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The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse at the National Concert Hall

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.

I was lucky enough to be in attendance for a gala performance of Rex Ingram’s 1921 classic The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse at the National Concert Hall, complete with live accompaniment by the RTE Concert Orchestra – featuring a new soundtrack composed by Carl Davies. While the film is one of those classics I respect more than I enjoy, I have to give credit to the National Concert Hall for hosting the gala event.

An artist at work...

I will concede that I’m a sucker for a live orchestra playing along to a classic film. A few years back, I was lucky enough to attend a selection of Looney Tunes shorts with the RTE Symphony Orchestra playing along, and I am dying to see another live play-along to The Wizard of Oz. I’m still kicking myself that I missed the Metropolis concert (and sorta wish they’d hosted it again for the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival). However, it doesn’t always work out the way that you want.

I’ve noted before that, with older movies, I generally appreciate their contributions to film history more than I actively like them. Of the silent era, there are only a handful of films I would return to again and again (Lang’s Metropolis is one, as is Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Calgari). As important and influential as Rex Ingram’s 1921 epic is, it would not be a film would be aching to see again.

Flags of our grandfathers...

The movie is certainly “epic” in scope, if one uses the word in a value-neutral sense. It’s a generational saga, following the plight of an immigrant to Argentina (“the New World”) and following the lives of his children and their children in turn. It all culminates in the First World World War, as the descendants of that same family (having returned to Europe from the Americas) find themselves fighting on opposite sides of the Great War.

The first thing that struck me was just how bloated the movie was. For the sake of the orchestra, it was split into two sections, with an interval. Being entirely honest, you could have cut that first hour and lost nothing. The first half of the film is a period melodrama – populated with characters engaging in all sorts of debauchery. We spend well over an hour getting to know the ins-and-outs of their lives, which seems entirely too much. And then the war happens.

It takes one to tango...

The second half of the film flows a lot smoother. It still jolts and starts at times, but it’s a well-made little tale. The problem is that the film can’t seem to decide on the point it’s trying to make. It paints the Germans as pretty much complete monsters carving their way through Europe, while also mocking the French for their lazy and greedy ways. Those who opt not to fight are dismissed as cowards, and wearing the uniform of one’s country is a mark of honour and distinction. However, the film matches this very obvious propaganda with a “war is hell” message, which just leaves one feeling a bit jumbled.

The Germans are monsters, and real men join the army to fight them, but the war turned Europe into a graveyard. I’m not arguing that these are mutually exclusive points, just that they require a lot of nuance to balance properly. One gets the sense that if Ingram had adopted a somewhat tighter approach to the front end of the film, he’d have had more time to develop his themes. However, I am not a scholar of classical film, so what do I know?

The film was introduced as the first “modern” film, and it’s easy to see a lot of what would evolve into modern cinema on the big screen. The production design is lavish, and the special effects look impressive (especially the war scenes and the moments featuring the eponymous riders). There is even, in what would become a cinematic tradition, a cute monkey sidekick. There’s no doubting the massive influence of the film, which is – adjusted for inflation – the most successful silent movie ever made.

They're only in their twenties...

The soundtrack was provided live by the National Concert Orchestra. There’s something fantastic about having an orchestra playing along to the scenes on the big screen, and I’d half-consider having a live orchestra installed in my living room to replicate the experience (if I could afford it). There was also the rather wonderful sound of film filtering through the big projector they had installed in the middle of the hall. I’m a sucker for that sound, as it’s one that I immediately associate with film. You could only hear it during the quieter moments, but it was always there.

Kudos to the Concert Hall for hosting the event. It was a good night, and the type of thing I would love to see in future. I do have some minor misgivings about excluding Season Tickets (costing €235) from the event, but otherwise it was wonderfully well organised event. Next year, feel free to bring back Metropolis. Although, it will be the ninetieth anniversary of Nosferatu.

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