Officially the story of the Constitution’s successful attack on Tripoli to fight back against the Barbary pirates but really a love story between a sailor and the shipowner’s daughter and a bromance between Wallace Beery and George Bancroft.
Home Media Availability: Released on Bluray.
Shores of Tripoli, etc.
You’ve got your ships, you’ve got your swords, you’ve got your romance… and that’s how you make a hit. Old Ironsides was one of the first silent epics that I saw on the big screen, so I have warm nostalgia toward it. Something about a big, beautiful sailing ship large as life in a theater… yes, this is a genre I like very much.
The film opens with a problem: Barbary pirates are raiding every ship in sight and making vacations to Italy just impossible. Something must be done! The Americans don’t want to pay tribute for safe passage, so they decide to build warships instead and the result is the Constitution. That will show those pirates who’s boss! Arr!
The Constitution was not yet called Old Ironsides and the ship doesn’t make its proper appearance until an hour into the film. Fooled you, good, didn’t they? You see, as a navy ship of war, the Constitution would not have offered an opportunity for Charles Farrell to make googly eyes at Esther Ralston. See, me, I would have fallen back on the oldie-but-goodie woman-dressed-as-man-to-join-the-military trope but Ralston looked too good in Directoire fashion for such a thing.
As a result, the first half of the picture takes place on the Esther, a merchant vessel named for the owner’s daughter, Esther, played by Esther Ralston. Very convenient, that. Our hero is Charles Farrell (this is one of those “the Girl” and “the Boy” films, nobody really has a proper name outside of historical figures) and he wants to join the Navy and see the world, etc.
Unfortunately, Wallace Beery is present in one of his signature unethical-but-lovable-slob roles (well, they thought he was lovable) as the bos’n of the Esther and he is out to get a crew by any means necessary. He’s aided by his pal, George Bancroft, who is the chief gunner of the Constitution. Beery doesn’t let friendship get in the way of a bounty and ends up pressing both Bancroft and Farrell into service. Farrell doesn’t mind much, though, because he is smitten with Esther.
The Esther is sailing for Italy and the crew is confident that, with both the Constitution and the Philadelphia in the region, they will have nothing to worry about from pirates. This gives Farrell and Ralston plenty of time for flirtation, which lands him in a heap of trouble when he lets go of the ship’s wheel to kiss her and nearly floods the place.
I have to say, I always sympathize with the background characters in these love scenes. That’s great, the boy kissed the girl but did he have to wake up the entire ship to do it? Have some consideration! (I have to confess that I am not the biggest fan of grand love scenes, so your mileage will vary here.)
Unfortunately for the Esther, the U.S. Navy has experienced a setback. The Philadelphia has run aground, its crew captured and the vessel seized for use in piracy. It’s up to the crew of the Constitution to destroy the vessel before it can be turned against them and the intrepid Lieutenant Stephen Decatur (Johnnie Walker) leads a small team to do just that.
Meanwhile, the pirates of Tripoli board and capture the Esther. The crew is put to work in a quarry and Esther and the Esther are to be sent off as gifts for the sultan. Much dramatic gazing between Ralston and Farrell ensues. (I am reminded of a title card in the showbiz spoof Show People: “Your lover is dying. Suffer.”)
And so, the pattern for the next reel of the film is established: scenes involving the Constitution and its crew doing wooden ships and iron men stuff, scenes of Farrell and Ralston being tortured and giving one another passionate looks. It drags. Yes, indeed, does it drag.
The Constitution stuff is terrific, though. The destruction of the Philadelphia scene is lean and efficient with Decatur leading a lightning raid, his men blowing a hole in the bottom of the ship and then they all sail away calmly as it burns in the background. (We are all familiar with the “walk slowly and calmly away from fiery destruction” trope and this is an early nautical variation.)
But we haven’t had a flogging scene or a shot of Esther withering under lusty stares in at least three minutes, so let’s get back to more of those! What’s that? You want more Old Ironsides in Old Ironsides? I’m sorry, all complaints must be submitted in writing. (I freely admit that much of this depends on your enjoyment of a shirtless Farrell. No shame if that’s your thing but it’s not mine, so I am clearly not the target market for it.)
Thank goodness someone finally has a plan and it’s the Esther’s cook, George Godfrey, who suggests that he, Farrell, Beery and Bancroft escape together and steal and skip in order to try to get help from the Constitution and save everyone else. Since they’re all chained together, it’s an all-or-nothing proposal.
Since Esther is aboard the Esther, Farrell offers to save her but she realizes that she cannot slip away unnoticed, so she tells them to leave without her. More kisses, stricken glances, we all know the drill by now.
Enough of that mushy stuff! More money shots of the Constitution, please! I do enjoy loving pans of real sailing ships or galleys in the movies. Any studio worth its salt had to have at least one functional replica, refitted vessel or even original to its name. The Sea Hawk for First National, DeMille’s The Yankee Clipper, Charles Ray’s The Courtship of Miles Standish, MGM’s Ben-Hur, Edison’s Kidnapped, and, of course, Old Ironsides.
The real Constitution had been deemed a museum ship and so the mid-19th century clipper. The Llewelyn J. Morse, was refitted for the role. That ship crops up often in fan magazines of the period in relation to The Black Pirate, where it played the central role before receiving a complete makeover for Old Ironsides. So, that’s a nice bit of trivia to show off.
There’s something about the heft of a full-size ship that miniatures and CGI just never quite capture and this was the heyday for such lavish spending. Every cent right there on the screen to admire. (Charles Farrell fans contend that him losing his shirt and never recovering it was a similar splashing of cash. Fair point, I suppose, though I would argue he was being paid by the week no matter how much shirt he wore.)
