Sunday Matinee: “The Eagle”

Film Overview

“The Eagle” is a 1925 American silent film directed by Clarence Brown and starring Vilma Bánky, Louise Dresser, and the famous Rudolph Valentino. Based on the novel Dubrovsky by Alexander Pushkin, the film is about a lieutenant in the Russian army who catches the eye of Czarina Catherine II. After he rejects her advances and flees, she puts out a warrant for his arrest, dead or alive. When he learns that his father has been persecuted and killed, he dons a black mask and becomes an outlaw.


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Movie Plot

Vladimir Dubrovsky (Valentino), a Cossack serving in the Russian army, comes to the notice of the Czarina (Louise Dresser) when he rescues Mascha (Vilma Bánky), a beautiful young lady, and her aunt trapped in a runaway stagecoach. He is delighted when the Czarina offers to make him a general, but horrified when she tries to seduce him. He flees and the Czarina puts a price on his head.

Soon afterwards, he receives a letter from his father informing him that the evil nobleman Kyrilla Troekouroff (James A. Marcus) has taken over his lands and is terrorizing the countryside. Hurrying home, Vladimir learns that his father has died. Vowing to avenge his father and help the victimized peasantry, he adopts a black mask and becomes the Black Eagle, a Robin Hood figure. Discovering that Kyrilla is Mascha’s father, he takes the place of a tutor who has been sent for from France, but not previously seen by anyone in the household. Vladimir is thus able to become part of Kyrilla’s household.

As Vladimir’s love for Mascha grows, he becomes more and more reluctant to continue seeking revenge against her father, and the two eventually flee the Troekouroff estate. Vladimir is captured by the Czarina’s men, but the Czarina, once determined to have him executed, has a last-minute change of heart, and she allows Vladimir, given a new French name, and Mascha to leave Russia for Paris.

Film Review

One of Rudolph Valentino’s many gifts as an actor was his talent for playing light comedy. It is a talent that was not brought out often enough in his career, but that The Eagle, one of his last and also one of his best films, takes full advantage of. The Eagle is a delightful light adventure and a wonderful showcase for its star, showing him equally adept at drama, action, comedy, and romance.

The Eagle is set in the Russia of Hollywood’s exotic foreign imaginings. Valentino plays Vladimir, an officer in the Czarina’s horse guard who returns home to exact revenge after his father is dispossessed by a corrupt, wealthy villain and dies a broken man. In the process, he undertakes a double masquerade as a noble masked bandit known as “The Black Eagle” and a Frenchman hired to tutor the villain’s beautiful daughter Mascha (Vilma Banky) in the language of the Russian court.

The plot is so much like the Zorro story that The Eagle might legitimately be considered a Zorro film. There is an echo of the Robin Hood story as well, as The Black Eagle assembles a (little seen) band around him, but the Zorro connection is the stronger. Although Douglas Fairbanks helmed both a Zorro film and a Robin Hood film in the early ‘twenties, The Eagle does not look back to the Fairbanks’ interpretations so much as it anticipates the great films of the sound era, The Mark of Zorro (1940) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). The resemblance to the later films is far greater than to the earlier in story, tone, and performance. Tyrone Power’s Zorro and Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood are descendants of Valentino’s Black Eagle, and Flynn’s rapport with Olivia de Havilland in Robin Hood is the closest screen pairing to Valentino and Banky in The Eagle.

Valentino and Banky are perfectly matched in looks and generate undeniable screen chemistry. She also stands up to him as an actress, giving an expressive and subtle performance with range and depth. The most notable supporting performances are by Louise Dresser as the Czarina and Albert Conti as Vladimir’s military superior who becomes her lover (or in the film’s witty euphemism: his ambition to become a general is gratified). The older couple is a humorous counterpoint to the young lovers and while their screen time is small, it is memorable.

The scenarist wrote the film into a corner as the revenge plot collided with the courtship plot, and extricated it by sidestepping the issue. The courtship takes center stage for the finale and the revenge plot is left unresolved. It is a weakness that is easy to overlook in a film that is wonderfully entertaining for reasons having little to do with the story. I know I have always overlooked it because when I recently saw the film for the third time, I realized that while I remembered the story and its conclusion quite clearly, I had completely forgotten that it was problematic.

The Eagle was directed by Clarence Brown, a top Hollywood director of the period, and it has the strengths of a top-quality studio film. The pacing is fluid, the performances are consistently good, and the film moves seamlessly among its various moods. Scenes are well-staged and the camera is mobile, including several extended tracking shots, when it serves the narrative purpose at hand. The film always looks great. The sets by William Cameron Menzies and costumes by Adrian are a visual treat, art deco furnishings and 1920s fashions through the prism of Catherine the Great’s Russia.

-Helen Geib

Organist - Jay Warren

Jay Warren - Chicago’s foremost photoplay organist - brings all the color, excitement, and glamour of the silent film era back to life with his original scores for the silver screen.  As a regularly featured photoplay organist for the Silent Film Society of Chicago, he has accompanied most of the great silent films throughout his forty year career in his famous rousing style.  He has been featured annually for the society’s highly regarded Silent Summer Film Festival since its inception in 2000.  For twelve consecutive years he held forth playing the huge E.M. Skinner pipe organ for silent films at the University of Chicago’s famed Rockefeller Memorial Chapel. 

He also performs film accompaniment on the beautiful Letourneau pipe organ in the Crimi Auditorium of Aurora University.  Jay has also made several silent film photoplay appearances on the incredible 5 manual Wurlitzer located at the Sanfilippo Foundation’s Place de la Musique in Barrington, Illinois. Contact Jay: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) & 773-205-7372


Rudolph Valentino as Lt. Vladimir Dubrovsky
Vilma Bánky as Miss Mascha Troekouroff
Louise Dresser as The Czarina, Catherine II
Albert Conti as Captain Kuschka
James A. Marcus as Kyrilla Troekouroff
George Nichols as Judge
Carrie Clark Ward as Aunt Aurelia
Michael Pleschkoff as Capt. Kuschka of the Cossack Guard
Spottiswoode Aitken as Dubrovsky’s Father
Agostino Borgato as Priest
Mario Carillo as Marcel Le Blanc, French Tutor
Gary Cooper as Masked Cossack
Jean De Briac as Small Role
Otto Hoffman as Man Who Gets Purse Stolen
Eric Mayne as Official Asking for Signature
Russell Simpson as The Eagle’s Lieutenant
Mack Swain as Innkeeper
Gustav von Seyffertitz as Court Servant at Dinner