[From Luc Moullet’s monograph Cecil B. DeMille: The Emperor of Mauve (2012, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

The Volga Boatman (1926).

Our sequence is located towards the middle of this film, which was made just after The Road to Yesterday. Bolsheviks have taken over the large house of an aristocratic family. Following a small incident caused by the young Princess Vera, a revolutionary is killed by a gunshot fired by one of the squires, who flees. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, the Red Army demands the death of one of the aristocrats. So Vera decides to sacrifice herself. A rope is put around her neck, but one of the leaders of the revolutionaries, the boatman Feodor, contests the principle of this public execution, which risks looking like a lynching. A firing squad of six soldiers is formed to carry out the sentence in an isolated room. Vera taunts them, “Does it take a whole army to shoot one woman? A man could do it alone.” Mariusha the gypsy, who is in love with Feodor, moreover points out that, this way, they won’t need to use six cartridges. It’s that cartridges are expensive. And so Feodor is assigned for the job. He goes with Vera into the adjacent room. Suspicious and jealous, Mariusha warns him: “We’ll give you five minutes, if you don’t shoot her by then, we’ll come in and do it for you.”

A small clock allows us to observe the countdown. Vera advances the hands of the clock: “I am not used to waiting.” Feodor sets the hands back: “We’ve waited five hundred years for liberty, you can wait five minutes for death.” Next door, the revolutionaries make merry, while Vera plays the ballad Song of the Volga Boatmen on piano, singing it. Feodor stops her, “You are singing to give yourself courage.” [1] The hands of the clock advance mercilessly. Vera pours rosewater into the room to die in a pleasant environment. He serves her a glass of wine to “steady her nerves”. She drinks to the health of Old Russia, and invites Feodor to finish the glass. He drops it on the floor. Mariusha, still in the big room next door, threatens to come. Vera takes out a jewel box. “You can’t bribe me”, he takes offence. She takes a beautiful decoration out of the box and hangs on Feodor’s chest, “I’m going to reward you for shooting a defenceless woman.” He tears off the decoration. She draws a cross on her breast to make the job easier for him. The five minutes are up. In fact, it lasts eight minutes in the film (even more, as I saw the film at a higher speed) to keep the suspense going…

Moved by her courage, Feodor begins to kiss Vera passionately. He pours lots of wine on our heroine’s chest, fires a shot in the air and returns to the large hall carrying Vera’s body.

“Let’s throw her in the Volga”, suggests Mariusha. “I’ll throw her in the Volga”, replies Feodor. As he steps forward, Mariusha steals Vera’s ring. But it smells like wine. She puts the ring on, her fingers are full of red. She licks her fingers and realizes the trick. But Feodor has already left, with Vera in his arms, and locks the door behind him. They run away.

This is the big scene of Act IV, an impression confirmed by the theatrical atmosphere of the sole set. We are not far from romantic drama, from the Hugo of Angelo or Ruy Blas, or even Elizabethan theatre. You can feel that it is a game, not some kind of reality, but you go along. DeMille has put all the ingredients, all possible twists and turns in this sequence.

And there are even some elements from The Road to Yesterday: the gypsy woman, the clock, replacing the hourglass.

This is the bravura sequence of the film, which remains on a good level in the other scenes, but is more banal, more conventional, infinitely less flamboyant. A sort of oasis in the sticks.

Footnote:

[1] Translator’s note: the line is, in fact, by Vera: “You sang it to give you courage, why shouldn’t I? Are we not both Russians?”