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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."
The film reunites Gilbert with his The Big Parade co-star Renée Adorée, who plays a similar role here as Maryana, the spunky village girl smitten with Lukashka, and her outfit -- a peasant blouse and skirt -- looks suspiciously like her French villager outfit from the earlier film. Nils Asther co-stars as a Russian Prince who arrives with orders to marry a village girl to strengthen the authority of the Czar, "the little father in Moscow," as he's known to the Cossacks. He chooses Maryana, of course, "the least unsightly of her tribe," while Lukashka is off to battle the Turks. Clearly a conflict is brewing, but first Lukashka and his father have the angry Turks to deal with.
Gilbert plays his part with swashbuckling flair, charging into battle on horseback with flashing eyes and a hearty smile, though unlike action hero Douglas Fairbanks, Gilbert leaves the most challenging stunts to stand-ins and trick riders. According to Frances Marion, the film's scenarist, Gilbert was also doubled in the lively folk-dance sequence. Gilbert "leapt about like a goat with a bee in its ear (for close shots), while his double, a famed performer from the Russian ballet, leapt like a graceful antelope across mountain peaks. The contrast struck everyone's sense of humor and even Jack has to laugh at his own clumsiness."
Clarence Brown, who had directed Valentino in The Eagle, was brought in to assist official director George Hill. Though uncredited, Brown reportedly took over the production, reshooting many of Hill's scenes, and the film shows evidence of being worked over, with abrupt shifts in tone and disappearing plotlines. Brown did, however, bring a lively energy to the action scenes and he showcased Gilbert's charisma to great effect. In sharp contrast, Asther is prissy and vain, a condescending, carefully groomed rich kid next to the boisterous, earthy peasants.
During the shooting of The Cossacks, Gilbert made a cameo in the Hollywood comedy Show People (1928), which was directed by his longtime collaborator King Vidor, as himself. He appears in a commissary scene still dressed to the hilt in his flamboyant black war garb and giant fur hat from the film.
John Gilbert: The Last of the Silent Film Stars, Eve Golden. University of Kentucky Press, 2013.
Off With Their Heads: A Serio-comic Tale of Hollywood, Frances Marion. Macmillan, 1972.
"The Cossacks film review," Mordaunt Hall. The New York Times, June 25, 1928.
By Sean Axmaker