I have a bone to pick with this film but I think I’ll have to get in line behind its star, John Gilbert, its screenwriter, Frances Marion, and one of its ex-directors, Victor Tourjansky. MGM’s attempt to simultaneously film Leo Tolstoy and Jules Verne results in a rather uneven picture that plunges into plagiarism. Wheeee!
Adapting Tolstoy to the screen is a mighty difficult task. When his works are long, they feature dozens and dozens of characters, elaborate plots and overwhelming scope. When his works are short, they are such tight little bundles that it is almost impossible to add or subtract without causing the whole thing to crumble.
The Cossacks is one of his shorter works, about 150-200 pages give or take, and also one of his most beloved. The secret is, perhaps, the author stand-in character of Olenin. He is a self-absorbed young fellow and most readers can relate to his youthful pretentiousness and naïve imagination, perhaps with a slight blush.
The book is highly introspective, in fact, the majority of the pages are spent inside Olenin’s head. As you can well imagine, this makes it less than ideal for a Hollywood blockbuster but someone decided to give it a try! In this case, that someone was MGM.
MGM opted to spice things up with the usual Hollywood ingredients: Renee Adoree and John Gilbert together again! Adventure! Dancing! Unfortunately, they decided that in order to succeed, they would chuck Tolstoy and go their own way. Tolstoy? Feh! What does he know about writing a story?
The result is a lurching Frankenstein monster of a film, its stitches bursting every which way. Watch out or a bit of intestine may hit you in the face!
(John Gilbert fans need not feel any misplaced loyalty for this film; he hated it too.)
Cut to the chase
This review is long because I am worked up and I want to have a good long rant about the things that displease me. However, if you just want the basics:
- I hate this film.
- It changes Tolstoy for no good reason.
- The much-vaunted finale was lifted verbatim from Michael Strogoff.
- Nothing makes any sense.
- Yes, I do realize John Gilbert is the star and am very happy you have a crush on him. This does not make The Cossacks a good film.
- No, he did not have a funny voice. No, he did not brawl with Louis B. Mayer in a bathroom. Yes, I’m sure.
Okay, so now that you know where I stand, let’s get to the ranting and raving!
The Source Material
Excuse me if I get a bit nerdy. I could talk about Tolstoy’s fiction all day long. I’m not kidding. Anna Karenina is probably the Tolstoy work most commonly adapted to the screen but for my money, the most intriguing double feature is made up of two screen versions of Tolstoy’s last work of fiction, Hadji Murat. You have Ivan Mosjoukine/Alexandre Volkoff’s 1930 silent The White Devil and then you have Steve Reeves (I know!) in the peplumized Italian flick The White Warrior. (I doubled up a review here. Warning, very geeky.)
The Cossacks was first published in 1863 and remains one of Tolstoy’s most beloved works. It tells the tale of Dmitri Olenin, who is bored with his privileged life and, having squandered much of his inheritance, feels that a change of scenery will do him good. He joins the army and heads out to the Caucasus. Olenin soon finds himself befriended by an older man, Eroshka, and becomes obsessed with the live-for-today lifestyle of the Cossacks. The impressionable young cadet is also taken with Lukashka, a bold and brash Cossack soldier, and with Maryana, the village beauty who has her cap set for Lukashka.
(Now I spoil the ending of a 150-year-old novel.) The book ends with Lukashka shot in the belly due to a blood feud and Maryana refusing Olenin’s offer of marriage. With Lukashka possibly dying and Maryana angry with him, Olenin bids Eroshka farewell and leaves.
The book is a long debate on the nature of culture, “civilization” vs. the more natural Cossack lifestyle, questions of whether one can adopt another society’s ways and other juicy bits. There was no way these discussions would make it into an MGM film, nosirree!
(You can read a public domain edition of the original novel here and listen to a public domain audiobook here. If you would prefer a fresher translation, you can get David McDuff’s 2006 work published by Penguin here. Good stuff!)
