A real forgotten gem of an adventure film! Rod La Rocque plays a Napoleonic swashbuckler who acts as the muscle for Phyllis Haver’s clever spy as she attempts to protect the emperor from a scheming Sam De Grasse. Look up the word “rollicking” in the dictionary and this movie will appear as the first example.
This is part of the Swashathon, hosted by me. We’re celebrating 100 years of Douglas Fairbanks. Be sure to read the other posts!
For France and Phyllis!
As you probably know by now, I revel in the obscure programmers of the silent era. These are the films that would have entertained average American moviegoers on Saturday nights throughout the ‘teens and twenties. Occasionally, one of these films turns out to be a hidden jewel. I am happy to tell you that The Fighting Eagle falls into that category.
Another obscure topic I love is Cecil B. DeMille’s stint as an independent producer. His studio was a financial disaster but the films produced there were quirky, unique and fun as anything. And since DeMille gave his creative personnel a pretty free hand and because so many of them were women, many of the pictures he released under his banner featured empowered and intriguing heroines in off-kilter plots. The Fighting Eagle was one of several films DeMille released to burnish the popularity of Rod La Rocque, one of several stars swapped during the DeMille divorce from Paramount.
Like most studio heads, DeMille opted to produce a few big budget prestige pictures (King of Kings, for example) and then churn out a bunch of mid-budget programmers to pay the bills. The problem was that DeMille loved to be lavish and his programmers sometimes had bigger budgets than other studio’s prestige pictures. They made money but precious few managed to break even, let alone turn a profit.
As I said, bad business but great for those of us who are enjoying the films today. The DeMille studio made some of my favorite silent films of the twenties (Chicago, Eve’s Leaves, The Cruise of the Jasper B) and you can never accuse it of producing boring material.
The Fighting Eagle has quickly jumped onto my list of favorite silent swashbucklers. It continues the DeMille studio tradition of empowered heroines and quirky storytelling and it looks fantastic. The film was a blind purchase, I didn’t know a thing about it other than a bare synopsis, and I have to say that it is one of the happiest surprises I have experienced lately.
Enough build-up! Let’s get to the meat of this thing.
Napoleon Bonaparte (Max Barwyn) is trying to determine whether to go to war with Spain and awaits an important message from the Countess de Launay (Phyllis Haver), his cleverest and most trusted spy. Napoleon’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, the traitorous Talleyrand (veteran baddie Sam De Grasse), is determined to seize the papers and prevent them from ever reaching the emperor.
The Countess is hurrying to Napoleon but has to stop for the night at a small inn in the Pyrenees mountains. The innkeeper’s grandson is the strapping Etienne Gerard (Rod La Rocque), a cocky young fellow who is immediately taken with the Countess. The Countess is a pretty good judge of people and believes she can trust Gerard as he openly worships Napoleon. She asks him to stand by in case she needs his muscle for her mission.
This turns out to be a wise move. Talleyrand arrives, accompanied by his “secretary” Fraulein Hertz (Sally Rand, in her pre-Bubble Dance days). He plans to take the papers by force but the Countess’s faith in Gerard is rewarded and they escape together.
Please notice the contrast between the Countess and a standard damsel-in-distress. Our heroine has brains but is alone and surrounded by enemies. She correctly reads Gerard and engages him as a bodyguard, which pays off when Talleyrand’s goons attack her. The Countess thought ahead, took steps to assure her own safety and came out unscathed as a result. No wonder she’s France’s top secret agent.
The downside is that introducing all these characters takes a while. In fact, the first twenty minutes of the film are a bit on the slow side but keep with it. Here is where things get really good.
Eighteen months pass and Gerard is now a captain in the hussars. To go from waiter to captain must have involved some derring-do and Gerard himself is more than happy to tell the tale to a group of officers meeting at an inn. In facts, he makes the most outrageous claims, including being a personal friend of Napoleon, and his feats of daring (told in flashback) seem too… too… well, no one believes him and he is deemed a braggart.
