Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, The (1961): Minnelli’s Disastrous Epic, Starring Glenn Ford

Minnelli’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse became a disastrous epic that took four years of work and wasted  $8 million.  

Grade: C (*1/2* out of *****)

It was a bad idea to begin with, which grew worse and worse during a lengthy production process.  Uniformly panned by the press, Four Horsemen was the first movie that really damaged Minnelli’s reputation, as well as tarnished his self-confidence.   This movie signaled the beginning of Minnelli’s decline as a major Hollywood filmmaker, and for the next decade he would make only mediocre movies.

 

Four Horsemen was meant to be an epic extravaganza a la Quo Vadis, with hopes of even outshining that popular 1950 picture.   Rex Ingram had shot the original Four Horsemen in 1921, based on Vicente Blasco Ibanez’ best-selling book, which had made a star of Rudoph Valentino.  However, Minnelli neglected to take a more critical look at the original movie and reassess its merits for contemporary audiences.

 

Pre-production on Four Horsemen began before M.G.M. put all of its energy and resources into Ben-Hur, a lavish remake the 1926 Judeo-Christian Roman spectacular that had starred Ramon Novarro and Francis X. Bushman.   However, released two years before Four Horsemen, in 1959, Ben-Hur was a smash box-office hit, sweeping all the Oscars, including Best Picture.   

 

Even those who didn’t like Ben-Hur had to acknowledge its pageantry, sweep, kitschy appeal, and the exciting climax of the chariot race.    Despite the astounding budget, with prediction of near bankruptcy, Ben-Hur grossed staggering amounts all over the world.   In comparison, Four Horsemen was decidedly a mid-size project in budget and scope. 

 

In June 1958, MGM announced its intent to remake Four Horsemen with Minnelli directing, but plans remained vague due to the failure of two WWI remakes: Selznick’s production of A Farewell to Arms, with Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones, and Kubrick’s cynical war expose Paths of Glory, starring Kirk Douglas, Minnelli’s favorite actor.  The two war films were radically different: whereas the former was a nostalgic star-driven vehicle, the latter displayed a fresher, more cynical take on the War.   Even so, Hollywood being Hollywood, when both movies failed to ignite the box-office, the blame was quickly put on their underlining genre.  In actuality, of course, the pictures failed for very different reasons, but Hollywood being Hollywood, they were lumped together into one syndrome, that later included Minnelli’s own contribution to the genre. 

 

From the beginning, some of M.G.M.’s top administrators raised objections about the outdated nature of the story, a remote chapter from the past that seemed to have little relevance for modern viewers.  A parable of an Argentinean playboy who finds redemption in the trenches of World War I might have been exotic and topical in 1921, since it captured the traumas of the post-War years.   But in 1961, viewers couldn’t relate to that war in either a romantic or tragic way.         

 

At M.G.M., all involved agreed that the story needed an update.   When Graham Greene declined to write “a free treatment” of the novel, Robert Ardery took over, spending six months trying to revitalize the script.   At Minnelli’s request, Ardery changed the character of Julio into a dashing Argentinean living in Occupied Paris, during the Second World War, poised between fascism and the Resistance.  The new milieu was reflected in the way that the yarn’s major characters were divided in their political philosophies and even personal behaviors.

 

Some years earlier, producer Julian Blaustein had supervised the costume drama Desiree, a smash hit with Marlon Brando and Jean Simmons, but he had not done a movie on the scale of Four Horsemen, not to mention one of such an unconventional narrative.   The studio hoped that Minnelli’s love of Paris would again inspire him–and overcome the picture’s problems.    They were encouraged that in his 1950s melodramas, Minnelli could generate sparks from generic and even routine material.   Minnelli knew that the characters made no sense when taken out of their historical context, but he was flattered that his talent was considered indispensable to the project.  

 

The main allure in the silent version of Four Horsemen was the erotic appeal of its star, Valentino.  Decades later, people still talked about Valentino’s smoldering tango.   Minnelli, too, wished to make the film a great showcase for a new international star, but he was clueless as to where such a star would be found. Minnelli first considered Dirk Bogarde, then Montgomery Clift, both a far cry from the script’s macho-heroic conception.   