Anyway, will our heroes save the day? Will the U.S. Marine anthem be able to mention Tripoli? See Old Ironsides to find out!
I would count Old Ironsides as one of the very good naval films of the silent feature era but not necessarily one of the greats. Charles Farrell and Esther Ralston are lovely to look at but there isn’t much to them beyond that and these nominal leads are sandwiched securely between two of the thickest slices of well-cured, hickory smoked ham that twenties Hollywood had to offer. George Bancroft or Wallace Beery could upstage all but the most determined co-stars and here they were together.
The main character of The Sea Hawk is a violent pseudo-pirate whose propensity for settling differences in a stabby manner leads him to being framed for murder. Ramon Novarro in Scaramouche is blinded by revenge and falls into obsession and political fanaticism, nearly destroying everything he loves in the fires of the French Revolution.
Farrell in Old Ironsides… just wants to join the United States Navy, stare at Esther Ralston, and permanently lose all clothing above the waist. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this type of character, of course, and Farrell performs the part well. It’s just that there isn’t much meat on those bones, especially with all the juicy scenes going to Bancroft and Beery. And George Godfrey is the one who proposes stealing a boat to join the Constitution. Ralston isn’t even offered the dignity of a hoary “You cannot marry a mere sailor!” plot and spends much of the film being a damsel and a MacGuffin.
Old Ironsides is not the first film to see its supporting cast steal the show and it certainly is not the last. In fact, I would say that such a thing happens more often than not in historical action and swashbuckling pictures and the hero doesn’t necessarily have to do everything but my favorites of the genre tend to be the ones where the main character has more pep and personality. Both the Douglas Fairbanks and Tyrone Power interpretations of Zorro, for example.
After all, would we remember The Adventures of Robin Hood nearly as fondly if Erroll Flynn had played a would-be forester from Derby who occasionally meets the outlaws but spends most of the film being harassed by the Sherriff of Nottingham and being chummy with Little John’s comical second cousin three times removed.
However, if you’re in this picture for the ships and the boom-booms (and who isn’t, let’s be honest) the you are going to find a lot to like. Obviously, beautiful vessels sailing the blue Mediterranean—er, California coast—are gorgeous and there are also battles and boarding aplenty.
In addition to the set pieces, Old Ironsides is filled with nice little visual flourishes that add up to a classy-looking picture. A camera fastened to the crow’s nest for a bird’s eye view of Farrell climbing the rigging. The title cards tilting up and down as characters speak on a rolling, stormy ship. Nothing that changes the outcome of the story but these details show the care that went into the film.
For better or worse, Old Ironsides is a James Cruze film. Director Cruze had an amazing eye and a talent for conveying an epic sweep on par with DeMille and Curtiz but he also had a tendency toward assertive and obnoxious jingoism, as seen in Hawthorne of the U.S.A. The Barbary Wars were by no means cut and dried, they were as complicated as any armed conflict and framing them as a holy crusade, rather than influenced by economics, makes them far less interesting.
American filmmakers were perfectly capable of injecting nuance into war films in the 1920s. In fact, I would say it was a signature of a decade spent grappling with the First World War and the role cinematic propaganda played. I think the simplicity of the film’s conflict likely aided its success. Barbary pirates were popular enough villains at the time—the 1924 adaptation of The Sea Hawk mentioned earlier had been a smash hit—and audiences did not have to grapple with the sort of emotions that would be inherent to Great War pictures. Hollywood had done a whiplash-inducing U-turn, going from “hate the Hun” to “meet our new superstar from Germany!” in just a few short years.
That’s not to say the picture entirely succeeds on blind emotion. Keeping the adventure primarily on the Esther for much of the runtime creates emotional distance between the audience and the crew of the Constitution as they go into battle. There is a scene where a cabin boy is killed as the pirates’ guns sweep the deck. But we were just introduced to him a minute before. Imagine if we had been watching his antics for the first half of the picture instead?
Then there’s the fact that once the Constitution does show up, we get a bulk stack of title cards explaining historical context, which brings the whole picture to a screeching halt. And, of course, historical films always run the risk of turning into a roll call, especially during the silent era when names could be listed at length. Sure enough, we start receiving a history lesson and who’s who of early United States naval warfare, which is fine as far as that goes but a less stilted introduction would have improved the picture. A casual “do something nautical, Mr. Macdonough!” would have been a sufficient name drop.
So, there are some issues with the picture that are not necessarily unique and may even be described as inherent to its genre. But my bar for silent swashbucklers is incredibly high, with Scaramouche, The Sea Hawk and The Mark of Zorro reigning as the ideal examples of the era. Still, a ginormous epic swashbuckler with just a so-so plot is pretty darn good.
For spectacle, Old Ironsides is difficult to beat. It’s a prime example of the kind of epic filmmaking silent era audiences had come to expect and the scale of these productions has never been matched. There are some stiff and awkward parts but overall, an impressive piece of cinema. Do I just like big sailing ships lobbing projectiles at one another? Yes. Yes, I do.
Where can I see it?
Check out the absolutely stunning restoration released on DVD and Bluray by Kino.
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I watched an excellent print on a streaming channel and the ships looked fantastic. I got a bit tired of Farrell and Ralston’s love scenes but Bancroft and Beery were great fun. The battle scenes were terrific and quite gruesome in some places. I hadn’t seen it before and I enjoyed it very much.Thanks for your review which I also enjoyed very much.
Thank you! Yes, that was my impression too: loved the hamtastic support and the action, wasn’t quite so sold on the love stuff.