Directed by George Hill and Clarence Brown
Written by Frances Marion (based on the novel by Lev Tolstoy)
In the spring of 1928, Clarence Brown could take some solace in the fact that The Trail of '98 had been surprisingly resilient at the box office: despite every indication that his ambitious fiasco was simply going to outright flop, it had turned out, instead, to be merely unprofitable. This kept the stain on his reputation from being ineradicable, but the brute fact that it had been such a fiasco, with human lives lost on top of all the ordinary problems of an overbudget production, meant that the stain was still there. Accordingly dejected, Brown was not at present eagerly pursuing any follow-up; dutifully, he took the next job MGM handed him. Ironically, MGM assigned him to the overhaul of another fiasco, though at least nobody'd get killed on this one (then again, watch the movie, and you'll see that it's a testament to its stunt performers that they didn't). This was The Cossacks, an adaptation of the Lev Tolstoy novel, and a film long in the making, insofar as it had been made to some fraction of completion three or four times already. Formerly, it had been the creature of another director, George Hill, and there are indications that, even before Hill, it might've been the creature of actual expatriate Ukrainian-Russian filmmaker, Victor Tourjansky, though if it was ever his, it couldn't have been for very long. Hill, anyway, might have been one source of problems, but probably not the only source—the term I've seen is "erratic behavior," which could mean anything, including simply getting sick of MGM fiddling with the basic parameters of the film's story via its scenarist Frances Marion, who had definitely gotten sick of rewriting it, or he'd gotten sick of the semi-rustic production, and sick of his stars John Gilbert and Renée Adorée, who were likewise sick of him. (It is reasonable, even, to assume that Gilbert asked specifically for Brown to replace him.) It's worth mentioning that Hill's career would rebound well, though his sound era ascent was cut short; in 1934, a car wreck left him so severely injured he chose to take his own life. So it goes.
Unfortunately, it's not known to what extent The Cossacks can be correctly called "a Clarence Brown film." Hill's is still the name in the credits, and while it seems Brown could've secured a directorial credit if he'd wanted it, he apparently did not want it (which I don't blame him for, but we'll get there). It's entirely conceivable that a preponderance of Hill's footage actually remains in the finished film, and maybe even a vast preponderance. But following his arrival on the set, Brown described discovering an utterly chaotic production, which implies he did a significant amount of work. So who can say? There are some establishing shots of the Cossack stanitsa that I would bet a dollar apiece are Brown, fully channeling his mentor Maurice Tourneur's penchant for dark foregrounds against light backgrounds. These are, as a result, maybe the prettiest shots in the movie, particularly of a Cossack woman harvesting under the shadow of a tree while her fellows do the same in the sunny background. It would seem weird for such little interstitials to be Brown's major contribution, and there's other things I'm fairly confident must be Brown: an extremely fanciful effects shot, replicating work on Trail of '98; some weirdly mobile close-ups of Gilbert, that I believe are supposed to be sexy, and perhaps even are, inasmuch as "fantasizing about getting molested by John Gilbert" indeed was a kink attested to by contemporary reviews. And these images flow into the narrative quite well. Though given its editor, the ever-reliable Blanche Sewell, that can't be totally dispositive. There's a brawl that dovetails with Brown's brief interest in brawls during his 1928-1929 period, or "Brawl Era" as film historians call it (I'm kidding), though as nobody smashes straight through a wall, or gets bludgeoned with fixtures ripped from a ceiling, it's hard to assert his specific authorship. Then again, this film doesn't have Karl Dane, Nemesis of Rooms. Would that it did, he'd be a fun Cossack.
The thing is, this mystery doesn't matter. The Cossacks is a bad film, frankly kind of an outright shitty film. For all that it is, given its production, a miraculously strong piece of silent cinema craftsmanship—and it is! it moves, and whenever it fails to look genuinely cool, it still looks fine—I don't know how strong the craftsmanship would need to be to overcome such a wholly unacceptable scenario. And I doubt head-to-tail superb craftsmanship was ever a possibility here for Brown, given his precipitous entree into the production. It was, in Hill's defense, probably not a possibility for him either; but, at the end of the day, the narrative that was finally settled upon after so many drafts is garbage. Marion admitted as much, conceding that whatever she might've had originally she lost entirely in the rewrites, which kept her busy with draft after draft, even as shooting began in earnest.
