Mare Nostrum (1926 film)

Mare Nostrum is a 1926 American silent war drama film directed by Rex Ingram. It was the first production made by Ingram while in voluntary exile[1] and stars Ingram's wife, Alice Terry. The film is set during World War I, and follows a Spanish merchant sailor who becomes involved with a German spy. It is based on the novel of the same name by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez. Long thought lost, the film has recently been re-discovered and restored.

Mare Nostrum
Directed byRex Ingram
Written byWillis Goldbeck
Vicente Blasco Ibáñez (novel)
Produced byRex Ingram
StarringAntonio Moreno
Alice Terry
CinematographyJohn F. Seitz
Edited byGrant Whytock
Music byWilliam Axt
Distributed byMGM
Release date
  • February 15, 1926 (1926-02-15)
Running time
102 minutes
CountryUnited States
LanguageSilent (English intertitles)
Mare Nostrum ad in Motion Picture News, 1926

Plot Edit

As a young boy growing up in a Spanish family with a long and very distinguished maritime tradition, Ulysses Ferragut is regaled with tales of the sea by his retired uncle, the "Triton" (Apollon), and is particularly fascinated by his claim to have once seen the sea goddess Amphitrite. Though his lawyer father, Don Esteban, wants him to follow in his footsteps, Ulysses becomes a sailor.

When he is a grown man (Antonio Moreno), Ulysses uses his life savings to purchase the Mare Nostrum, a fast, modern freighter, and prospers. However, he finally gives in to his wife, Doña Cinta, for the sake of their son Esteban, and agrees to sell his ship. With the outbreak of World War I, however, the enormous profits to be made from the sudden demand for shipping ends this plan.

On a stop in Italy, Ulysses visits the ruins of Pompeii, and meets Freya Talberg (Alice Terry) and the learned Doctor Fedelmann. He soon falls in love with Freya (who looks exactly like his uncle's painting of Amphitrite). Though she later informs him that she is an Austrian spy (as is Fedelmann), Spain is neutral and his ardor is undiminished. He agrees to transport Count Kaledine to a secret rendezvous in the Mediterranean. The U-boat U-35 surfaces, takes on fuel from Ulysses' ship, and departs with Kaledine.

Mare Nostrum ad in Motion Picture News, 1926

Meanwhile, young Esteban leaves home without permission to find his father. After a week waiting for Ulysses at his lodgings, Esteban goes back to Barcelona aboard the Californian, a British passenger ship. However, the boy is killed when the Californian is sunk by the U-35. Ulysses learns of his son's fate from a survivor, and realizes to his grief his role in the tragedy. He vows to avenge his boy.

Upon hearing of the death, Freya sends Ulysses a letter denouncing the barbarity of the act; it is intercepted by Doctor Fedelmann. That, along with Freya's admission she has fallen in love with Ulysses, convinces Fedelmann that her subordinate can no longer be trusted. She sends Freya to Marseilles, intending to betray her to the French. Freya suspects as much, and begs Ulysses to take her to safety aboard his ship. Ulysses is torn, but a vision of his son shaking his head makes him refuse. Freya is later captured, convicted, and shot by a firing squad at dawn.

As he is leaving Freya's apartment, Ulysses encounters Count Kaledine. After a brief struggle, he chases Kaledine through the streets, gathering a mob. Kaledine is caught and taken into custody.

Ulysses then employs the Mare Nostrum in the service of the Allies, arming her with a deck gun, replacing his crew with French military sailors, and transporting munitions to Salonica. Only longtime family friend and sea cook Caragol refuses to leave him. On the voyage, they are intercepted by the U-35. With the Mare Nostrum torpedoed and doomed, Ulysses mans the abandoned deck gun and sinks the U-35. As Ulysses descends into the ocean depths, Amphitrite rises to embrace and kiss him.

Cast Edit

Production Edit

"Between Europe and Africa stretching from Gibraltar to the Syrian Coast, lies the Mediterranean, land-locked and tideless, known to the ancients as Mare Nostrum—'Our Sea'...Upon its bosom mankind spread the first sail, from its depths the sea gods were born."—Opening titles for Mare Nostrum (1926).[2]

Screen shot with Alice Terry and Antonio Moreno

Rex Ingram's reputation as an outstanding Hollywood director[3] rested on the enormous success of his 1921 The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, a film adaption of Spanish novelist Vicente Blasco Ibáñez ’s work that had, according to Kevin Brownlow “made a star of Valentino, saved Metro Pictures from bankruptcy, and earned the director the undying gratitude of the head of Metro, Marcus Loew.”[4] Ingram was determined to adapt another Ibáñez novel, his 1918 Mare Nostrum, “an epic tale of World War I espionage and naval battles.” The title was taken from the Latin term used by ancient Romans for the Mediterranean Sea.[5]