Finally, here is a map so that you can see exactly where the action takes place:
As I will be talking quite a bit about how the movie departs from the book, let me just take a moment to explain my views in this matter. I understand that movies and books are very different arts with different goals and audiences. Alterations are necessary in order to make a proper film out of a book. In fact, some changes actually improve the story. The Penalty and Stella Maris (the latter of which, like The Cossacks, was written by Frances Marion) are both far better than the novels upon which they are based. The screenplays streamline the story, cut out the fat and strengthen motivations. It can be done!
Alas, The Cossacks makes many changes to Tolstoy but none of them are for the better.
The Cossacks drinking Cossack Vodka in a Cossack village, as Cossacks do because they are Cossacks
Quick note before we go any further: When I refer to “Cossack culture” in this review from this point on, it will mean the culture as it is portrayed in this film. You can read about the real Cossacks here. Tolstoy’s novella focused on the Greben Cossacks of the Caucasus but the film keeps things more generic because of course it does.
The story opens with a lot of title cards informing us that the Cossacks are democratic, religious and that they think torture is pretty neat, the rascals! The Cossack leader is Ivan (Ernest Torrence, cranked to 11), who has waged a successful campaign against the Turks. Why he does this, I have no idea. The novel was set during the Caucasian War and he really should be fighting Circassians, Chechens, Dagestanis, etc.
(The Caucasian War was caused by Russia’s annexation of the Caucasus. It does not refer to two women named Kaitlynn and Heather fighting over, like, the last pomegranate-kale artisinal scone at Whole Foods. The Russians fought the Turks and Persians in between their battles with the people of the Caucasus but the Caucasian War is a central element of Tolstoy’s novel and it was changed for no good reason.)
Ivan is not very bright and does not seem to grasp basic geography but at least he enjoys killing, which is more than can be said about his son.
Lukashka (John Gilbert, looking like a Puli in his fur hat) is a dreamer, layabout and turtle fanatic. (I’m not kidding. His idea of a great date is to go and see a turtle.) Ivan is mortified that his son will not fight and I would be a little worried too. Lukashka has hit the big three-oh and I think we have what can be described as a failure to launch.
Lukashka spends his days lying in the grass and groping Maryana (Renee Adoree, looking understandably confused). He wants to take her to see the turtle and she’s like, “Um, no, you don’t have a job!” Because the only job a male Cossack can have is as a soldier but Lukashka doesn’t see the need to be gainfully employed. Not when he has the turtle up his sleeve. How ‘bout it, ladies?
Anyway, the other Cossacks think that Lukashka is a bozo and Maryana won’t go see his turtle even after he chases her down on his horse and drags her across a wagon. Women, amiright? Maryana asks Lukashka why he won’t fight but he only answers that he doesn’t like the smell of blood. (Why can’t blood smell more like turtles?) Then the other villagers come, put a flower wreath on his head, tie him to a post and throw grapes at him. Maryana joins in because wouldn’t you?
Lukashka is stung by this humiliation, goes back into his house and gets in a fight with his father. The battle ends with Lukashka horsewhipping Ivan. (Paging Dr. Freud! Paging Dr. Freud!) Then some Turkish prisoners escape and Lukashka kills a few for kicks and his newfound love of murder and mayhem gives him a fresh lease on life. His father adores him! The villagers cheer him! Maryana says she’d just LOVE to see his turtle! Well, he ignores her. Such a woman is not worthy of a turtle.
Lukashka is so keen on killing that he proposes to go find more Turks to massacre. Maryana still wants to see his turtle and crawls around after him, which she does in a very low top. I see what you did there, MGM. She finally grabs his saddle and tries to follow but Lukashka gives her a swift kick and knocks her down. Aww, he hit her and it felt like a kiss.
So let’s break our main character down. Lukashka is the number one son of a people who prize battle prowess above all else in a man. He decides that he will utterly reject his own culture and the reason is that he would rather make time with Maryana? But his refusal to do battle actively harms his chances of winning her over. It’s like a modern guy saying that he quit brushing his teeth and bathing so he will have more time to pick up hot chicks.
Lukashka’s motivation is never adequately explained. We are told that he received a good education but he never expresses why he refuses to fight even though the stakes are high and his refusal opens him up to scorn and humiliation from the villagers and alienation from Maryana.
