Searching for Rex Ingram! by James Harrison


On Sunday 16th November 2014 Bristol Silents in collaboration with Bristol 2014, Watershed and Photoplay Productions will screen a double bill of two great silent film epics about the First World War.

The double bill will start with Rex Ingram’s incredible The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) starring Rudolph Valentino and conclude with King Vidor’s stunning The Big Parade (1925) starring John Gilbert. Both films will be introduced by celebrated film historian and filmmaker Kevin Brownlow – an event which no one should miss.

But there is another reason for coming to see these films and one of them in particular James Harrison explains…

SEARCHING FOR REX INGRAM! by James Harrison

With the screening on the 16th November of both The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) and The Big Parade (1925) audiences are given an incredibly rare treat to see two of the most important war films made in Hollywood in the 1920s. It is also worth noting that this double bill is not one of your regular DVD screenings, both of these films are from prints from Photoplay’s very own film archive with accompanying scores by Carl Davis and (to top all of that off) both films come with a special intro by Kevin Brownlow himself. Believe me when I say that such an event like this doesn’t come too often anymore, especially in the UK!

But I turn my particular attention towards The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse (1921) screening, a film which has always been connected to one of the greatest stars of the history of cinema, Rudolph Valentino. True, over the years the films connection with Valentino has very much overshadowed everyone else who has been connected to the film but what can you do when the interest in a legend like Rudolph Valentino is so high; “Valentino is Valentino” someone once told to me.

But when you ask people (even some regular cinephiles) to name the director of the film that made Valentino into the star he would become, many would not be able to name director Rex Ingram. Some people could say “Oh James, you’ve just been speaking to the wrong people then haven’t you?!” But this isn’t the point, let alone a good enough reason.

Can a major name such as Rex Ingram (the director who Erich von Stroheim once called ‘The world’s greatest director’, David Lean stated ‘Rex Ingram gave me new horizons’ or Michael Powell concluded ‘The greatest stylist of his time, not excepting von Stroheim’) really be forgotten by film fans? I surely hope not, but I do think that we are beginning to lose his name in the tides of film history.

The reason for this outburst is mainly down to one of my favourite pastimes (when I get the chance these days) of flicking through old film books and looking at some of the stunning illustrations which can be found within. A book on a subject such as film or cinema in general should be well illustrated by the way, no excuses. For me it’s always a thrill to look through these kinds of books.

But when flicking through, stopping at the odd photograph of the sea battle from Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925), a publicity photograph of William Hart (who ALWAYS seems to be pointing a gun at me), the incredible image of Mephisto engulfing a village with his wings of plague in Faust (1926), a young Napoleon leaning against a cannon looking on at his only friend, an Eagle from Gance’s Napoleon (1927) or Louise Brooks in Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) there is one particular image which has always struck me and made me look at it a little bit longer than any other. That particular image is of an Uhlan cavalry unit entering a destroyed village which is set in World War One.

That particular image has always stuck in my mind, the ruined church and the surrounding buildings scarred by artillery bombardments, the abandoned items in the centre of the frame with refugees looking on as the cavalry unit makes its way through the village with an infantry column following on in the background.

The picture is taken from The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and is one of the most regular images used in reference to the film, although, Valentino dressed in his ‘Latin Lover’ outfit is also a regular image as well. But what really hits me about the Uhlan image is the immense power which it brings over about the destruction of the First World War as well as the sheer grandeur of such an image from a film director like Ingram, the image doesn’t need to explain itself, it needs to ‘be’.

This vision of a destroyed village is a classic Ingram set piece, like in his later films such as The Conquering Power (1921), The Prisoner of Zenda (1922), Scaramouche (1923), The Arab (1924) and Mare Nostrum (1926) the subject in the image is perfectly framed. Understandably getting such a vision onto the screen was expensive. The castle and the village were constructed for $25,000, 14 cameras were used for the scene and many assistant directors on the Metro lot were enrolled to help out. A Moving Picture World correspondent describes the situation when visiting the village set…

‘I went out to the hills beyond Griffith Park over a switchback automobile road to where Rex Ingram is making the battle stuff for Metro’s Four Horsemen. This is one of the most elaborate things of its kind I have ever seen. There was a French village built up on a slope of a hill and across the canyon, a castle with walls over 200ft high. The scene represented a part of the battle of the Marne. The German army was approaching and throwing shells into the town…. Another minute and part of the steeple of the church would come down with a mighty crash. Next the front of a shop would come tumbling into the street. Then the big siren that was used for signalling the battery would screech its ‘stop firing’ signal and things would be quiet until the smoke cleared.’

Four Horseman of the Apocalypse wasn’t going to be another war picture with ‘battle stuff’ in it; as biographer and film historian Liam O’Leary noted, it was far more than that and it all cost:

‘The official statics of the production show that it cost $1 million and took six months to make. Twelve thousand people were engaged. There were fourteen cameramen, twelve assistant directors, five million feet of raw film exposed, 125 tons of steel, timber, masonry, shrubbery and furniture were used.’

