John Gilbert had risen to the top ranks of Hollywood stars by 1928. Under contract to MGM, the most glamorous studio in the world, he was a favorite of director King Vidor, who directed him in five pictures including the acclaimed The Big Parade (1925) and the swashbuckling costume adventure Bardelys the Magnificent (1926), and screen superstar Greta Garbo, who starred opposite him in Flesh and the Devil (1926) and Love (1927). He was poised to take the mantle of screen heartthrob after the death of Rudolph Valentino, and MGM, which didn’t always see eye to eye with the often outspoken and critical star, poured on the production value for The Cossacks, his follow-up to Love and his most expensive film to date.
Based on a novel by Leo Tolstoy and set in a romantic fantasy of the barbarous central Russia, The Cossacks stars Gilbert as Lukashka, the educated, pacifist son of a bloodthirsty Cossack chieftain (Ernest Torrence). “The woman man,” he’s called by the village men. “The man who will not fight.” After enduring ridicule and abuse, he finally turns and transforms into the fiercest warrior in a village of fighters who live to make war with the Turks. MGM built a massive Cossack village set in Laurel Canyon and bragged in press releases that they had brought 112 real-life Cossacks from Russia (they lived in the village during production). Money was lavished on costumes and location shooting (very little was shot in the studio) and a spectacular special effect involving an epic landslide across a mountain path. “[W]hile it has its artificial vein,” wrote New York Times film critic Mordaunt Hall, the production “is sometimes quite impressive because of the earnest attention to the atmospheric detail.”
Plays on TCM on Tuesday, July 17