How The Last Command Did (or Didn’t) Reckon with the Russian Revolution
Note: This is the hundred-and-forty-eighth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my third favorite 1928 film, THE LAST COMMAND, directed by Josef von Sternberg.
A further note: this piece was originally written by me in November 2018, titled “How Two Silent Hollywood Films Reckon with the Russian Revolution.” It is republished here under the “auspices” of my favorite movie essay series because I couldn’t think of a more salient angle or cogent analysis. This is what I would have wanted to write, and it turns out I did just over a year ago!
About a decade out from the Russian Revolution, the film industry at large took to the conflict as a dramatic vehicle. Russia itself commissioned films celebrating the fight for its tenth anniversary, Vsevolod Pudovkin’s THE END OF ST. PETERSBURG (1927) and Sergei Eisenstein’s OCTOBER: TEN DAYS THAT SHOOK THE WORLD (1928, perhaps fittingly delayed out of the exact anniversary of the pair of 1917 revolutions). And in 1928, Hollywood produced two studio pictures that, as you might expect, tackled the revolution quite differently. In fact, they did so by not tackling it at all.
Josef von Sternberg’s THE LAST COMMAND is undeniably the better film than Sam Taylor’s (and, uncredited, Lewis Milestone’s and Victor Tourjanksy’s) TEMPEST. But both remain somewhat apolitical, but perhaps surprisingly, the more conventional TEMPEST leans a little bit closer towards commentary on the revolution itself. THE LAST COMMAND is probably von Sternberg’s first masterpiece. It stars German actor Emil Jannings during his brief Hollywood period in a tremendous performance as a Czarist Duke (and the Czar’s own cousin) who has ended up working as an extra in Hollywood after his regime is deposed. TEMPEST stars John Barrymore as a peasant sergeant who makes his way up the ranks before being jailed and having his life wrecked due to his sexually and emotionally charged encounters with a princess.
THE LAST COMMAND is apolitical because von Sternberg isn’t exactly concerned with the conditions of the Russian Revolution. Oh, it’s made clear why it’s happening, but his film is more so a character study of a proud, even cruel man brought low like never before. TEMPEST is apolitical because it tries to play both sides; it characterizes both Czarist rule and socialist rule as oppressive, but ultimately leans towards more sympathetic figures from the old guard. And instead of having Barrymore’s character confront the situation, he leaves Russia. Both films deal with Czarist aligned characters leaving Russia, although it is not TEMPEST’s focus; it’s literally just the end.
Jannings’ Sergius is not unsympathetic, but he is morally compromised. Barrymore’s Ivan is a more typical leading man hero. But neither truly deliver a moral message, at least as it pertains to the Russian Revolution itself. Von Sternberg especially avoids cliches, and we aren’t really left with a solid message on Sergius’ transformation. Ivan is clearly able to triumph in his own way, unlike Sergius, but we still aren’t left with an idea of what the filmmakers think should be taken away from the Russian Revolution. Both films veer towards “both sides are bad,” a concept that feels quite uncomfortable today. But neither movie comes out and says it. This gray area is not exactly a strength; it is much more so in THE LAST COMMAND, but TEMPEST feels much more slapdash in its plotting.
THE LAST COMMAND’s Russian Revolution backdrop is a conscious obscuring of the political commentaries of the time. TEMPEST’s revolutionary cloak feels a little bit more…lazy…I hate using that word because I don’t feel like accusing creators of laziness is always quite appropriate. But its lack of strong moral convictions feels strange in light of the writing “team;” Soviet theater member Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko wrote the screenplay with C. Gardner Sullivan, with uncredited contributions by Lewis Milestone, Erich von Stroheim, and George Marion Jr (for intertitles). In a way, the artistic identities of these writers cancel each other out, which probably accounts for TEMPEST’s “middle-of-the-roadness.”
As mentioned, THE LAST COMMAND is a better film than TEMPEST. Undoubtedly, its message (or lack thereof) is more compelling. TEMPEST’s cripples it. But I find it quite fascinating that Paramount and United Artists came to the conclusion to use the Russian Revolution as a dramatic device at about the same time Russia itself was reckoning with the events (in a much more celebratory manner). The quartet of these films (including the aforementioned THE END OF ST. PETERSBURG and OCTOBER: TEN DAYS THAT SHOOK THE WORLD) is a great little bit of programming to get the wheels turning with quite different perceptions of the Russian Revolution.