Let me put this another way: If your story’s American protagonist doesn’t really like the military, would rather spend time with his girlfriend and decides not to join the army, no explanation is needed if your story is set in 1994. However, you will sure as heck need an explanation if the same story is set in 1944!
I suppose someone could argue that he is a pacifist but once Lukashka kills for the first time, he completely embraces Cossack culture without a second thought. There’s no “Gee, I hated killing because I thought it was wrong but I have now seen the error of my ways!” scene. If the writers wanted to invest in the murder virgin narrative, they should have done a better job of explaining why Lukashka feels the way he does. Saying, “Oh, blood is stinky” just doesn’t cut the mustard.
The film also expects us to believe that Lukashka is some kind of gent because he carries heavy bundles for his mother, which is contrary to Cossack tradition. However, Lukashka also grabs, gropes, kicks and shoves Maryana. Something tells me that he won’t be a keynote speaker for a HeForShe event any time soon.
Anyway, while Ivan and Lukashka are off killing Turks, Prince Olenin Stieshneff (Nils Asther testing out his eye makeup for The Bitter Tea of General Yen) shows up at the village. He has a message for Ivan from the czar. However, no one in this film seems capable of using the word czar. They all say “Little Father” which is an accurate title but it gets grating after the fiftieth time. Anyway, Olenin has also come to find a wife. The czar ordered him to marry a Cossack because why the heck not?
I’m not going to insult your intelligence. You and I both know who he is going to like. What did surprise me is that he behaves exactly like Lukashka. See, I thought they would do the whole rich guy, poor guy thing with the boys and have Maryana be taken with Olenin’s sophisticated ways. Nope! He starts groping her and chasing her around too. (A woman wrote this. Just keep repeating it.)
Lukashka comes back to town sporting a brand new scar but then he and Maryana bicker and she ends up accepting Olenin’s offer of marriage, much to the delight of her mother (Dale Fuller, utterly wasted). Lukashka naturally reacts to this turn of events by socking Maryana in the mouth on her wedding day. He hits her so hard she slides across the floor. And no, we can’t trade him in on a new hero. The movie’s too far along. We’re stuck with him. (A woman wrote this. A woman.)
Lukashka tries to make it up to Maryana by (how else?) saying she can see his turtle after all. She refuses but then he’s like, “Oh, we’ve both been foolish.” I mean, she flirted and tossed some grapes at him, he kicked her and smacked her and knocked some teeth out. Even Steven! I think this relationship (which a woman wrote) can safely be described as toxic and abusive.
Olenin and Maryana depart from the village but Lukashka isn’t ready to give up. He sets up an ambush, meaning to take Maryana back by force. And since Maryana considers her marriage to be completely binding, it is more than hinted that Lukashka will kill Olenin. Ivan is about to stop him but decides to join instead. What the Cossacks do not know is that the Turks are also lying in wait for the carriage…
(This whole sub-heading is going to be laced with spoilers.)
In defense of The Cossacks: “What you say is true but even you have to be impressed by the climax!”
(Cracks knuckles.) Ah yes, the climax. No other scene in the film receives more praise and, guess what, that scene is one of my biggest reasons for hating The Cossacks.
It’s stolen property, lifted from Michael Strogoff, which is not only a better film, it is my favorite silent film. This is personal. The worst thing about this ripoff is that it takes everything that made the original bold and unique and defangs it, making something incredibly generic. (Michael Strogoff is based on the Jules Verne novel of the same name and the adaptation is masterful.)
Let’s set the scene. The Turks attack the carriage containing Olenin and Maryana. He steps out and tries to negotiate, getting stabbed to death for his trouble. The inconvenient husband conveniently killed, Lukashka can claim Maryana! But first, he has to fight the Turks. It all goes haywire and he and Ivan are captured.
They are brought before the Turkish poobah and threatened with all manner of torture. Meanwhile, Ivan’s pal is riding back to the Cossack village to fetch a rescue party. Will they arrive in time? Well, if you have ever seen any movie in your entire life, you will know that reinforcements will arrive just before John Gilbert’s pretty face is actually harmed. Ernest Torrence, however, is not handsome enough to warrant timely rescue.
