to teeter, Ivan slowly goes out of his mind. Tamara, meanwhile, believes Ivan was sent to the front and spends her days trying to discover if he is alive or dead. And that weird peddler is finally getting the uprising that he wanted.

Will Ivan survive the revolution? Will the nasty captain finally get what’s coming to him? Will Ivan and Tamara stop hitting each other for one second? Find out in Tempest!

Yup, I guess they do patch up their differences.
Yup, I guess they do patch up their differences.

It is astonishing that this film turned out as well as it did. Tempest is one of those productions with a long list of directors and screenwriters who were briefly attached to it.

It was originally meant to be written and directed by Erich von Stroheim; the martial setting and decadent aristocracy were right up his alley. He was then replaced by two citizens of the Russian Empire: Victor Tourjansky (Boris de Fast’s brother-in-law) took a crack at it but was then replaced by Lewis Milestone (who also tinkered with the script) and he was subsequently replaced by an American, Sam Taylor, who has sole directing credit. The script is credited to C. Gardner Sullivan, with von Stroheim and Milestone receiving no mention.

And then there was the casting of Tamara. Greta Nissen had the part before being replaced by Russian actress Vera Veronina.  Dorothy Sebastian replaced Veronina and worked on the film for four weeks but she was removed and replaced by producer Joseph Schenck’s girlfriend, Camilla Horn, who was fresh off the boat from her native Germany.

And this week's leading lady is...
And this week’s leading lady is…

Yikes! I think I need a flowchart to keep all of this straight in my head! I can’t imagine how John Barrymore and cinematographer Charles Rosher managed. Presumably by writing names on their hands.

In spite of being mainly known as a comedy director, Sam Taylor does quite well directing this deeply romantic tale. He is best remembered today for the maybe-it’s-true-maybe-it-isn’t screen credit “by William Shakespeare with additional dialogue by Sam Taylor.” However, Taylor is responsible for some of the most beloved silent films: My Best Girl, The Freshman and Safety Last!

Serious stuff but also nimble and funny.
Serious stuff but also nimble and funny.

Taylor’s direction is nimble, fast-paced and imaginative. This is a huge boon to the picture since, silent or sound, historical movies can become draggy very quickly. (Granted, the history for this film was only a little over a decade old at the time but what a decade!) Maybe more comedy directors should have branched into historical films.

Cinematographer Charles Rosher (who had great respect for Sam Taylor’s abilities) brings his legendary skills to the film and the entire cast is bathed in the warm glow of his camera. Rosher’s contribution elevates the film’s beauty enormously.

Lovely stuff!
Lovely stuff!

However, a huge amount of credit must also go to William Cameron Menzies, who was a production designer before anyone knew what the job was called. Tempest was one of the films that earned Menzies an Academy Award for art direction at the very first Oscars.

The costumes for the film mostly consist of military uniforms but some of Camilla Horn’s gowns are stunning. Hardly accurate for the time and place (where are the corsets?) but gorgeous all the same.

Camilla rocks a very Russian tam o' shanter.
Camilla rocks a very Russian tam o’ shanter.

I particularly liked the color symbolism for Ivan’s journey into darkness. We first meet him when he is wearing spotless white uniforms. Once he is imprisoned, he starts to wear progressively darker shades of gray. When he is finally rescued by Bulba and the Bolsheviks, a black coat is thrown over his shoulders (and engulfs him). Ivan embraces Bolshevism and wears black from this point forward. He’s gone to the dark side– in both thought and fashion!

Tamara’s character growth is also symbolized by clothing. She loves Ivan but is only able to claim him when she leaves her finery behind and dons the clothing of a peasant.

Camilla comes out ahead in that particular battle.
Camilla comes out ahead in that particular battle.

Now I know what you are going to say: “Well, Miss Smartypants, what about that infamous scene by the river? Tamara has nothing but a shawl between Ivan’s eyes and herself in the altogether! And what does she do? Only take a horsewhip to him!”

And you would be right! However, bear in mind that silk shawls at this time cost more than the average peasant made in a year. How do you like them apples?

I could go on about the visuals but the fact is that a beautiful movie is not enough to hold my attention. I have sat through enough von Sterberg snoozers to know that visuals can only make up for so much when the characters, script and pacing are off.

Don't do anything I wouldn't!
Don’t do anything I wouldn’t!

First, the characters. Simply put, the cast of Tempest is marvelous!

I’m going to start with my favorite: Louis Wolheim is an utter teddy bear in his role as Sergeant Bulba. Wolheim was one of the more wonderful paradoxes of silent Hollywood. His broken nose (he played fullback in college) and beefy frame meant he was typecast as goons, oafs and louts. In reality, he was a former mathematics instructor and engineer who delighted in entertaining with Yiddish anecdotes. He was also born in Russia (though he later claimed New York as his birthplace).

