Thursday, August 20, 2020

The Last Command (1928): A Review

The Last Command (1928) | The Criterion CollectionTHE LAST COMMAND

This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon sponsored by Journeys in Classic Film. Today's star is William Powell.

The Last Command is a curiosity in the annals of the Academy Awards. The film is in a roundabout way half of a Best Actor Oscar-winning performance. When the Academy Awards first began, a performer could be nominated for multiple performances. Emil Jannings won for his performances in both The Last Command and The Way of All Flesh. As the latter is now currently a lost film, The Last Command is the only record of what so impressed the Academy in that year's two-man race. 

In 1928 Hollywood, Russian director Leo Andreyev (William Powell) is making a Russian Revolution-set epic. Looking for extras to fill out his Czarist Army, he comes across a photo of a Sergius Alexander (Jannings), whose bio claims he is a cousin of the Czar. Andreyev has the slightly tottering extra hired, and on the day he reports to the set the aged extra seems confused and barely functioning. Unbeknownst to his crew, Andreyev and Sergius have a past, which The Last Command reveals.

Before the Czar's fall, Sergius was His Imperial Highness Grand Duke Sergius, head of Russian armies. He discovers two actors are revolutionaries. While he whips and imprisons the male, Andreyev, the female Natalia (Evelyn Brent) piques his interest. She is ready and willing to kill the Grand Duke until she sees that he deliberately disobeyed orders to send Russian troops to a military parade when they are desperately needed on the front. Seeing that the Grand Duke is, in his way, a patriot, she not only won't kill him but returns his affection.

However, the Russian Revolution has swept the nation, and the Grand Duke's train is seized. Natalia pretends to rejoin the Revolution, but it's a rouse to buy Sergius time for him to escape. He does only to watch in horror as the train he jumped out of fall into a frozen river, killing all on board. Now back in Hollywood, the shell-shocked and demoralized former Imperial Highness is made to reenact a version of himself before Andreyev and his crew. However, by now the former Imperial General has started confusing reality with film fantasy, with shocking and tragic conclusions. 

The Last Command
is an early film for director Josef von Sternberg, but one can see his mastery of the visual form. The Revolution scenes are particularly effective in capturing the chaos of the Bolsheviks, but of particular note is the concluding sequence. As fact and fiction merge for our aged Grand Duke, von Sternberg gives us amazing, even breathtaking scenes of mad soldiers and peasants storming Sergius' beleaguered troops. There is a frenzied quality that works for the now-totally lost mind of our tragic hero, convinced that he is giving his "last command".

I can see why the Academy was impressed with Jannings. He essentially plays two characters: the haughty but ultimately noble Grand Duke and the defeated, shattered Hollywood extra. Jannings specialized in men who are brought down to shame and degradation (The Last Laugh, The Blue Angel). While The Last Command continues that Jannings specialty, he also is quite commanding as the Grand Duke, even sympathetic. It is an excellent performance though perhaps nowadays the endless head-shaking and dazed look might put viewers off now. 

It's a curious thing that before he was the suave, dashing sophisticate, William Powell's silent career was mostly as a heavy. In The Last Command, there is a darkness, a menace in Powell's acting that would take most Powell fans by surprise. Far from the dashing, breezy fellow, Powell's Andreyev is bitter, angry, and in his own way as haughty and abusive as Sergius. Only in the end when he sees His Imperial Highness' true nature does Andreyev realize that his perception was not what he thought it was. It's a surprisingly dark but effective turn for Powell, that rare star whose career not only survived but thrived when sound came along.

Brent's Natalia may be slightly over-the-top now, but she too has moments of gentleness. The "transition" from being Sergius' mistress to a passionate revolutionary and back again are very effective to where you do believe she's a duplicitous tramp.

The Last Command is a beautiful film, with some remarkable sequences and strong acting all around. 

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