And now it’s picture time! A comparison of The Cossacks and Michael Strogoff:
(All Michael Strogoff images are from a 9.5mm print kindly shared by Christopher Bird.)
Our hero and one parent are captured by the enemy.
Oh yeah, not copied at all.
If there’s one thing American films love, it’s the cavalry racing to the rescue. It doesn’t matter whether or not it actually fits the story, it’s there. In The Cossacks, Gilbert and Torrence must hold out until that cavalry arrives. The film strongly indicates that Turkey and wherever-the-heck-this-is-supposed-to-be are just a brisk five-minute walk apart. Makes raids and rescues convenient for everyone, eh? Think how much nicer the Cold War would have been if Russia had kept Alaska!
In contrast, Strogoff (Ivan Mosjoukine) is alone. He was supposed to be the one bringing the cavalry to the beleaguered Russian forces but things did not go as planned. Oh, and St. Petersburg is a few thousand miles away and feels it because we have watched his treacherous journey.
Even more significant in this case, Michael Strogoff makes good on its threat in a shocking burst of violence inflicted on its protagonist. The Cossacks builds suspense but the main agony, the stuff that will actually leave a permanent mark, is reserved for the significantly less handsome Torrence. Gilbert is let off with an injured hand. Meanwhile, Michael Strogoff has to drag himself across Siberia with his eyes burned out. There’s still, like, half an hour of movie to go and the baddies need defeating! We’re on pins and needles! This guy is used to tearing through anything that gets in his way and survived being shot in the head. How will he overcome his blindness and succeed now? (Goes back to watch movie again just to make sure everything turns out okay.)
The scene in Michael Strogoff also has more impact because a) Mosjoukine is a better actor than Gilbert and b) he hasn’t spent the whole film giggling but instead somehow found time to do things like character development. (Also, the romance in Michael Strogoff is based on mutual respect and the heroine is sensible, helpful and perceptive. Strogoff manages to romance her without beating or kicking her even once. But, of course, he doesn’t have any turtles, so…)
The Cossacks pretty much ends with the torture scene except for some weird loose ends that we never realized existed. We know that whatever is going on with Lukashka and Maryana is sick but the structure of the film is also out of whack concerning Lukashka’s relationship with his father. We start off with Ivan mortified at his son’s pacifism but he is soon bursting with pride when Lukashka kills and receives a wound in battle, two marks of a true Cossack. Through the rest of the film, Ivan shows himself to be nothing but proud of his son.
But then the grand finale comes and Ivan dies as the result of having his eyes burned out. It really shouldn’t be fatal but the movie doesn’t need him anymore and is fishing an emotional ending. Lukashka kneels over his father’s body and asks if he is now a Cossack, which would have been much more moving if his father had not declared him a Cossack, like, an hour ago.
The film then charmingly closes with a rape joke. Ivan’s pal chases the Turkish women in the fortified city with a lusty look on his face, ties them to his horse and then is shown leading them back to the Cossack village. Lukashka and Maryana are all lovely-dovey with no thought to either Olenin or Ivan. Awwww. So cute I’m gonna throw up!
Why are you so angry about this?
Okay, so this film’s climax is a ripoff. What of it? What harm does it do? A good deal, actually. Let me illustrate.
Imagine a world in which the Kurosawa film Yojimbo is virtually unknown and hardly screened even in Japan. Now imagine that its unauthorized Italian remake, A Fistful of Dollars, is still a famous and beloved picture. (Yojimbo also lifted heavily from other films, particularly The Glass Key but that is another story for another day.)
Suppose you are one of the few people who has seen the Kurosawa film and you are blown away by its quality. Wouldn’t it start to get annoying if no one ever acknowledged Yojimbo? (This actually happens but there are enough Kurosawa fans to dogpile the offender.) Its ruthless hero praised as the height of innovation. The plot device of a bodyguard turning both sides against one another? A stroke of genius! The villain’s psychotic kid brother? Superb! And all the while, no one even mentions that Yojimbo exists.