Wolheim brings a childlike cuddliness to his part. His endearing (and enduring!) attachment to Ivan could have become cloying or irritating but Wolheim makes his friendship completely believable. I particularly enjoyed the scene where Bulba makes his decision to go to prison with Ivan rather than be separated from him. The way he is able to cheer the brooding Ivan up neatly illustrates how this friendship is indeed a two-way street. Bulba lightens the ultra-serious Ivan and Ivan keeps the goofy Bulba out of trouble (most of the time).

The best bromance in silent film.
The best bromance in silent film.

Close behind Wolheim on my favorite list is George Fawcett. I just loved his open-minded, fatherly but naive general. The general genuinely loves Ivan like a son yet he does not understand that pulling him up into the officer’s ranks will make him a target. The aristocratic officers will not tolerate a peasant being treated as their equal. With the best possible intentions, the general dooms his protege by helping him win his goal. Fawcett’s fussy mustache and expressive face may make the general look like comedy relief but his scenes with Ivan and Tamara are truly touching.

German actor Ullrich Haupt is all one could wish for as the horrid captain. He conveys the sort of pull-the-wings-off-of-flies nastiness that makes him a villain you love to hate. What I don’t understand is why Tamara went for him in the first place!

What, me revolt?
What, me revolt?

However, I do have one complaint to make in the supporting cast: Boris de Fast’s Bolshevik peddler. Quite simply, he is so over-the-top that he is not a believable character. The blame for this can be evenly divided between the film’s scenario and de Fast’s performance.

The story of Tempest has the peddler obsessed with recruiting Ivan but surely there are other sergeants in the Russian army! Doesn’t the peddler have anything else to do but follow Ivan? When does he find time to print leaflets and stick anti-Czar slogans to the top of matchboxes? And why in the world would anyone follow this nutbar, much less put him in charge? Yes, I know crazy people are put in charge of things all the time in the real world but I expect a bit of motivation and explanation in a motion picture. It’s ironic that one of the few actual honest-to-goodness Russians in the cast is the least convincing character. The worst thing is that de Fast is actually quite effective in his quieter scenes but then he goes right back to leering and popping his eyes.

Psst! What was my line again?
Psst! What was my line again?

Now let’s talk about the leads. Camilla Horn was, of course, thrown into the deep end of the pool. This was her first American film and she started work in a troubled production. She is lovely to look at but her character is not given very much to do besides smolder and sigh. However, I don’t really blame poor Miss Horn for this since she came into the picture four weeks after everyone else and had to reshoot material left behind by the previous leading lady. I say that she was excellent under the circumstances.

John Barrymore, on the other hand, is in top form. His previous film (and his first for United Artists), The Beloved Rogue, had been an artistic disappointment to him. I thought it was splendid but Barrymore considered his performance too hammy. He certainly remedies that flaw in Tempest. While dashing, romantic, mad and slightly zany, he is toned down considerably.

Well, somewhat, anyway.
Well, somewhat, anyway.

One aspect of Barrymore’s acting that I have always appreciated is the complete abandon with which he attacks his roles. He was not afraid of expressing extreme emotionally vulnerability at a time when the public tended to prefer their romantic heroes to express love and hate but not much in between. And, of course, he also manages to fit in an excellent bout of madness after Ivan suffers an extended stint in solitary confinement.

Which deserves its own gallery. Here you go:

Barrymore is a little old to play the ambitious sergeant but he looks fit and handsome. Some soft lighting, softer lenses and he easily passes as a much younger man. He effortlessly pulls off the quiet ambition and the deep mortification Ivan endures as he pursues his goal of promotion during the first act. However, Barrymore’s performance really gets interesting once his character his thrown into solitary confinement. Driven insane by the isolation, he emerges in a trance that is not broken until he comes face to face with Tamara again. Barrymore plays this marvelously, slowly growing more desperate until his grip on sanity slips away.

Well, someone's ticked off.
Well, someone’s ticked off.

In spite of Camilla Horn’s challenges, the romance works well in a sick sort of way. Ivan and Tamara both have the same character flaws: pride and stubbornness. These character traits cause them to disguise their feelings of love since both seem terrified of exposing even the slightest bit of vulnerability. But rather than hiding behind indifference (which would be considerably easier on everyone, themselves included), they choose to instead express contempt, hatred, abuse and actual physical violence.