Ingram purchased the former Gaumont studio located in Nice, France, financed by M-G-M preliminary to making Mare Nostrum. The facility required extensive upgrades, and regional technical services support was inadequate.[6] Film archivist Kevin Brownlow writes:

“The glass roofs of the [Gaumont] studio created a furnace in the daytime, while at night, when a lot of the filming took place, arctic temperatures were recorded...French laboratories were found to be unsatisfactory. The London laboratories were too far away. Equipment set up in the studios developed defects and much negative was found to be unusable and necessitated many retakes. Eventually, technicians had to be brought in from Hollywood for this work.”[7]

The film adaptation required location shooting in France, Italy and Spain, obliging Ingram to allot the sequences shot in Barcelona to his cinematographer John F. Seitz. Mare Nostrum took 15 months to complete.[8]

A highly regarded sequence in Mare Nostrum depicts spy Freya Talberg's execution by German authorities for treason. Film archivist Kevin Brownlow describes it as “perhaps the finest sequence Ingram ever shot.”[9] Film historian Charles Higham describes Ingram's cinematic handling of her demise:

"Many sequences are admirably realized, but none as admirably as Freya’s (Alice Terry) downfall and ruin. Caught up by her own side, she is imprisoned and shot: Amphitrite is mortal after all. No one who saw it could forget the execution at Vincennes, her arrival by limousine, dressed in fashionable clothes (‘I shall die in my uniform’), her lofty bravery quenched by the actual sight of the rifles, her single horrifying glimpse of the coffin waiting to carry her away...Ingram never again equaled this sequence.”[10]

From the over one million feet of film Ingram shot, his editing produced a four-hour rough cut. The studio made further cuts, including scenes deemed anti-German by that country's embassy. Mare Nostrum, with a running time of just under two-hours premiered at New York's Criterion Theatre on 15 February 1926.[11][12][13]

Critical and popular response Edit

“Rex Ingram, a major talent who specialized in big films, was more a painter than a movie director, with little sense of pace and rhythm, [possessing] at best a superb pictorial flair. His finest work was Mare Nostrum (1926).”—Film historian Charles Higham in The Art of the American Film: 1900-1971. (1973).[14]

Mare Nostrum opened to encouraging critical reviews, though both Motion Picture Magazine and Variety reported that audience response at its premier was unimpressive.[15] Ingram insisted on retaining the original title from Ibáñez's novel, which some critics and audiences found perplexing (mare is Latin for “sea”, in English, a “female horse”).[16]

Movie-goers of Spanish and Italian descent flocked to the Mediterranean-themed picture at New York's Capitol Theatre, grossing M-G-M almost $20,000 in the first two weeks of its release.[17]

Post-World War I nationalism in Europe polarized the reaction to Mare Nostrum, which depicts a German U-boat destruction of a Spanish merchant ship. The film was praised in France and banned in Germany. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer issued a mea culpa to placate their European markets.[18][19]

Influence Edit

Ingram positioned the notable love scene between Alice Terry and Antonio Moreno in front of a large aquarium tank featuring a large octopus, eliciting audience “annoyance” at Mare Nostrum’s New York premier. Director Orson Welles admired it, adapting the imagery for the seduction scene from his The Lady from Shanghai (1947).[20]

The young Michael Powell worked as an apprentice grip on the film, having been introduced by set designer Harry Lachman. He later credited Ingram's Mare Nostrum with influencing his own directorial efforts, among them Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948).[21]

Sound remake Edit

A second film version of Mare Nostrum, this one a sound film, was made in Spanish in 1948. It starred Fernando Rey and María Félix, and was directed by Rafael Gil, who, the year before, had directed the first full-length Spanish film version of the 1869 Don Quixote ballet, based on the early 17th century novel by Miguel de Cervantes.