Such an image as the village and a project wasn’t down just to Ingram of course, it should be noted Ingram’s very close relationship with cinematographer John F. Seitz who would not only work with Ingram on all of his later projects listed above but would go on to work with Billy Wilder on Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945) and Sunset Boulevard (1950), the pair knew what visions Ingram were trying to form for the screen and they did it spectacularly.

This is another important factor that many forget about Rex Ingram (if some remember him at all) is the amount of time and effort he made when it came to collaborating with the people around him, many of which would become part of the ‘Rex Ingram Family’, a family he would continuously have around him throughout the rest of his film career. Whether it was cinematographers or actors, Ingram wanted to include them all in the development of the projects he was working on.

Actors were of course another key factor for Ingram (to be honest for all directors, this should be the case) and when it came to Four Horseman of the Apocalypse three names stand out. Valentino of course and as Liam O’Leary would later note in his book ‘Under Ingram’s sensitive direction he (Valentino) blossomed into one of the greatest stars of the silent cinema’. Valentino would work with Ingram in his next picture as well, The Conquering Power (1921). Alice Terry is another key name in the film especially in respect to Ingram’s life as the pair would later marry while making The Prisoner of Zenda (1922) together.

Another name, or to be honest, face, worth keeping an eye out for in The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse would be the later Rex Ingram star, Ramon Novarro. For some reason Novarro failed to make any impact on Ingram or the rest of the team when he played an extra in the film when he plays one of the young officers involved in a scene with a woman singing the Marseillaise. Really worth keeping an eye out for that; Ramon Novarro would later star in Ingram’s The Prisoner of Zenda (1922), Scaramouche (1923), The Arab (1924), Trifling Women (1922) and play Judah Ben-Hur in Fred Niblo’s 1925’s epic Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.

Ingram was much to so many when he was working in films, whether in Hollywood or in Nice where he would be later called ‘The King of Nice’, but that is another story.

But going back to my original outburst; are we close to losing the name of Rex Ingram in the history of film history, will film fans just forget about him? Over the past 20 years since I first saw the image of the destroyed village it does seem that way.

I have searched high and low for copies relating to the work of Rex Ingram, trying to find decent enough copies of Ingram’s films for many years, sadly, to no avail; seeing his films on the big screen is even harder (especially in the UK) and getting hold of any decent enough literature on the man himself all comes down to one great book written by film historian Liam O’Leary first published in 1980 (later reprinted by Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in 1993). Mentions of working with him in Michael Powell’s incredibly absorbing A Life in Movies seem to be the only chance I have been able to sound his work out, that and endlessly looking at illustrations in film books.

However, we could well be at a point where all of this could change. Within the past year or so, Warner Brothers have released both The Prisoner of Zenda (1922) and Scaramouche (1923) via their Warner Archive manufactured-on-demand DVD series. Two long overdue biographies of Rex Ingram are due (or are) to be released within the next few months, Rex Ingram: Hollywood’s Rebel of the Silver Screen by Leonhard Gmür and Rex Ingram: Visionary Director of the Silent Screen by Ruth Barton (these film biographies are like buses).

But the key release which we are all waiting for is that commercial release of The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse. A film release of this masterpiece must be on the cards at some point, surely! I am in no way going to comment on the poor, half-baked botched DVD releases that we have come to see in the past few years for the film.

For now however we are delighted to have the rare treat of seeing The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse as it was always intended, on a large cinema screen with a superb live score blasting out.

Maybe this screening on Sunday 16th November is the start of a new beginning for Rex Ingram. Whatever the case, you will be mad not to be there!

The final Bristol Silents Club Screening for 2014 will be celebrating the work of Rex Ingram with an introduction by Bristol Silents’ very own Mark Fuller. The club screening will take place on Wednesday 3rd December, at the usual location of the Lansdown Pub, Clifton with an earlier start time of 7:15pm. More info on our events calendar as well as on the Bristol Silent Facebook Page.

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  1. #1 by mostbeautifulwoman on November 9, 2014 - 8:08 pm

    Dear James,

    I enjoyed your entry on Rex Ingram. If any of your readers is in Dublin on 9 December, we will be screening Photoplay’s print of ‘Mare Nostrum’ at the Irish Film Institute. If not, they might like to see my collection of Rex Ingram clips at:https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCxoqkF-ceYvBeqRb4xiybnA

    Best wishes with the screening.

    Ruth Barton (author of one of those new biographies on Rex Ingram!)

  2. #2 by Michael Gebert on January 13, 2015 - 2:16 am

    Well, there are many people whom it may seem the popular culture has forgotten, but on the other hand there are places where such people are talked about more than ever online. Here’s a discussion of Ingram with several participants at the silent and early sound discussion site NitrateVille:

    http://www.nitrateville.com/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=937

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