More than 20 years before Jacques Tourneur took us to an exotic tropical isle in 1943’s I Walked With a Zombie, his father, producer/director Maurice Tourneur (1876-1961), blazed a similar trail with his 1919 production of Victory. Although most of his work is now lost, Tourneur’s reputation – confirmed by surviving stills and by images like the one above – is that of a pictorialist, a creator of beautiful, painterly compositions.
Victory was based on a novel by Joseph Conrad published only 4 years earlier in 1915. Conrad died in 1924. Thus, Victory was the first and only screen adaptation of his work that the great author would have had an opportunity to see during his lifetime. The screenplay was written pseudonymously by Jules Furthman, best known for his work with Josef von Sternberg (Morocco, Shanghai Express) and Howard Hawks (Only Angels Have Wings, Rio Bravo).
Jack Holt plays the story’s protagonist, Axel Heyst, a man perfectly content to reside alone on a private island with his servant, his books, and a cat.
Occasionally, however, Heyst has to travel to other more populated islands to pick up supplies. On one such island stands a hotel managed by a crude German named Schomberg (an early role for Wallace Beery). The hotel has an open-air nightclub for colonials, featuring a “Ladies Orchestra.”
Heyst’s eye is caught by the waif, Alma (Seena Owen), who plays violin.
Observing the waif being persecuted and exploited by the managers of the orchestra and that she has no place to go, Heyst helps her escape from the hotel at night and takes her to his private island.
In the meantime, a suspicious trio arrive at the hotel island that Heyst and the girl have just departed. This archetypally villainous threesome is composed – from right to left – of shades-wearing Mr. Jones (Ben Deely), the brains of the outfit, Pedro (Bull Montana), the muscle, and Ricardo (the “Man of a Thousand Faces” himself, Lon Chaney, Sr.), a knife-throwing killer.
As it happens, Schomberg the hotel owner (Beery) had designs on the waif Alma, and resents Heyst for spiriting her away. As a way of taking revenge, he suggests to Ricardo (Chaney) that Heyst keeps significant amounts of gold and other treasures on his private isle that might easily be robbed. Note the pockmarks on Chaney’s face in the frame below. His makeup was closely modeled on Conrad’s description of the character.
Meanwhile, Alma is perturbed to discover that Heyst is more interested in his books than he is in seducing Alma.
The Unholy Three steer a boat toward Heyst’s island.
I won’t spoil the film’s conclusion for you, other than to note that it involves a live volcano.
Whereas the last word on the film’s last title card is “Love,” the last word in Conrad’s novel is “Nothing!” illustrating a significant difference between the two auteurs. Tourneur believed in romance. Conrad did not.
Nor does the film have the psychological complexity we associate with Conrad’s novels. Tourneur, like most filmmakers of the Silent Era, conceives his characters as archetypes. (The greatest example of this is Murnau’s Sunrise, in which the characters are simply identified as “The Man,” “The Wife,” “The Woman From the City,” and so on.) The psychological contradictions of Conrad’s characters were never really explored on film until Alfred Hitchcock’s Sabotage (1936), based on Conrad’s The Secret Agent. Other worthwhile film adaptations of Conrad include Carol Reed’s Outcast of the Islands (a masterpiece), Richard Brooks’ Lord Jim, Ridley Scott’s The Duellists, and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (based on Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”).
Not that sound films are necessarily more complex psychologically than silent films. James Cameron’s Avatar and Titanic are contemporary examples of films that employ the archetypal approach to characterization, and they do so deliberately in order to reach the widest possible audience. We began to see psychological complexity in silent films like Carl Dreyer’s Mikael and G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box.
Given the overwhelming number of silent films that have been lost to us – including most of the films of Maurice Tourneur – it’s wonderful to see Victory so beautifully preserved, complete with all of its original titles and color tinting. For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon continues here and here. And you can click here to contribute to the National Film Preservation Foundation.