Footnotes Edit

  1. ^ Miller, 2004 TCM: “Ingram was disgusted with Hollywood....[and] fled [to Europe] in Nice, France... he bought his own studio in Nice, the Victorine...” to film Mare Nostrum.
    Brownlow, 2018: Ingram “so loathed Louis B. Mayer that he refused to allow his name on his pictures... still under contract [to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios], Ingram emigrated in 1924 to the south of France...using M-G-M money” to make films.
  2. ^ Miller, 2004 TCM
  3. ^ Miller, 2004 TCM: “...because with hits like The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, The Prisoner of Zenda (1922) and Scaramouche (1923) he was considered one of Hollywood's top directors.”
  4. ^ Brownlow, 2018 SFSFF: “...Rex Ingram had his biggest success with 1921's The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, from the Vicente Blasco Ibáñez novel...”
    Miller, 2004 TCM: “He had scored one of his biggest successes with his adaptation of Spanish novelist Vicente Blasco Ibáñez's The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in 1921.”
  5. ^ Miller, 2004 TCM: “...Ibanez's favorite novel, Mare Nostrum, an epic tale of World War I espionage and naval battles, seemed a natural choice for Ingram.”
    Brownlow, 2018 SFSFF: “...Mare Nostrum, a retelling of the Mata Hari story set during the U-boat campaign” in World War I.
  6. ^ Brownlow, 2018 SFSFF: Ingram “took over a rundown former Gaumont studio [in southern France]...Using MGM money, Ingram re-equipped it.”
    Miller, 2004 TCM: “For Mare Nostrum, he bought his own studio in Nice [France], the Victorine. Although it required extensive modernization, he got around that by including the costs within the budget paid by MGM...”
  7. ^ Brownlow, 2018 SFSFF
    Miller, 2004 TCM: “...the foreign shoot had more than its set of problems...Ingram solved some of these problems when he plundered the Italian sets of Ben-Hur (1925), which MGM had just shut down.”
  8. ^ Brownlow, 2018 SFSFF: “Shot in picturesque locations such as Barcelona, Naples, Paestum, Marseilles, and Pompeii, Mare Nostrum took fifteen months to make.”
    Miller, 2004 TCM: “Everything about Mare Nostrum was big. It was shot in three countries -- France, Italy and Spain -- on such a massive scale that Ingram couldn't even direct the Spanish sequences himself. He handed them instead to cinematographer John F. Seitz. It took so long to make the film ...15 months...”
  9. ^ Brownlow, 2018 SFSFF: “Perhaps the finest sequence Ingram ever shot was the execution of Freya. For the sake of atmosphere, he hired the same bugle band that had attended the execution of Mata Hari. The 24th Battalion de Chasseurs Alpins, “the Blue Devils,” also appeared in the sequence, photographed at Vincennes, near the Pathé factory, where such executions had so frequently been carried out.”
  10. ^ Higham,1973 p. 39-40:
  11. ^ Miller, 2004 TCM: “In addition, Ingram shot much more film than he could have used -- over one million feet. After much editing, MGM came up with a version running just under two hours for its New York premiere...”
    Brownlow, 2018 SFSFF: “Editor Grant Whytock estimated that the rough cut of the film reached twenty-three thousand feet [and] ‘ended up with two hours of film.’” And: “It is safe to assume that many important scenes were eliminated on orders from MGM's front office, including some anti-German scenes after complaints from the German Embassy. An abbreviated version of 115 minutes had its premiere at the Criterion Theatre, New York, on February 15, 1926...”
  12. ^ Soares, p. 131, p. 137 (note).
  13. ^ Susan Delson, Dudley Murphy, Hollywood Wild Card, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2006, ISBN 0-8166-4654-6, p. 72.
  14. ^ Higham, 1973 p. 39-40
  15. ^ Miller, 2004 TCM: “Even shortened, however, it was a critical triumph...”
    Brownlow, 2018 SFSFF: “The initial reviews and public response were encouraging. But according to Motion Picture magazine, it was a cold premiere. A flop.” And: “Variety considered it ‘draggy’ and reported that the depiction of the enemy drew snickers on the first night. ‘Besides which,’ Variety continued, ‘it's a gruesome tale without a solid laugh during the entire telling.’”
  16. ^ Brownlow, 2018 SFSFF: “The title didn't help: Ingram had fought as hard to retain the original Latin as he had to keep the tragic ending. He had even been reluctant to add the subtitle ‘Our Sea’...(Broadway wags called it ‘Horse Liniment’).”
  17. ^ Brownlow, 2018 SFSFF: “...the picture did good business in New York for a while thanks to the Italian and Spanish population, smashing records at the Capitol, grossing $118,249 in two weeks.”
  18. ^ Brownlow, 2018 SFSFF: “In August came the French premiere, attended by the prime minister, infuriating the Germans who banned the film...MGM, facing a boycott from Central Europe, gave a formal promise to refrain from the production of pictures ‘tending to provoke international animosity.’ .The studio began making films portraying the Germans in a more favorable light...” And:"Mare Nostrum gradually slumped at the box office..."
  19. ^ Harry Waldman, Beyond Hollywood's Grasp: American Filmmakers Abroad, 1914-1945, Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow, 1994, ISBN 0-8108-2841-3, p. 37.
  20. ^ Miller, 2004 TCM: “Although hard to find for years, it would have a huge influence on other filmmakers. Orson Welles drew on one sequence, a love scene between Terry and Moreno played in front of the octopus tank in an aquarium. In The Lady From Shanghai (1947), Rita Hayworth seduces Welles while in front of a tank in which one fish preys on another.”
    Brownlow, 2018 SFSFF: “the symbolic love scene with an octopus in a tank [was completed with] one take...(it influenced Orson Welles to try something similar in Lady from Shanghai.)” And: “The aquarium love scenes were the most annoying [premier audiences] had witnessed...”
  21. ^ Miller, 2004 TCM: “British director Michael Powell, who worked on Mare Nostrum as a grip, would cite Ingram as one of the influences on his own visionary epics, including Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948).”

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