Picture it: Russia right before the Bolshevik revolution. The peasants are seething against the ruling class. We see workers slaving to haul a boat to the river. They are starving and oppressed. Along comes the handsome Prince Dimitri (Victor Varconi) and his intended bride, Princess Verna (Elinor Fair). The Prince looks at the peasants with scorn and disgust, but Verna isn’t so smug. In fact, she eyes one of the men with barely contained lust.
The object of her attention is the manly Feodor (William Boyd). He practically glows with his piercing eyes and curly blond hair. He notices her too, but flips her off as one of the bourgeois aristocrats who will soon be defeated and overthrown.
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, they invade the palace and overturn the status quo of the household. The ragtag soldiers order the servants to sit at the table and the Princess and her father to serve them. But when the White Army approaches, Feodor flees with the Princess. (As I said, she had the hots for him.)
The power struggle shifts again and the Princess – disguised as a peasant – is captured by the Royalists. What comes next is probably one of DeMille’s most sordid and perverse scenes. The Princess is forced to dance on a table top while being ogled by the soldiers. One by one, they approach her and remove an article of her clothing, until she is apparently down to her skivvies. They leer and lust at her lasciviously. At first Prince Dimitri, thinking Verna is dead, allows the abomination, but when he recognizes her he is mortified.
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 the Princess are reunited with the Reds, along with Dimitri. But because Feodor is considered a traitor for trying to save Royalty, they are all yoked together to pull the barges to the river, just as in the beginning.
And this is where the movie should end. The tableau picturing the three of them strapped in unison is breathtaking. They were, after all, in it together. Unfortunately, DeMille couldn’t resist a happy ending…
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. And his piercing stare was mesmerizing.
Although 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. (The film’s story was adapted by Lenore J. Coffee from Konrad Bercovici’s novel.) Through it all is a romantic fable of love and passion that fits in beautifully with the real-life drama of the Russian revolution.
© Danny Fortune
The Volga Boatman (1926). Director: Cecil B. DeMille. Screenplay: Lenore J. Coffee; from Konrad Bercovici’s novel. Cast: William Boyd, Elinor Fair, Victor Varconi, Robert Edeson, Julia Faye.