Latter-day considerations of the 1921 mega-blockbuster The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse tend to focus on the contribution of one or both of two men when looking to explain its success and effectiveness. One of these was Rudolph Valentino, an Italo-Franco actor born Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina D'Antonguolla, who had spent seven years crawling up the ladder from extra to spear-carrier to bit player before being dropped in as the romantic lead in an epic based on a hugely successful novel, being propelled to superstardom as the protypical Latin Lover. The other was Rex Ingram, the film's director, who though his name is unlikely to ignite much recognition among even semi-serious cinephiles these days, still has something a reputation for quality among intense silent film fans for his facility in managing broad, epic romantic stories in such a way that their basic, everyday humanity bled out from between all the spectacular details. And this division between the contribution of these two has been part of the film's mythology basically since it opened, and Valentino and Ingram - who disliked each other intensely - began to fight publicly over credit for fathering the picture.

But if we actually want to look at the person most responsible for The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse existing at all, and particularly in the form which it does, we are looking for no man at all, but for a woman: June Mathis, then the head of the story department at Metro Pictures, and one of the first female executives in the American film industry. It was her passion for Vicente Blasco Ibáñez's monumentally successful 1916 novel (which had been translated into English in 1918) that led her to finally crack the problem of how to reduce such a sprawling family drama, love story, and war epic into something remotely containable even in a long film by the standards of the time (the version of the film currently available is 132 minutes); it was her interests that dictated the elements of the story that would be stressed in the film. The project was her baby; she hand-picked both Ingram and Valentino; she served as the grown-up in the room whenever their disagreements threatened to stall production. In effect, she was what we would now call the film's producer, though that word and even, in its most specific sense, the position it describes were unknown to Hollywood in 1921; and no producer would ever have such cause for immense personal pride until David O. Selznick corralled an army of actors and technicians into re-creating the U.S. Civil War.

For The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse wasn't just a hit: it was a hit to a degree that barely made any goddamn sense, blasting past the million-dollar mark four times over, when a million was already quite an eye-popping amount of money (if I have done my research right, during its initial release, this was the highest-grossing American film ever directed by somebody not named D.W. Griffith). It was a seismic cultural event that turned Valentino into the male star for the rest of his horrifyingly short life (he'd die in 1926, at 31 years old), inspired a new wave of epic dramas, and make Mathis (until her own stunningly premature death in 1927) the most influential woman in the film industry besides the cottage industry named Mary Pickford.

When faced with this indescribably massive popular hit, my reaction is a vigorous and resounding, "that was fine". All apologies to Mathis and Valentino, who remained close for the few years remaining to them (their remains are in the same crypt to this day, for accidental reasons that suggest a particularly macabre episode of a '90s sitcom), but everything about the film that wears well more than nine decades later can be pretty securely laid at the feet of Ingram and cinematographer John F. Seitz: the film boasts more than its share of grand, high-impact tableaux. It's stagey to a degree that was hardly cutting-edge cinema in 1921 (for a considerably more dynamic and kinetic Ingram/Seitz collaboration, I would urge interested parties towards the following year's The Prisoner of Zenda), though there are certain clear reasons why a slightly out-of-date aesthetic fits the movie.

The most obvious of these is that The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is primarily about the passage of time and how The Way Things Were has been thoroughly scuttled by The Way Things Are Now. The story opens sometime around the dawn of the 20th Century, in Argentina, where wealthy landowner Madariaga (Pomeroy Cannon) rules his family like a king of old, lavishing favors upon his French son-in-law Marcelo Desnoyers (Josef Swickard) and openly disdaining his German son-in-law Karl von Hartrott (Alan Hale). Most of all, old Madariaga adores and worships his grandson Julio Desnoyers (Valentino) spoiling the boy into oblivion and encouraging him to grow up into quite a shitty little dissolute young adult. When the old man dies, his family fragments into two halves, returning to Europe; here Julio continues to be a callous libertine, involving himself with a succession of other men's wives in his status as the most famous tango teacher in Paris at a time when that dance starts to explode in popularity. It is the particular case of Marguerite Laurier (Alice Terry), wife of Etienne Laurier (John St. Polis), that nearly sends Julio's indiscreet, adulterous ways headlong into marriage, but then war breaks out, and everybody but Julio is gripped with feelings of nationalistic urgency and shifts their way of thinking over to fighting for whatever the hell it is they're fighting for. Eventually, the young man decides to make something of himself as a soldier, while Marguerite becomes a nurse, tending to Etienne (who, blinded, does not know here), and the Desnoyers home in the French countryside is turned into a German garrison.

