The Four Horsemen was premièred to great acclaim in New York on 6 March 1921, and became one of the very first films to earn over a million dollars. During its long initial run, it earned $4,500,000 in the U.S. alone. So very successful and popular was it, the film was rereleased on 2 October 1926.
Its Canadian première came in April 1921, and it was released in Japan, Australia, and throughout Europe during 1922 and 1923. Adjusted for inflation, this is the highest-grossing film of the silent era, with a grand total of $9,183,673 ($142,602,432 in 2021).
However, there was one corner of the international market which wasn’t exactly enthusiastic—Germany. The von Hartrotts are depicted in a rather stereotypical way, and the German soldiers who occupy Marcelo’s castle in Villeblanche are absolute beasts who help themselves to anything they want and rough up anyone standing in their way. In this immediate period after World War I, when anti-German sentiments and memories still ran high, they were consistently depicted in a negative light in films.
Gone were the days when German was America’s unofficial second language and people proudly bore German surnames. Many street names and business names were changed as well, and people of German descent were viewed with hostility and suspicion.
Some U.S. censorship boards also demanded ridiculous changes, as described in an October 1922 issue of Photoplay. Pennsylvania censors removed the references to Julio’s birth and the intertitle “It’s a boy!” Also altered was the nature of Julio and Marguerite’s relationship. The entire dynamic of their forbidden love was radically changed, with Marguerite and Étienne Laurier being merely engaged instead of in an arranged marriage where only one person (Laurier) has feelings of love.
“Foolish Censors” is a really good article. The author totally calls out modern-day Puritans who believe “every American is a half-wit” and needs constant protecting from the tiniest little hint of anything that’s not rainbows, flowers, puppies, and kittens. Among other ridiculous examples he cites, a Chicago censorship board wouldn’t let a husband pull the curtains down in his own home, an Ohio censor thought Treasure Island taught piracy to children, and Pennsylvania censors found the word “ornery” offensive.
But overall, rave reviews poured in all across the board. Picture-Play called the film an artistic triumph, and praised the actors. So acclaimed was the film, screenwriter June Mathis became one of the most powerful and respected women in Hollywood, second only to Mary Pickford. Many modern people don’t realize how many powerful women there were in Hollywood during the silent era, both behind and in front of the camera.
June was so in demand thanks to this success, she wrote films for Famous Players-Lasky and Goldwyn Pictures as well as Metro. These included several of Rudy’s future films. June always made sure he got the best roles and was taken care of very well.
The Four Horsemen made Rudy an overnight superstar, but Metro sadly refused to raise his piddly $350 a week salary. Even extras and bit players on their lot made more money than that. Metro also didn’t use Rudy’s talents to the best possible extent, and immediately cast him in the B-picture Uncharted Seas (his only lost stardom-era film).
Rudy wisely moved to Famous Players-Lasky after that, where he got much better work.
Director Rex Ingram (on the left) also became a huge star because of the film’s success, but he egotistically felt that was all down to his own work behind the camera and had nothing to do with Rudy’s brilliant acting. He soon grew to resent Rudy’s new superstar status, and only made one more film with him, The Conquering Power.
Most of the rest of his films starred his wife Alice Terry as the leading lady, and newfound star Ramón Novarro as the leading man. Rex heavily promoted Ramón as the new Rudy, though they were both equally awesome.
It just so happens that Ramón appeared as an extra in The Four Horsemen.
There was a garbage remake in 1962, directed by Vincente Minelli and starring Glenn Ford as Julio, Ingrid Thulin as Marguerite, Charles Boyer as Marcelo, Paul Henreid as Étienne Laurier, and Yvette Mimieux as Chichí. The setting was changed to WWII, which completely alters the story. Not only that, the circumstances of patriarch Madariaga’s death are different, and Julio joins the French Resistance and smuggles messages in magazines instead of becoming a soldier to prove his bravery and maturity. Chichí is also arrested and tortured, when she’s never in any danger in either the book or original film.
And did I mention how ridiculous it is for a 46-year-old and 36-year-old to play a couple in their twenties?
I can’t say enough wonderful things about the original screen adaptation of Vicente Blasco Ibáñez’s fine novel, and highly urge everyone to both see the film and read the book.