 

For a while, Minnelli considered Home from the Hill’s George Hamilton, due to his youth and dark looks, but the studio ruled him out as a lightweight to carry such a movie, hoping to find someone in the mold of Ben-Hur’s Charlton Heston. 

 

Then, during his stay in Rome, Minnelli met and was immediately smitten with a stunningly looking French actor named Alain Delon, who had made an impression on the art house circuit in Rene Clements’ thriller, Purple Noon.   However, MGM undermined Minnelli’s excitement, claiming that Delon’s appeal was limited to the European market and that his command of English was limited and heavily accented.   In vain, Minnelli reminded his superiors that Charles Boyer and Maurice Chevalier had never mastered English and they still became stars in the U.S. 

 

In the end, with trepidation, Minnelli consented to casting the role with the all-American Glenn Ford, who Minnelli thought was good looking but bland and stiff in acting.  Even so, Minnelli hoped to bring out the old Ford erotic charm, of the times he made Gilda and other noir melodramas, before being turned into a conventional macho American hero in Westerns and crime flicks.

 

As for the women, Swedish Ingrid Tulin, who had made a mark in Ingmar Bergman’s movies, was cast as the female lead, and starlet Yvette Mimieux, who would become known for Where the Boys Are and other fluffy movies, was chosen to play a supporting role. Neither Ingrid Tulin nor Glenn Ford were helped by the overly explicit and banal dialogue, that was full of speeches and messages.    To compensate for the lack of chemistry between the stars, Minnelli resorts to sumptuous display of sound and light.

 

When Julio and Marguerite meet at Versailles, the autumn radiance of the photography and the violin of Andre Previn’s love theme were meant to distract the audience from paying attention to the inane dialogue.

 

Minnelli uses striking double-exposure montages, a blend of authentic wartime images with artfully faked shots in monochromes.   Paying homage to Sergei Eisenstein, one of his most admired filmmakers, Minnelli staged the siege of Warsaw as a tribute to the Russian director’s Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin.   There’s even a close-up of a horror-struck bespectacled woman colliding with the exploding bombs.   But the vitality of these episodes only emphasized more how outdated the rest of the film was.

 

Minnelli’s critics charged that he couldn’t summon up the energy or passion for a genuinely epic film of the magnitude of Four Horsemen.   

 

In this case, Minnelli’s apolitical nature as a director–and lack of interest in political pictures– worked against him in a story that needed to ground its hero Julio in a particular socio-political context.                                   

                       

Cast:

 

Julio Desnoyers (Glenn Ford)

Marguerite Laurier(Ingrid Thulin)

Marcelo Desnoyers (Charles Boyer)

Julio Madariaga (Lee J. Cobb)

Etienne Luarier (Paul Henreid)

Heinrich von Hartrott (Karl Boehm)

Larl von Hartrott (Paul Lukas)

Chi-Chi Desnoyers Yvette Mimieux)

Luisa Desnoyers (Harriet McGibbon)

Elena von Hartrott (Kathryn Givney)

 

Credits

 

Produced by Julian Blaustein

Assistant Directors: Erich von Stroheim Jr,, Eric Hurel, Jacques Bertraud

Screenplay: Robert Ardrey, John Gay, from the novel by Vincente Blasco Ibanez

Cinematography: Milton Krasner

Second Unit: Georges Perinal

Art Direction: George W. Davis, Urie McCleary, Elliott Scott

Set Decoration: Henry Grace, Keogh Gleason

Four Horsemen figures designed by Tony Duquette

Music: Andre Previn

Editing: Adrien Fazan, Ben Lewis

Montages: Frank Santillo

Special Effects: A. Arnold Gillsepie, Lee LeBlanc, Robert R. Hoag

Costumes:  Rene Hubert, Walter Plunkett, Orry-Kelly (for Ingrid Thulin only)

Choreography: Alex Romero

Makeup: Charles Parker, William Tuttel

Hair stylist: Sydney Guilaroff

 

Running Time: 153 Minutes