Whatever it is, it's certainly not based on the Tolstoy novel anymore, except for sharing a title and a focus on the quasi-ethnicity/lifestyle called "Cossack." For starters, to the extent you could still recognize the novel in the movie, its protagonist, Olenin, has been switched out completely for his rival. But even more fundamentally than that, the geographic and ethnographic specificity of Tolstoy's story is completely Hollywoodized: instead of being about "the Grebensky Cossack host on the Terek River," it's about "the Glendale Cossacks of Laurel Canyon," rendered broadly as a notion of "free peasants autonomous of, but owing military service to, the Russian tsar, who are wily and folksy and very committed to gender roles." Accordingly, the action is moved a thousand miles west from the Caucasus and a city boy's fool dreams of blood, glory, and hot Circassian slave brides (I'll cop, I've only skimmed the novel, yet feel fairly confident I already "get" it) to an area that is left deliberately fuzzy, but we can perhaps call it "the territory of the Danube Cossacks of Bessarabia in or around 1830."
Candidly, I approve of this basic shift, in theory. This was almost certainly an effort on Marion's part to make these Cossacks something broadly resembling "the good guys," so that instead of assisting in the colonization and genocide of the small peoples of the Caucasus, the film pits them instead against the Ottoman Turk, still a great power, and tainted with the grim legacy of the Crimean Slave Trade. But while you'd think that a willingness to change so much would entail a willingness to just say "screw it," and simply have this be about Don Cossacks in the 17th or 18th centuries fighting Crimean raiders, even as it stands there's just enough haze hanging over everything that it ought to have been powerfully easy to attain a perfectly acceptable tale of brave Cossacks on the frontier. Marion, Hill, and Brown somehow manage to squander all of this almost the very instant the film begins: within 120 seconds and probably less—probably not even further than the twelfth shot—we are treated to the spectacle of cruel, uglified Cossack horsemen dragging Turkish captives back to serve as gristmill slaves. And in all cases throughout this whole 94 minute film, in which slavery is still a major factor, literally all of it is undertaken by our heroes. In fact, our hero's first act of heroism is murdering runaway slaves.
Still, this is to some degree, "ugh, whatever," and if it's been decided to do "Klingons on the Danube"—which it has, and I would expect a movie called The Cossacks made at MGM in 1928 would've tended to have locked that in—there at least might remain some fun barbarian movie, sword-and-armor, Western-by-other-means entertainment to be had. But for damned sure that will not be the case with this story, which is barely even any "story" at all.
So: though the ataman, Ivan (Ernest Torrance), has been mightily successful at war—just look at those slaves—upon his return he is again confronted with the disgrace that vexes him, his son Lukashka (Gilbert), a nancy who appears to eat sunflower seeds all day and is introduced lounging most bucolically in an arcadian field. He's referred to as feminine (it's unclear to me what degree this grapples with, or merely prefigures, the criticisms that Gilbert's acting style was beginning to suffer, and likewise how much this reflects any desire on Gilbert's part for his pal Brown to do for him what he did for Valentino with The Eagle); but if he were feminine by this stanitsa's standards, you'd think he would do more actual productive work. He lusts after his childhood sweetheart, Maryana (Adorée), but though she is still secretly a little bit charmed by his boyish playfulness, not to mention the sweet equestrian tricks done by (obviously) a stuntman, she is far more contemptuous of his refusal to take part in his father's and fellows' raids on the Turk. Things come to a head, however, when Lukashka is seized by the other Cossacks, tied to a post, dressed in drag, and splattered with grapes. Even Maryana joins in the jeers of the mob. This maybe wouldn't be the tipping point, but when he slinks off home, Ivan is ready to abuse him just a little bit more, for being such an embarrassment, at which point Lukashka beats the shit out of his dad in the brawl I mentioned above, which is so much the highlight for our protagonist's tenure over the course of this film—and I am fairly certain this is just Gilbert and Anderson barely-even-stage-fighting each other, the former just launching himself like a missile at the latter—that it's a staggering pity that nothing else he does is ever remotely this cool again.