A plot synopsis like that, while accurate, doesn't remotely give the correct flavor of the film. Based as it was on a generational epic, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse spends a huge length of time in Argentina before it ever arrives in Europe, to say nothing of finally addressing itself to the subject of the war, and this is the film's secret. Customarily, it is called an anti-war film; the first American film to seriously think about the recently-concluded war, and certainly, the grim later sequences must have landed with enormous impact at the time it was new, when imagery of the hideous warfare of Europe had not yet had any real avenue to penetrate the American consciousness. But the great majority of the film has nothing to do with war at all, instead depicting with great care the kind of lifestyle of romantic splendor that the events of 1914-'18 extinguished, particularly as centered in Julio, the metaphorical embodiment of easy pre-war life being woken into violence and anguish by the war.

Anyway, that provides a reason for the somewhat stuffy aesthetic, though I cannot say with a straight face that it makes it any less stuffy. And while this sprawling story may or may not have been glorious stuff on the page, in the context of a movie, it feels a bit overwhelming and draggy. The most impressive parts of the film all take place during the war: Ingram and company go to some fairly extreme lengths by 1921 standards to depict the hell of war with brutal honesty, but there's just so little of it. Ultimately, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse isn't a war story; it's a family epic in which a war occurs. And a lot of the material in Argentina just sits there, swallowing up screentime to no real effect; the best part of the film's opening act is the tango scene introduced by the filmmakers solely to showcase Valentino's own dancing skills.

Even as an anti-war film, it has a certain reputation that it doesn't earn. There's still a tang of heaving melodrama to the proceedings, particularly as concerns the German characters; so soon after the war, the German people were still viewed as outright villains of the worst sort by the Americans, and regardless of whether this was an appropriate attitude or not (the history of 1934-'45 would tend to suggest, to me, that a modicum of forgiveness couldn't have hurt), it harms the film's polemic. Basically, the message doesn't play as "war is a brutal hell that crushes goodness and breeds suffering", but "war is brutal, but it was necessary to beat down the Germanic hordes and it was profoundly noble of those who fought them". It's not my place, in 2014, to say if that was the wrong attitude to hold in 1921. But it surely doesn't support the idea that this is a significantly anti-war work of art.

In a lot of ways, the film embodies so much of what future blockbuster epics would attain: a lumpy mixture of sedate moments and beautiful, invigoratingly cinematic ones; muddled themes that imply the intent was also for spectacle and experiential impact rather than any kind of intellectual experience; acting that can't be rightfully called "good" or "bad", since the performers aren't really called upon to do anything but embody simple characters and look pretty doing it. I will openly concede to preferring the easy seductive Valentino of The Sheik, made later in the same year, though he's certainly fine in this movie. Heck, everything about this movie is fine. It's rousing, heartbreaking, beautiful, ugly, and full of human activity, some of which sings with insight and emotion, some of which plods. It's just that it's not really great by any measurement I care to use, and though I have no seen it twice (which kind of befuddles me), I'm no more sure why it made such a hit in its day than I am why any of its descendants, with their largely indistinguishable CGI and explosions, end up as the biggest film of any given year of the 21st Century. Plus ça change...

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1921
-Charles Chaplin appears in his first feature, the six-reeler The Kid
-D.W. Griffith directs Orphans of the Storm, the last agreed-upon masterpiece of his career
-French import Max Linder makes Seven Years Bad Luck, which you probably have never heard of, but it is a damned masterpiece that everybody should see

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1921
-Victor Sjöström's The Phantom Carriage released in Sweden
-The now-lost Dracula's Death, from Hungary, is the first film to feature Count Dracula
-21-year-old Alfred Hitchcock takes his first job in the British film industry, designing title cards