A few sessions of that and just about anyone would start seeing red. Kurosawa’s sharp direction, the splendid acting of the original cast, the wonderfully sick humor… all utterly ignored in favor of a remake. I’m not saying that A Fistful of Dollars is necessarily bad, it’s just that it owes a lot to the Japanese original and shouldn’t hog the credit. (Kurosawa and company sued, by the way, and received a settlement. Good for them!) Now imagine if A Fistful of Dollars had been a terrible turkey.
Well, friends, that’s exactly how I feel every time someone starts squeaking about the brilliance of the branding scene in The Cossacks or what a rip-snorter of an adventure it is. I get the same irritation when people praise William Wellman’s The Purchase Price but ignore William Beaudine’s The Canadian, from which the Wellman flick lifted its entire plot. But at least The Canadian is on DVD. It takes a little work to see the film but it is available.
That’s really the worst of it. The Cossacks has been released on DVD with a modern orchestral score while Michael Strogoff is still languishing in the vaults. This isn’t really anyone’s fault; releasing silent films on high-quality home video is costly and the market is limited. I’m just angry at the world in general. The archives, producers and home media companies are doing their best but money is an object and they have to choose their releases very carefully. (Public Service Announcement: Please be sure to support these fine people by purchasing their releases or streaming them through reputable sources and encouraging other fans to do the same. More silent movies sold and rented mean more silent movies released.)
My overall point is that if you wander over and start praising the climax of The Cossacks, I may start pelting you with cheap jelly beans.
Thieves and Cutthroats
But where is my proof? Well, dear ones, first we must remember that Michael Strogoff was imported by Universal with great fanfare in 1926. Strogoff hit the States when there was a craze for Russian pictures and it received a glamorous premiere in Washington D.C. Mosjoukine himself followed the next year, made The Film of Which We Do Not Speak and then returned to Europe. So the original article was hardly unknown in the United States.
Oh, you want pictures? Very well, then. Behold!
More importantly, Michael Strogoff’s director, Victor Tourjansky, was originally engaged to direct The Cossacks. He was replaced by George Hill and then the film was finished by Clarence Brown. Yes, this is one of those films. Tourjansky is credited as Viatcheslav in his Russian work, Victor/Viktor or V. in his French work, back to Viatcheslav during his American stint and Viktor when he made films in Germany. After the war, he was Viktor or V. or W. or sometimes Arnaldo Genoino because why the heck not? I think MGM wanted to play up Tourjansky’s foreign origins for publicity purposes, thus the Viatcheslav.
Supposedly, Tourjansky and Irving Thalberg did not get on at all. There are several versions of the story (including the inevitable “Norma Shearer sure is cross-eyed, amiright, Irving?” tale) but the most plausible is the one that had Tourjansky proclaiming the script of the western he was filming to be stupid. The point is, Tourjansky and MGM did not mix.
Tourjansky also had a stint directing Tempest (everyone in Hollywood had a stint directing Tempest) but was fired from that as well. All he left behind was his brother-in-law, Boris de Fast, who played a Bolshevik with a strong resemblance to Alfred E. Neuman. Tempest cinematographer Charles Rosher liked and respected Tourjansky but stated that his style was too slow and methodical for the Hollywood factory system. Kevin Brownlow, who interviewed Tourjansky in his later life, described his manner as cold. I don’t know what Simone Simon saw in him. Slow-moving and lacking personal charm? Not a good combination for the Hollywood studio system. Better steal his best stuff and send him packing back to Europe.
And so, I think we have some very strong evidence of a ripoff. We know that Michael Strogoff was available in America, we know that the film’s director was actually hired to direct The Cossacks at one point. Further, the screenwriter for The Cossacks was Frances Marion, who was rather shameless in her thievery, stealing plots, characters, title cards. In all fairness, Marion had not wanted the task of adapting the introspective novella but later claimed that Irving Thalberg had left her no choice.
I am always quick to defend mainstream Hollywood productions from the sniffing snobbery of the pro-Europe brigade but in this case, well, the charges of philistinism are pretty strong. A reader’s report on the story’s suitability as a motion picture:
The plot, if it could be said to have one, is too thin for pictures. The title misleads the unwary reader. I thought it would concern thrilling, dramatic action by Cossack soldiers. I didn’t know that there were non-soldiers called Cossacks too. But this novel is almost entirely a detailed exposition of the everyday life of such people.
