The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, released 6 March 1921, was based on the 1916 international bestseller of the same name by Spanish novelist Vicente Blasco Ibáñez. It remains one of the finest, most accurate book to screen adaptations I’m aware of. Reading the book made me love and appreciate the film even more, since I knew about things left unsaid, or left out entirely, on the screen.
This was also the film which shot Rudy Valentino to superstardom after several years of playing secondary roles and a few leading roles in minor films. Screenwriter June Mathis, who insisted on casting him and lovingly mentored him every step of the way, also became a huge sensation because of this film.
Madariaga (The Centaur) (Pomeroy Cannon) immigrates to Argentina from Spain, and after years of toil and poverty becomes a rich man with vast lands. He’s very capricious and despotic, and his workers both love and fear him. Many bear an uncanny resemblance to him.
Madariaga also has two legitimate children, Luisa (Bridgetta Clark) and Elena (Mabel Van Buren). Marcelo Desnoyers (Josef Swickard), Luisa’s husband, manages the gigantic estate. Elena, the younger daughter, has a German husband, Karl von Hartrott (Alan Hale, Sr.). Madariaga hates Karl and didn’t approve of the marriage.
After seven years of childlessness, Luisa and Marcelo are finally blessed with a child, Julio, whom Madariaga makes his heir. This greatly displeases Elena and Karl, who hoped their three sons would inherit Madariaga’s millions.
Twenty years pass, and Julio is now a regular at dancehalls, dive bars, and clubs in the seedy Boca quarter of Buenos Aires. The elderly Madariaga, desperately clinging to his youth, accompanies him. The vain illusion of youth and relevance can’t last forever, though. After the weakened Madariaga falls out of his chair, he admits he’s too old to go out anymore, and begins staying home with Julio’s little sister Chichí (Virginia Warwick). He then proceeds to lead Chichí into “wild ways” as well by teaching her how to tango.
Not long afterwards, Madariaga is found dead by his horse, a whip still in his hand. The reading of the will stuns Julio, who always believed he’d inherit everything. Instead the money is split between Elena and Luisa. Julio’s adorable pet money comforts him in this moment of sadness.
Karl announces he’s going to dispose of his share and return to Germany, where he can resume his rightful position and give his sons the advantage of culture and education. Marcelo urges him not to do this, since Madariaga always preached that one’s true home is where one raises a family and makes a fortune. Karl shoots back that one’s first duty is to one’s native land, where one’s children can “grow up in allegiance with the advantages of super-culture.” (All three of Karl’s sons are in their twenties!)
Luisa thinks he’s right, and asks Marcelo why they shouldn’t return to his own native country. In Paris, Chichí could find a good husband, and Julio could study art.
Marcelo has been keeping a secret for years, that he left France to avoid military conscription. However, he decides to take a chance, and says one always risks one’s happiness when leaving home for another land.
A few years pass, and the Desnoyers family isn’t doing so well. Marcelo constantly goes to auctions and returns with unnecessary furniture for a castle in Villeblanche, a pursuit which threatens to bankrupt him. Meanwhile, the von Hartrotts are doing splendidly for themselves in Germany.
Marcelo tries to butter up Chichí and Luisa with jewelry and accessories from the latest auction, but they’re not having any of it. Chichí calls him out as a miser, and says Julio couldn’t continue his art studies if their mother didn’t give him money. Marcelo then fires back by saying there’s no studying going on in Montmartre, since Julio only cares about tango teas, debauchery, and women. Painting is but a pretext for these hedonistic activities.
While Julio is painting, his secretary Argensola (Bowditch Turner) bothers him with bills that must be paid at once. If Julio doesn’t pay, his father will be contacted. Argensola suggests his mother might provide the money, since she’d give Julio her last cent.
Marcelo has two new friends, Senator Lacour (Mark Fenton) and Étienne Laurier (John St. Polis), to whom he shows his latest auction treasure, a golden bathtub. Also visiting is Sen. Lacour’s young son René (Derek Ghent), who’s greatly taken with Chichí. Both he and Chichí are too bashful to admit their true feelings.
When the older men leave, Julio broaches the subject of money with his mother, who says Marcelo forbade her to give him any more money. She decided to obey after seeing the naked women in his studio, but doesn’t object too much. In place of money, she gives Julio some of her jewelry, saying Marcelo will never miss it.
Then Laurier’s pretty, much-younger wife Marguerite (Alice Terry) arrives, and she and Julio have an instant connection. Marguerite says she’s seen him dancing many times at the Tango Palace, and Julio invites her to dance with him sometime.
They begin an affair, and Julio neglects all his other dance students. So many people see them together and begin talking, they’re compelled to move their affair to Julio’s studio. In the middle of all this, war breaks out and begins creeping ever closer to France.
Laurier gets word of their liaison, and demands Marcelo take him to Julio’s studio. Julio hides Marguerite behind a curtain, but other evidence of her presence is soon discovered. Laurier challenges Julio to a duel, but when Marcelo begs to avoid scandal, Laurier decides to send Marguerite to her mother and arrange a divorce.
Argensola has made friends with an intense, mysterious stranger (Nigel de Brulier) who lives upstairs and resembles Rasputin. Shortly after war finally reaches France and everyone begins enlisting, Julio arrives at the studio early and meets this stranger.
The stranger says the outbreak of war is a prophecy’s fulfillment, and that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are about to be unleashed upon the world. He shows Julio and Argensola a rare book with Albrecht Dürer woodcuts illustrating the Book of Revelations. His explanations are intercut with dramatizations.
Marguerite becomes a war nurse, and her brother, Laurier, and René Lacour all enlist. René is put into the auxiliary, despite his desire to go to the front. He and Chichí are still too shy to admit their romantic feelings!
Marcelo receives a travel passport to go to his castle in Villeblanche, and sends his wife and daughter to safety in Biarritz.
And then the insistent, deadly hoofbeats of the Four Horsemen gallop ever closer, as the full horrors of war are unleashed upon France. No one’s life will ever be the same after so much devastation and trauma.