There are certain films which are made to be pure entertainment. Less obsessed with informing or changing perspective, and more interested in pure entertainment. Friday night movies need three things: action, adventure and romance, ideally served with a side of popcorn. The Eagle is a archaic Friday night classic, brandishing all these attributes and a dashing hero for good measure. In this picture, Rudolph Valentino is the swashbuckling idle as he battles for justice behind a mask and is conflicted between love and revenge. It is the makings for a formula found every summer in modern theatres.
The Eagle is pure escapism, authenticity and realism are not the object of desire. The replication of Russia is as accurate as a walk through Disney’s Epcot and Valentino appears as Russian as his name suggests. But this is not a negative attribute of The Eagle. It transcends reality and favours a fantasy of action and romance. Valentino inhabits a land of elaborate costumes, merry bands of vigilantes righting wrongs without a drop of blood and vicious bears kept in wine cellars.
Unfortunately, the plot is placed somewhat second. Events transpire and are repressed until the final moments when it conveniently saves the day or increases drama which was long forgotten. In the opening act, the Czarina imparts a warrant for our hero’s arrest after he deserts the army. Despite a large reward placed on his head, there appears to be no ramifications, no search is conducted or threat imminent until the final moments. And this conclusion is a little odd emotionally, the Czarina loves Valentino and her heartbreak leading up to his demise is out of place. It is surprising a title card stating ‘Remember for later’ does not appear.
However, the action is so compelling and presented so efficiently it steamrolls over spurious plotting. The very moment the titles fade, the film presents Valentino galloping after a careening carriage and meeting the woman of his dreams. The Eagle barely stops for a breath thereafter. Robbery, attempted assassination and deception unfurl effortlessly and render the world a dreamy, weightless experience.
Valentino was the James Dean of his time, quickly established and taken even quicker, but not before cementing his name in cinematic history. Valentino was blessed with classic good looks and a leading talent as charismatic and charming as Fairbanks and Flynn. During action and comedy, Valentino breezes through with a tongue-in-cheek style more subtle than Fairbanks. However, his real talents shine through in his gentleness of the fleeting glances and nervous caresses. In The Eagle, his charisma and alluring chemistry with beauty Vilma Banky broke collective hearts in 1925. The romance of The Eagle begins as playful as the rest of the film, as masked Valentino charms Vilma trying her best to hide the effects. It is a wonderfully sweet scene reminiscent of The Princess Bride, but as it becomes clear the two have mutual affection and Vilma realises Valentino desires revenge upon her father, the two lovers push the boundaries of the dreamy world and generate a real investment and sympathy. It can only be speculated where Valentino’s career could have led.
The Eagle is a surprisingly modern piece of escapism. A true movie-movie which transcends the boundaries of its time.
Vilma is finally aware Valentino is the Black Eagle. Vilma panics as she spots Valentino appearing to strangle her father when he is simply massaging his neck. Vilma hides her panic as a headache and receives a massage upon the insistence of her father. Valentino runs his hands gently across her neck. A complex love surges between the couple, desperate for one another in a hopeless situation. A cinematic treasure with one of cinema’s brightest stars.