Oh, the stupid! To… much… stupid… Must… not… kill…
Marion also claimed that there were just too many cooks on the picture with executives and stars all demanding changes and I think it’s pretty clear why she felt the need to lift from Michael Strogoff. However, the theft is sloppy and lacks the proper narrative setup. Also, as stated above, The Cossacks does not have the courage of its convictions and wimps out during the dramatic branding scene. Sheesh, they can’t even steal well. (If I couch all of Marion’s testimony in words like “claimed” it is because I consider her a highly unreliable narrator given to sculpting her account in order to build up her own reputation.)
The ruins of a once great novel
As I stated at the start of this review, I don’t really have a problem with a film adaptation changing aspects of a novel. It is inevitable and often necessary. What I do object to, though, are drastic changes that do not improve the story. Here are a few of my picks from The Cossacks.
One particularly annoying defense of this film is that it is just being accurate in portraying a very different culture. Horse feathers! Reflecting the double standard of 1920s Hollywood, the film shows that the Cossack women are responsible for all the work around the village, the men being preoccupied with fighting. This is how it was in the novel but what the film omits is Tolstoy’s belief that:
(Cossack women) possess far greater influence and importance in family-life than Western women. Their exclusion from public life and inurement to heavy male labour give the women all the more power and importance in the household. A Cossack, who before strangers considers it improper to speak affectionately or needlessly to his wife, when alone with her is involuntarily conscious of her superiority. His house and all his property, in fact the entire homestead, has been acquired and is kept together solely by her labour and care. Though firmly convinced that labour is degrading to a Cossack and is only proper for a Nogay labourer or a woman, he is vaguely aware of the fact that all he makes use of and calls his own is the result of that toil, and that it is in the power of the woman (his mother or his wife) whom he considers his slave, to deprive him of all he possesses.
Whether or not this is true or we agree with this summary, it is significant that the script for the 1928 film opted to ignore this notion. Also eliminated is the idea that:
In their relations with men the women, and especially the unmarried girls, enjoy perfect freedom.
In short, Maryana should have had more in common with a 1920s flapper than some Victorian damsel. Instead, MGM and Marion opted to include all the squicky aspects of the culture portrayed in Tolstoy’s novel but eliminate all the elements that were freeing for the women.
The other big problem is that the script opts to flip the importance of Olenin and Lukashka in the story. However, Lukashka has no real character arc, it was omitted by design in the novel. What to do? What to do? The film needed the hero to grow and change in some way but Olenin had all the personality. A solution had to be found.
So, what Marion finally ended up doing was performing a bit of blending. The recipe:
Take 1 Lukashka and 1 Olenin. Add one liter of gaping grins and a whole box of groping fingers. Pulse in food processor until well mixed. Separate the paste and form two men, add a mustache to each. Dust one paste man with eyeshadow and press a wad of pet fur onto the head of the other. Done! You now have two male characters for The Cossacks.
Don’t agree? Okay, without mentioning their name, nationality or who plays them, describe the difference between Olenin and Lukashka in this film. A groping fellow who chases Renee Adoree around? Which one? Offhand, the only unique characteristic of Lukashka I can think of is his turtle fixation. He’s essentially a Russian Gussie Fink-Nottle! This is not a good sign.
Finally, the idea that Olenin is a prince and was sent by the czar specifically to find a Cossack wife is just silly. If they hadn’t wasted their time on thwarted turtle-based seduction there would have been plenty of time to introduce Olenin properly and have him attempt to win Maryana over with his city-ish ways, no silly mission from the czar required.
The technical side
Okay, so The Cossacks shows basic competence with editing, costume design and sets, though I must say that the California location feels a bit off. Perhaps it’s because I have seen too many westerns but I kept expecting everyone to sit down to a game of poker before robbing the Wells Fargo wagon. However, the Russian extras do their best to make things suitably eastern.
There are also Russian stuntmen doing horsey stunts (Tourjanksy said they sailed over with him) but they are overused. We are given ten minutes of stunts when only three would have done the trick. Maybe someone realized the film was terrible and so they attempted to salvage it with spectacle. In any case, no soap.