"But," you'd say, "that's a perfectly fine narrative set-up"—"albeit a little essentialist and gross," you might add, or, hell, even I might add. "Yet," you'd concede, "also a strong spine for an adventure movie about rising to the violent obligations of manhood, for sure." Well, it does sound like a set-up. It is also the resolution: within the next couple of minutes after beating his dad to a pulp (which Ivan smiles happily about while looking in the mirror, which is, admittedly, a nice touch), Lukashka has already murdered a couple of escaping Turks, proving his worth as a Cossack. And that's it—I guess it wasn't even some principled objection to violence, he really was just plum fucking lazy, but now he's a bloodthirsty lunatic—and even in the finished film, you can feel how palpably and desperately Marion is scrambling to find something, anything to serve as a new set of stakes, since literally every single thing about Lukashka's arc is completed with two full acts left to go. I had assumed at this juncture, Lukashka would run away, and find adventure on the steppe, perhaps returning a Cossack hero, perhaps having grown beyond their philosophy after living it to its limits—but I'm not here to rewrite this movie, I'm doing so solely to emphasize how startling and savage-feeling this amputation of his arc actually is. I wonder if somebody quailed at the prospect of making Gilbert too effete for too long, and I suppose I must wonder if that somebody was Gilbert himself.
Marion does, at least, find some kind of new structuring conflict with Olenin (Nils Asther), a prince and emissary of the tsar, sent to the stanitsa for a bride to invigorate the aristocracy with Cossack blood, and naturally, because pickin's are slim amongst these "turnip people" (well, nominally, though as "movie extras" many of them are obviously still very attractive), he chooses Maryana. Lukashka is still stung by her betrayal, which must be the keenest of all, since he doesn't give a damn about all his new male friends who previously humiliated him (which somewhat psychologically tracks, but isn't interesting except in some second order "academic discourse about masculinity in film" sort of way—it's not something the movie notices). And so he leaves her to the prince, literally kicking her when she tries to repeat their immortal scene in The Big Parade, at a vastly lower level of spectacle, with the Cossack cavalry. But of course he still does love her, so this can only mean rivalry, violence, and, if it comes to it, rebellion.
Okay, fine: but this doesn't go anywhere either. I swear to God, this movie does not have any plot; it's just one Turk ex machina after another every time anything ever threatens to complicate the events of the movie into anything that so much as resembles a plot. There's good in it, at least: I've said it looks good, and it certainly never looks radder than when it leans on its stuntmen, actual Cossack exiles, a troupe of trained yigit riders whose skills are so mind-blowing the movie can't help but stop itself cold to watch them do incredibly bad-ass horse stunts. The brawl is better "action cinema" in the sense it has anything to do with anything. But The Cossacks never comes closer to justifying its existence than it does with this, purely as a vessel for these riders who treat actual, galloping horses in every respect like the stationary, gymnastic version of the same; and the mobile photography used to capture them is very close to flawless.
The production isn't anywhere close to art director Cedric Gibbons's top notch, but it does manage a physical robustness; I noted Laurel Canyon above, and it's never not distracting (they protect Los Angeles from the vile depredations of the Valley), but I guess as a representation of "the Carpathians," it kind-of does the job. It only does the job right once it's gone, though, replaced by storybook-style "landscapes" done as double-exposures of Cossack squadrons traversing scale-model mountains that aren't even pretending towards realism; and I deeply wish Brown, or Hill (probably Brown, this is basically post-production), had been able to lean more fully into this kind of dream-inflected visual. Still, I'm pretty sure it's Brown who has the Turks essentially drop a whole damn mountain on top of the Cossacks with dynamite.
On the other hand, I hope it's not Brown who plagiarized this film's finale from the second act turn of Tourjansky's 1926 Russian Imperial adventure Michael Strogoff, but maybe it was—I give him credit for more integrity than this, but it does seem like something an uncredited replacement director working feverishly to complete a film he didn't give a shit about might do. As for Gilbert and Adorée, reunited in another screen romance, they are all over the place. They're almost uniformly more effective separately than together: Gilbert has some very fine scenes with Torrence (even beyond pummeling him), and whenever his only dynamic with Adorée is "violent contempt," he has very fine scenes with her, too—when Lukashka spurns Maryana to vengefully bang a Roma party girl, the snarl in his eyes is kind of outright amazing, the best acting beat in the film—but any time he's tasked with lightly ravishing Adorée, Great Lover Style (though I don't recall this giggly mania with Garbo), she seems so genuinely, physically dismayed by the prospect, it ruins it. (I don't think they're amazing screen lovers in The Big Parade, either, but they're better than this.) Asther really gets nothing whatsoever to do besides be smugly gorgeous. Still, The Cossacks is watchable in its constant pointless movement, a testament to either Brown, or Hill, or Sewell's editing, or all of the above. That's why it's a shame they didn't use any of the scenarios Marion wrote before she crapped this half-digested one out in the middle of production, because there's simply no way that even one of those earlier versions could have been worse.