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The Volga Boatman: Compelling DeMille Epic Doesn’t Take Sides

The Volga Boatman William Boyd Elinor FairThe Volga Boatman with William Boyd and Elinor Fair: The couple were married in 1926, the year Cecil B. DeMille’s movie came out. Boyd is best remembered for his portrayal of cowboy hero Hopalong Cassidy in countless B Westerns of the 1930s and 1940s.
  • The Volga Boatman (1926) movie review: In his Russian Revolution epic, Cecil B. DeMille lets viewers decide on whose – violent, despicable – side they’re on. Piercing-eyed William Boyd stars.

The Volga Boatman movie review: Cecil B. DeMille’s late silent epic takes a ‘both sides’ – or rather, ‘neither side’ – approach to the Russian Revolution

Adapted by Lenore J. Coffee from Konrad Bercovici’s novel, the 1926 Cecil B. DeMille epic The Volga Boatman should be book-ended with the filmmaker’s 1929 social/theological drama The Godless Girl. Both tell compelling stories without a clear, definite point of view.

Picture it: Russia right before the (then still fresh) Bolshevik Revolution.

The starving, oppressed peasants are seething against the ruling class.

We see workers slaving to haul a boat to the river.

Then along comes the handsome Prince Dimitri (Victor Varconi) and his intended bride, Princess Verna (Elinor Fair). Whereas the Prince looks at the peasants with scorn and disgust; the Princess eyes one of the men with barely contained lust.

The object of her attention is the manly Feodor (William Boyd), who practically glows with his piercing eyes and curly blond hair. The Volga boatman notices her too, but flips her off as one of the bourgeois aristocrats who will soon be overthrown.

I Want You in the Red Army

When the revolution comes, Feodor is a leader of the Red Army, intent on wiping out the Royalists.

When his troops come upon Princess Verna and her father, Prince Nikita (Robert Edeson), they invade their palace and overturn the status quo of the household. The ragtag soldiers order the servants to sit at the table so the Princess and her father can serve them.

When the White Army approaches, Feodor flees with the Princess, who, as mentioned further up, has the hots for him.

Sordid & perverse

The power struggle shifts again when Princess Verna, disguised as a peasant, is captured by the Royalists. What comes next is probably one of DeMille’s most sordid and perverse sequences.

The Princess is forced to dance on a table top while being ogled by the soldiers. Prince Dimitri, who believes Verna is dead, is part of the group.

One by one, the men approach her and remove an article of her clothing, until she is apparently down to her skivvies. They leer and lust at her lasciviously.

Prince Dimitri allows the abomination, but once he recognizes the Princess, he is mortified.

Full circle

Outside, the struggle between the Red Bolsheviks and the White Royalists continues. Each side is shown to have its good points and its bad points.

But history has shown who the winner is, so Feodor and Princess Verna are reunited with the Reds, along with Prince Dimitri.

Since Feodor is considered a traitor for trying to save Royalty, they are all yoked together to pull the barges to the river – just like the peasants at the beginning of the film.

Here is where The Volga Boatman should have ended. The tableau picturing the three of them strapped in unison is breathtaking. They were literally in it together.

Unfortunately, DeMille (or perhaps author Bercovici?) couldn’t resist a happy ending.

Powerful filmmaking

In all, The Volga Boatman is a powerful movie.

William Boyd, for one, casts a stunning figure as the leader of the peasants. He is sensitive, yet masculine and strong; besides, his piercing stare is indeed mesmerizing.

Although Cecil B. DeMille is often accused of being an unapologetic right-winger, his sympathy for the Reds in The Volga Boatman is quite evident – even though they are shown to be just as ruthless as the White Army.

And throughout it all we’re presented a romantic fable that fits in beautifully with the real-life drama of the Russian Revolution.

The Volga Boatman (1926)

Director: Cecil B. DeMille.

Screenplay: Lenore J. Coffee.
From Konrad Bercovici’s 1926 novel.

Cast: William Boyd. Elinor Fair. Victor Varconi. Robert Edeson. Julia Faye. Theodore Kosloff. Arthur Rankin.
Uncredited: According to online sources, Eugene Palette has a minor role.

The Volga Boatman: Compelling DeMille Epic Doesn’t Take Sides” review text © Danny Fortune; excerpt, image captions, bullet point introduction, and notes/endnotes © Alt Film Guide.


The Volga Boatman (1926) Movie Review” endnotes

Author Konrad Bercovici dedicates his novel – which came out the same year as the movie adaptation – “to Cecil B. DeMille, who called me three thousand miles to listen to this story.”

Busy at MGM during much of the 1930s, screenwriter Lenore J. Coffee (Downstairs, the Russian Revolution drama Rasputin and the Empress) would be nominated for one Academy Award – alongside Julius J. Epstein – for the screenplay of Michael Curtiz’s Warner Bros. release Four Daughters (1938).

William Boyd and Elinor Fair The Volga Boatman movie image: DeMille Pictures Corporation | Producers Distributing Corporation.

The Volga Boatman: Compelling DeMille Epic Doesn’t Take Sides” last updated in October 2021.

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