Bad acting and cooked books
The Cossacks also had problems from the acting branch. John Gilbert was not happy at all with the film and was not shy about his concerns. He claimed that the picture had been budgeted at a measly $125,000, hardly an amount befitting an epic. (MGM claimed that five times that amount was spent.) Now Gilbert complained about everything at MGM but I wonder in this case. Both King Vidor and Erich von Stroheim accused the studio of hanky-panky with the books so this would not be unheard of.
Compared to other MGM epics and especially to Michael Strogoff, a lot of scenes in The Cossacks look dinky and its matte shots are insultingly obvious. The battle scenes and village dance scenes are on a more epic scale but they don’t seem to fit with the rest of the film. Perhaps they were stitched on later?
(By the way, please don’t repeat the debunked nonsense that Eleanor Boardman spread about Gilbert and Louis B. Mayer duking it out in the men’s room at her wedding. It’s been utterly rejected by respected historians and biographers. Come on, the story relies on us believing that a bride would be hanging out in the gents’ loo on her wedding day. Gilbert’s decline and fall is a complicated tale and telling it in terms of black and white is not helpful to the historical record.)
Gilbert wore his heart on his sleeve and, in my opinion, his displeasure with the film shows. As a result, he overcompensates by grinning. My arch-nemesis, New York Times film critic Mordaunt Hall, shows a shocking amount of perceptiveness, pointing out that, “Mr. Gilbert is much too gay for the character. His laughter is hollow. He is stirred to merriment by actions that would hardly provoke a smile, and in more serious moments he appears to be self-conscious.
Well, well, well, Mr. Hall. I guess a blind pig does find a truffle now and again. A full 30% of the film’s runtime seems to be taken up with either Gilbert, Asther or Torrence grinning like a demon at the camera. I think the idea was to give the film a Fairbanksian sense of fun but it just looks like the three male leads have been huffing whipped cream containers behind the sets. Nitrous oxide: the key to any good performance.
Dale Fuller, who was capable of such good things, is given nothing to do. Only dear Renee Adoree escapes the mess with some amount of dignity intact. Not much but some. Sure, her role is to make domestic abuse seem cute desirable but she does her best and looks adorable in her peasant garb. It helps that her character is objectively the least obnoxious.
The horrible, bloody conclusion
The Cossacks is a disaster from beginning to end and no one who made the picture seems to have particularly liked it. It is a prime example of what the Hollywood studio system could do to fine literature and the general philistinism that was taking over the industry. While the technical aspects (stunts, sets, editing, etc.) are competent, they serve an idiotic master.
The Cossacks is stupid, sleazy, coarse and clunky. Its best scenes are lifted from other, better films. The most common defense (“But, but, but, JOHN GILBERT is in it!”) is so silly that there is no response needed. Every actor makes a bomb or two in their lifetime. This happens to be one of Gilbert’s. Deal with it.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★½
Where can I see it?
The Cossacks was released on DVD by Warner Archive with an orchestral score by Robert Israel. Mr. Israel deserves kudos for making this bomb tolerable with his usual excellent work on the music front.
I was particularly eager to try out the Russian version of The Cossacks because almost nothing has been written about it in English. I’m in uncharted territory, which is my favorite place to be.
The two reviews posted on IMDB leave much to be desired. One praises it for allowing viewers to enjoy a movie version of Dostoevsky (?) and the other complains that a Soviet movie made by a Soviet director in the Soviet Union for Soviet audiences reflects Soviet values. Why, the very idea! It’s un-American!
The film was directed by Vasily Pronin (not to be confused with the Stalin loyalist of the same name) who is probably best known for co-directing the Indian-Russian film Pardesi.
There was a Soviet version of The Cossacks directed by Vladimir Barsky (not to be confused with the chess player of the same name) released in 1928. This would have been a fascinating apples to apples comparison but I was unable to locate a copy and so we shall content ourselves with the 1961 version. If I track it down, I will be sure to review it and please let me know if you have any information on it, I would love to hear it! Word of the 1928 Soviet version has been scanty and a lot of it is mixed up with the 1928 MGM version.
