Argentinian aristocrat Julio Desnoyers arrives in wartime Paris and seduces Marguerite Laurie, while her husband is away at the front. However, when he returns home blinded, she devotes herself to nursing him and Julio enlists to meet a hero's end.
Screenwriter June Mathis is usually credited with persuading the cash-strapped Metro Pictures to sponsor this adaptation of Vincente Blasco Ibañez's novel. Moreover, she also secured the director's berth for Rex Ingram and the lead for the little-known Italian immigrant actor, Rudolph Valentino.
Today, if it's remembered at all, this landmark silent is best known for Valentino's sensual tango routine. But its contemporary reputation rested on Ingram's meticulous direction. Armed with a budget of around $1 million, he set about mounting a production to rival those of his friend, Erich von Stroheim. Guided by a batallion of technical advisers, he personally supervised every aspect of the civilian and military décor and costuming, as well as the lighting design (although here he owed a sizeable debt to the estimable John Seitz). His attention to detail paid off, with his depiction of the uncertainties of the home front and the atrocities of the trenches drawing comparisons with D.W. Griffith. Moreover, the film, which was shown in large cities with full orchestral accompaniment and live sound effects for the battle sequences, made $4 million at the box office. Yet while it was acclaimed in the States as a realistic masterpiece (despite its uncomfortable blend of pacifism and mysticism), it was received with reservations in Europe. Cinéastes noted the Irish-born director's continental sensibilities (even though he had never visited France). But patriots everywhere complained about the depiction of their nation - with the Germans resenting the resuscitation of the beastly Hun, the French castigating the emphasis on American forces, and the British protesting about their virtual absence from proceedings (a complaint that would revive over 75 years later on the release of Saving Private Ryan). Vincente Minnelli updated the story to the Second World War in 1962, with Glenn Ford in the Valentino role. But while Milton Krasner's cinematography was praised for its fluidity, it was pronounced a bore and many questioned Minnelli's pictorialist use of Nazi iconography.
Mostly remembered for Rudolf Valentino, this silent is very dated in its handling of the themes of nationhood and patriotism.