They raided her home, killed her family, stole her horse and now they’re gonna pay! Viola Dana stars as a Russian peasant who sets out to avenge her murdered family. It’s a stylish drama of vengeance and ballet in the waning days of Imperial Russia.
Rebels, raids and ballerinas
Director John H. Collins made quite an impression during his brief career. His bold melodramas reinvigorated the flagging Edison studio but his early death in the influenza epidemic of 1918 proved to be a tragedy for the film industry and his wife, leading lady Viola Dana.
The Cossack Whip is one of his most famous films. Its ripped-from-the-headlines plot involves totalitarian brutality in Russia and features an infamously sadistic climax as Viola Dana avenges her murdered family. There’s Hollywood gloss but it has some very sharp edges. (By the way, I shall be using the term “Hollywood” to refer to the American film industry and its overall style. I do realize that this was an east coast production but Hollywood is a convenient term to use when discussing American vs. Russian film styles.)
Dana plays Darya, a Russian peasant living in a small village with her father, sister, future brother-in-law, as well as assorted domestic animals. All is idyllic (well, as idyllic as things get in Hollywood Russia) but that cannot last. A group of captured Bolsheviks are being marched to Siberia but their comrades have vowed to rescue them. Sergius (Richard Tucker) is the darling of the Imperial Ballet but he is also a secret revolutionary and he rides out to help with the rescue. On the way, he has a meet cute with Darya.
The revolutionaries are rescued but police official Turov (Frank Farrington) vows to track them down. He orders a raid on Darya’s village. Darya escapes capture by hiding in a barrel but her sister and her fiancé are taken. Turov blackmail’s Darya’s sister into sleeping with him by promising to spare her fiancé but then has him flogged to death anyway. The sister is flogged as well and she tells her story to Darya before dying in her arms. This makes Darya prime recruitment material for the revolutionaries and she is more than happy to join the cause.
Darya runs into Sergius once again and they are the only ones to escape another police raid. Sergius hides Darya among his troupe of ballerinas and then sends her off to England to avoid the police dragnet. Through a set of plot conviences, Darya becomes a star ballerina in her own right and decides to return to Russia to seek revenge.
(Spoiler) The climax involves Darya flirting with Turov, playfully chaining him to the wall and then producing a whip that she had concealed in her gown. She identifies herself, states her purpose and then beats the hell out of him. This gleeful and, frankly, kinky vengeance is pretty much the antithesis of proper movie behavior under the Code (still quite a few years away) but apparently no one thought to censor the scene. Darya herself does not deliver the coup de grâce—that’s left for a convenient undercover revolutionary—and so she is allowed to escape to America with Sergius. I like to think she had a long and fruitful career as a hitwoman.
I’m not sure if it is possible to heap enough praise on Viola Dana for her excellent performance. Darya’s sweet, plucky personality realistically morphs into a dark and brooding angel of vengeance and that ain’t easy. Collins allows the camera to linger on her face and Dana projects her thoughts to the audience with remarkable precision and intensity for such a young performer. Dana herself felt that she had been miscast as the violent finale was quite a challenge. The whip was too heavy for her (Dana was one of the tinier silent leading ladies, standing just 4’11”) and she had trouble lifting it. Personally, I think Dana’s modesty is charming but she clearly had this thing handled.
During the finale, Darya’s pent up rage bursts out in a violent frenzy as she attacks her enemy. When she realizes that she has been seen and that she may not be able to finish her task, her attack grows more intense. She tries to get in as many blows as she can before she is stopped. (May I put in a dig about “silent movie damsels” right here?) Rarely has a Bolshevik been given such a sympathetic and powerful role in a mainstream American film but The Cossack Whip was not the only anti-czarist picture on the market.
You see, The Cossack Whip comes from a curious period in Hollywood history when anti-czar sentiments were smiled upon. Remember that many of the early studio executives and their families had fled pogroms in the Russian Empire. Fleeing tyranny tends to leave scars. (There’s even a rumor that Leon Trotsky appeared in a 1917 film with Clara Kimball Young! Trotsky himself denied it and the man in the film seems to be just a lookalike but it’s fun to imagine what could have been.)
The Romanovs have been romanticized by later Hollywood films but it’s worth remembering that Alexander II was an incompetent and racist despot. As I often say, the Russian people jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire when the revolution came but that doesn’t mean the frying pan was particularly pleasant. (For more details on this period, I heartily recommend Kevin Brownlow’s Behind the Mask of Innocence, which I relied on heavily for background information on this film.)
Russia was teetering on the brink in 1916. Collins took this hot news topic and combined it with a basic melodrama, which was standard movie procedure in the 1910s. Still is, come to think of it. What really sets this film apart is the director’s eye for detail and his snappy editing.
While the climax is praised (and it is shocking), I was particularly impressed by the raid on Darya’s village. Collins and cameraman John Arnold crosscut between Darya and her family dancing with the Cossacks thundering across the snow. The villagers run in terror and a gunshot finally alerts Darya’s family to the danger but it is too late. They are targeted in the raid. Collins’ cuts are bold, rapid and they never once feel self-indulgent. They build suspense and create an ironic contrast between the frenzied joy of Darya’s family and the emotionless activity of the Cossacks. Even though we see the horsemen silhouetted against the snow, the scene feels claustrophobic and tense. There is no escape.
On the subject of the innovative editing, Brownlow writes: “Some of the flashes are a mere twelve frames; this is a pioneering example of the rapid cutting which, ironically, the Russians made famous, and is the earliest I have seen.” In a footnote, Brownlow points out that The Unbeliever, another Edison film, also shows this lightning fast cutting. Is it possible that the same unnamed editor was responsible for both films? An intriguing theory! (Needless to say, both the Edison pictures predate Abel Gance’s La Roue, often listed as the pioneering work in rapid editing.)
That’s not to say the film is without its flaws. Richard Tucker is not particularly appealing as the romantic lead—and not just because he is introduced in a ballet costume that looks like it was designed for The Flintstones. (The one-shouldered pelt look is so stone age!) He’s just… not that interesting. We know he’s a revolutionary but, other than helping Darya evade the secret police, he is never given much to do along that line. Worse, Tucker seems to be the worst kind of stage ham, constantly striking overwrought poses and gazing heavenward. This is especially noticeable contrasted with Dana’s natural performance. Tucker also earns the title Least Graceful Performer Cast as Ballet Star and would hold it until Greta Garbo thumped across the set of Grand Hotel.
Speaking of ballet, it is interesting to see how many silent films set in Russia depend on it to move their story along. It’s like the Hollywoodland list entitled “Things They Do in Russia” had four items: wear fur hats, walk in the snow, grow beards and dance ballet. The problem is that the ballet scenes are not terribly important other than as a means to get Darya from point A to point B. One wonders what her backup plan would have been if she had not met two famous dancers AND had the skills to be a star herself. How many women pick up ballet in their nineteenth year and becomes superstars anyway? I was under the impression that you had to start early in that business.
In the end, though, the flaws of The Cossack Whip are more than made up for by its many good points. Collins shows his flair for bold and clever editing, Dana is wonderful in the lead and the picture captures the claustrophobic flavor of a police state. It deserves to be better known.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★½
Where can I see it?
While prints exist in several archives, The Cossack Whip has never been released on home media. I was able to see it thanks to a private screening.