During the post-Stalin thaw, the Soviets set about remaking silent classics. For example, The Forty-First was first made in 1927 by Yakov Protazanov and then remade and romanticized in 1956 by Grigori Chukhrai. The Cossacks would soon receive the same treatment.
However, to make things even more confusing, there was a 1960 film entitled The Cossacks made in Italy starring John Drew Barrymore and directed by… Victor Tourjansky. This Italian version does not seem to be based on anything by Tolstoy.
The Talkie Challenger
We know that we are in a completely different world from the MGM picture when the Mosfilm version opens… just like the novel? Is this done? After picking my jaw up from the floor, I kept watching. Unfortunately, the introspective nature of The Cossacks continues to baffle filmmakers. In lieu of interior monologue, we are given spoken narration, which is a rather clunky solution.
Dmitri Olenin (Leonid Gubanov) is a young wastrel who recently broken off a romance and decides to join the military and move to the Caucasus. He is immediately smitten by the culture of the Cossacks and befriends Eroshka (Boris Andreyev), an eccentric drunkard. Meanwhile, Maryana (Zinaida Kirienko) is carrying on a flirtation with Lukashka (Eduard Bredun), a gutsy young fellow who has just shot an enemy soldier trying to sneak into Cossack territory.
The film gets off to a slow start but everything improves once Boris Andreyev’s Eroshka shows up. A well-aged ham in the best sense, Andreyev swallows the scenery whole, right down to the curtains. His colorful delivery and forceful performance inject some much-needed liveliness into a film on the verge of being entirely too polite.
Kirienko and Bredun are very photogenic in their Cossack gear (particularly Kirienko, who was actually born in Dagestan) but their characters lack the depth required to make them really interesting. While they flirt and banter and eat sunflower seeds and dance with vigor, there’s not much below the surface. Perhaps that was the point all along.
Leoid Gubanov is similarly tripped up with Olenin. The character is pretentious and given to oversimplification of the big picture, which Tolstoy makes clear is a folly of youth. Basically, he is the 19th century Russian equivalent of a modern teenage boy going through that Ayn Rand phase. (“Mom, stop bugging me to set the table! I’m going Galt!”) He thinks he has everything figured out but it’s abundantly clear that he hasn’t a clue. Olenin believes he can appropriate a culture and find happiness. What he really needs is to grow up. He can put on traditional Cossack dress but he can’t appropriate their culture through creative costuming.
The problem is that this type of character is incredibly challenging to portray in a motion picture, an art that thrives on action and visual dazzle. It’s not impossible but Vasili Pronin is simply too polite a director to make it work. Such a task requires a certain virtuosity behind the camera that is lacking here.
In the end, The Cossacks suffers from being too respectful toward its source material. It has the flavor of one of those stiff, staid BBC Dickens adaptations from the 1980s. (And I normally like my adaptations on the stiff side.) What’s on the page is put on the screen but Pronin does not use the motion picture medium to deepen the tale and the lack of internal monologue further damages the narrative.
In many ways, The Cossacks of 1961 is the perfect polar opposite of the 1928 film. The silent chucked much of its source material, didn’t seem to understand what was actually involved with what remained and spackled over the cracks with scenes filched from better films and every action-romance cliché under the sun.
And the winner is… The Talkie
While the 1961 film is not particularly imaginative and is hardly a lost masterpiece, it goes down smoothly and shows a basic understanding of the story and lessons Tolstoy was trying to convey. The 1928 film is not so much an adaptation of The Cossacks as it is an adaptation of the book’s jacket description conveyed through a few drunken games of telephone.
Further, the 1961 version has the advantage of authentic local color while the MGM picture made do with imported Russians and California scenery, which had the unintended side effect of making the movie look even more like a western with fur hats.
The sound film is a decent enough adaptation and might even save a desperate student’s grade when they realize that they were supposed to read the novel a month ago and the book report is due tomorrow. It’s staid but harmless.
Availability: The 1961 version of The Cossacks is available for free, legal viewing with English subtitles on Mosfilm’s official YouTube channel.