Now Gerard is indeed a braggart but he bristles at being called a liar and challenges the other officers to a duel the next day. As he is leaving the inn, the Countess arrives and tells him that he is now working for her. She has a secret mission to bring down the nefarious Talleyrand and needs Gerard’s muscle. Gerard hesitates because it will mean skipping his duel but he trusts the Countess completely and departs with her.
On the way, there is a bit of hanky-panky in the carriage and we are given to understand that the Countess and Gerard are not strictly businesslike in their dealings. Their mission goes off smoothly, that is until Fraulein Hertz shows up with a pistol and ruins everything. It will take all of the Countess’s smarts and all of Gerard’s bravado and fighting prowess to get them out of this mess. To say more would be telling.
The Fighting Eagle is light, humorous and action-packed—exactly what you want in a swashbuckler. While it has a few nods to history (both Napoleon and Talleyrand), it does not become bogged down in court intrigue and keeps itself focused on the appealing leads.
Director Donald Crisp was reasonably fresh off his success helming Don Q Son of Zorro (1925) and this is one of his best efforts behind the camera. He could be good but was more often a bit dull, frankly. The zany script of The Fighting Eagle seemed to have brought out the best in him. Add to that sumptuous costumes by Adrian and we have a winning formula.
The film was adapted from a series of short stories by Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It’s a shame that it was never turned into a film series (sound was looming on the horizon and would kill DeMille’s studio dead) as it would have been delightful.
As stated before, the picture takes some time to get going and it doesn’t really mesh the origin story prologue with its main plot very well. Some of this choppiness can be attributed to the fact that it originally ran for eight reels. Even at sound speed (24fps), this would mean an 80+ minute film but considering that the silent film likely ran slower, we are talking a 90-110+ minute motion picture. And the surviving prints are listed as abridgements; the version I saw lasted a mere 67 minutes. (If you are aware of an archive holding a more complete version, please let me know.)
Among other things, these cuts seem to have eliminated Julia Faye’s take on Empress Josephine. Faye was in a relationship with Cecil B. DeMille and he shoehorned her into gamine supporting parts in EVERYTHING but you know what? She has started to grow on me. (Fun fact: Faye was the very first on-screen Velma in Chicago.)
It would be a crying shame if this picture were only to survive in abridged form but it is better than nothing and the story is still quite enjoyable.
Rod La Rocque tended to be happier with goofy material and his role as Gerard gives him plenty of chances to flex the old comedy chops. He scowls and giggles and openly laughs into the camera as the crazy plot unfolds. However, he also has the physique and the panache to pull off the more heroic aspects of the character. The title cards are particularly droll, for example when Gerard graciously “allows” a firing squad to shoot him.
And now the question of Miss Haver’s casting. Some critics felt that she was miscast as the wily spy, likely due to the fact that she was so closely associated with comedy. I think these critics would do well to add a bit of drama to their diet as Haver was quite the actress when she had good material (cough, cough, Chicago) and she clearly is having fun with her role. What’s that? She doesn’t look like a spy? Um, that is the point of a spy I hope you realize.
Further, Haver and La Rocque have great chemistry and are easily the two best things about this picture. I really enjoyed their boss/employee-with-benefits relationship and the way our arrogant hero genuinely respects and trusts the Countess. She’s smarter than he is and he knows and accepts it. That’s pretty wonderful.
In fact, while the men (La Rocque, De Grasse, Barwyn) bluster and storm about, it is the women who get things done. Haver’s Countess is a quick and creative thinker who easily bamboozles Talleyrand but is challenged by Fraulein Hertz and her trusty flintlock pistol. And at the grand finale, some quick work on the part of the Countess and a barmaid saves the day. Three cheers for these witty women!
Oh and I should also praise Max Barwyn, who does a wonderful job with Napoleon. He manages to make him a familiar, iconic figure without stooping to silly clichés.
The Fighting Eagle has a slow start but it quickly builds up steam and turns into one of the more delightful action-comedies of the silent era. This picture is a hidden gem and I strongly recommend it to anyone who wants to see a good swashbuckler and a whole bunch of empowered women in the bargain.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★★
Where can I see it?
The Fighting Eagle was released on DVD by Grapevine. This version runs 67 minutes but an abridged version of this film is still better than many of other silent films on the market. Do yourself a favor and check it out.