In fact, I have not seen a more violently expressive pair since I watched the 2005 South Korean film The Duelist, in which Ha Ji-won and Kang Dong-won spend the entire running time trying to slice and stab one another in the most romantic way possible. (Come to think of it, John Barrymore and Camilla Horn in a swordfight would be awesome! My money would be on Camilla.) Of course, this content was hardly surprising once I learned that Erich von Stroheim had been involved with the film.

These two are just a little twisted.
These two are just a little twisted.

I have seen Tempest several times and always felt that the plot was… well… familiar somehow. While watching it again for this review, it finally hit me. I knew where I had heard this story before. Tempest has gender-reversed elements of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty sprinkled throughout.

Let’s see: Like Snow White, Ivan is an envy-inducing protagonist with a jealous rival.  Like Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, his own inexperience causes him to fall victim to his rival’s schemes and he buried alive. However, he is saved by True Love’s Kiss.

Under an evil spell.
Under an evil spell.

Granted, the parallel is not perfect but it is pretty darn good. Of course, Ivan is not given the luxury of sleeping through his ordeal. The captain arranges for him to be struck from prison records and locked away alone in an underground cell. Even when he is rescued by Bulba and the Peddler, Ivan is not really free. His heart is still locked away. At that point, Tamara emerges from hiding on a quest to find news of both her father and Ivan. Like the prince in Sleeping Beauty, she must enter a cursed palace and endure tests of her courage before she is able to find what she seeks. Ivan only awakens from his stupor when he is placed in close contact with Tamara and symbolizes his recovery by embracing her.

At this point, of course, both Tamara and Ivan no longer have their defenses up. Both are too emotionally and physically exhausted to lie. At this point, I was yelling at the screen. Something along the lines of “why didn’t you do this in the first place?”

Russia just seems a bit small.
Russia just seems a bit small.

One complaint about the film is that, while it is indeed beautiful, it feels constricted. Almost all of the action takes place in or around either the military barracks, the prison or the general’s mansion. There is no sense of an expansive nation in revolt. The Russian Revolution may as well have been the mutiny of a single company as far as it affects the story. In fact, there is very little about the script that is distinctly Russian. The film could have just as easily been about the English Civil War, the French Revolution, the Battle of Sekigahara or the Conquest of the Lodi Empire. Just a few scenes of, say, Russian peasant life (showing why the revolutionaries were able to win over the common people) or of the Russian soldiers on the front would have done a great deal to make the setting of this movie more realistic and absorbing.

Imaginary battles are all we get.
Imaginary battles are all we get.

Time is also an issue in this film. Ivan was imprisoned some time before the start of World War One in late 1914 and was not let out until the Bolsheviks began to successfully seize power in early to late 1917. So he was imprisoned in solitary confinement for at least two and a half years, possibly more. The problem is that the film does little to establish time passing. John Barrymore plays his isolation and madness very well but we have no indication of how long his confinement was. Days? Weeks? Months? Any of these could seem true if you don’t happen to know that exact dates of the Revolution off the top of your head. The film would have been improved greatly by more scenes of Tamara dealing with the war and maybe some battlefield scenes with Bulba, the captain and the general. These would have helped establish the passing of time and would have opened up the film nicely.

The real root of their rivalry?
The real root of their rivalry?

There are a few other missed opportunities. It is vaguely hinted in the titles that Tamara’s dislike of Ivan has much to do with the attention her father showers on him. This near-sibling rivalry would have been an interesting element to expand. I also got the impression from the film that the general viewed Ivan as a potential son-in-law and that was one reason why he was willing to push his promotion. Could it be that the old general was grooming Ivan to replace the horrible captain as Tamara’s fiance? Again, an interesting element that went unexplored.

Seriously, wow.
Seriously, wow.

However, in spite of these issues, Tempest is a wonderful bit of film-making. Come for the cinematography and set design. Stay for the warm performances (particularly from Wolheim and Fawcett) and the virtuoso bit of madness from John Barrymore.

Movies Silently’s Score:★★★★

Where can I see it?

Tempest has two high-quality editions available for purchase. Both use 35mm prints but, as you can see from the screen caps, there are quite a few scratches. A pity. The Kino edition has a 1970s era piano score by William P. Perry. I prefer the Image edition, which allows viewers to choose between the original orchestral Vitaphone score and a new piano score by Philip Carli. I love the Carli score (the Vitaphone music is a bit jaunty for modern ears) and it is the reason why I recommend the Image edition.

4 Replies to “Tempest (1928) A Silent Film Review”

  1. Wow, I have to see this. Great review – as a big John Barrymore fan I was already keen to see this, but your description and photos of the mad scenes in particular have me champing at the bit. It’s not available in the UK, but I will doubtless be tempted to get the DVD on import… great posting.

  2. Gotta watch this now. Ivan’s character sounds fascinating. And I’m very curious to see the production design as well.

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