Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Golden Horde - 1951

The Golden Horde (1951) was Ann Blyth’s first historical costume drama. Some stars were less successful in historical pieces, seeming too modern and too familiar to us in their modern personalities (Clark Gable in Parnell, Cary Grant in The Howards of Virginia, you could have a long list, even a blogathon about stars ill-fitting in historical roles).  For Ann Blyth, however, whose transcendent beauty, skill in accents and articulation, and sensitive approach to her roles, the effect is quite natural.  She's a good time-traveler.  We can also take as an explanation a remark she once made on her ability to play Veda Pierce, a character quite opposite to her own personality.  She told interviewer Lance Erickson Ghulam:

“…one’s imagination is a very deep well.”

We, too, are required to use our imaginations to enjoy this story of a small band of Crusader knights rushing to the aid of the Princess of Samarkand in defense against the horde of Genghis Khan.  It’s the year 1220, and this exotic locale on the eastern fringe of the Persian empire, part back lot and part Death Valley National Park, brings us perfect Saturday matinee-type adventure. 

The threat to the Princess and her kingdom is easily comprehended.  The mention of Genghis Khan in the western world evokes the image of a ready-made villain.  No explanations are necessary.  The story would flow pretty predictably, except for two concurrent and confounding aspects of this film, one good and one bad.

First, the Princess is an intelligent, independent woman running a matriarchal (for the past few generations, anyway) kingdom with brilliant success.  A change of pace from the standard Hollywood damsels in distress, and this is a welcome breath of fresh air.  The second aspect, however, is the abject stupidity and rudeness of the knight come to save her.  David Farrar comes pretty close to turning this romantic adventure story into a broad parody.

I am inclined to think it is the fault of the studio, either in the form of the front office, the producer, or the screenwriter for making the otherwise dashing Mr. Farrar into a first-class fool, in pandering to the kind of sentiment of the day that dictated that strong women could not be desirable and therefore should be subjugated by the hero.  

However, Ann Blyth, who has top billing here, name above the title, was able to play an intelligent and authoritative woman with warmth and grace, not like a demanding shrew, and the very image of her being subjugated by a roughneck doesn’t work.  Perhaps if she had played the Princess with the personality of Veda Pierce, someone wildly temperamental, sharp-tongued and harsh, this might come off, but not with the gentle strength and even righteousness she displays here .  The hero just ends up looking like a bully, and a stupid one at that.

Moreover, the script is based on the tales of Genghis Khan by Harold Lamb, who was known for peppering his meticulous historical novels with independent women who were quite often smarter than the male characters.  This is great source material for The Golden Horde, but David Farrar, so strong in his previous British films, like The Black Narcissus, is badly served by Universal tinkering with what would have been a bold story, and instead shoehorning the movie into what they imagined would be palatable for audiences of the time.  The exotic tapestry quickly becomes threadbare.

Genghis Khan, played by Marvin Miller, waits outside the city of Samarkand, and sends ahead a scouting party made up of his son, played by Henry Brandon, and a local warlord who is a new ally, played by Howard Petrie.  Along for the ride is the devious shaman, played by George Macready. 

All three character actors did their share of minor roles in B-movies and lots of episodic television. Probably Mr. Petrie scored higher with some small roles in A-list films.  Petrie has an interesting place in this movie, where we actually sympathize with the barbarian, laugh at him, and boo him all at the same time.  He wants his spoils of war, and since he and Henry Brandon are extremely jealous of each other, Petrie is alternately blustering and paranoid over his place in the scheme of things, suspicious of the boss’ son, so to speak.  He is petty, foolish, but dangerous in his own spiteful way, and with his all-too human foibles, he comes across as the Frank Burns of middle Asia.  At one point when he thinks the princess has been murdered, he actually looks sad.

It is really no challenge to watch an historical costume piece like this and pick out all that is either not historically accurate, or to mock those aspects which keep the film from being a documentary.  It’s not a documentary.  It’s a no-holds-barred popcorn-throwing Saturday matinee adventure, and if you can’t accept that with a smile, you’re about as humorless and shortsighted as David Farrar’s character in this movie.  Are even half the magical events of the Harry Potter series realistic?  No.  But I guess if you’re paying $15 a ticket to see it, you accept it.

So, too, in an old Hollywood movie like this, we have to accept that some of the Mongol troops are going to sound like they come from Jersey.  Like Henry Brandon, who is so unconvincing in his flat delivery that he really needs that scimitar to make us believe him when he threatens everybody.  Otherwise, he just looks like a schmuck with road rage.

Oddly, critic Harold V. Cohen in his syndicated column decided it was Ann Blyth who was unbelievable in her role, because of her real-life reputation for being “sweet” and “wholesome,” and because he assumed the Princess was supposed to be some sort of sultry harem girl.

Although Miss Blyth is attractive and appealing, her charms are wholly circumspect, and hardly the type to froth cutthroat tartar chieftains at the mouth and send them reeling and staggering.

He felt her miscast, “like a senior class Cleopatra and having an awfully unhappy time of it," and assigned her the brunt of the responsibility (along with director George Sherman's "unimaginative direction")  for the film not being better.

The whole unreal tone of The Golden Horde is summed up in this incredibly naive bit of casting...Now Miss Blyth can take off those veils and go back to her cashmeres and dirndls, where she belongs.  In The Golden Horde, they've sent an innocent child to do a woman's work.

We mentioned in this previous post the strange effect Ann’s off-screen wholesome reputation sometimes had on her career.

I think Mr. Cohen’s remarks reflect what must have been the studio’s spin on the Princess as a seductress who uses womanly wiles to distract the enemy until the brave English knight can show up.  The reviewer has completely missed the point that she is not a seductress; she is using her brains more than her sexuality to foil the enemy, and all in spite of the English knight. His criticism and misinterpretation is as silly as it is sexist.

When Henry Brandon and Howard Petrie show up with their advanced guard, Ann Blyth has already sent her subjects, including her soldiers, to safety in the surrounding hills.  Robert Hunter is her captain.  Donald Randolph is a trusted minister, who along with her court astrologer, played by good old Leon Belasco (see our tribute to him in his brief Holiday Inn role here), refuse to leave their princess and remain behind with her in the palace.  She has a plan to thwart the enemy, and though they are doubtful, all her male staff respects her authority and most especially, her intelligence.  She gives them permission to leave, but they are loyal and protective.

Also remaining are her ladies of the court, headed by Peggie Castle.  All have the run of this remarkable palace with its worn stone steps and a zillion secret passages that allow them to come and go right under the noses of the enemy soldiers who are all set to pillage and burn Samarkand to the ground. The warlords talk about taking the captive women to their tents.  Ann and her ladies intend to commit suicide by poisoning themselves if it comes to that.

Ann, with the help of her court astrologer, welcomes the leery barbarians and informs them she has been eagerly awaiting them, because of the prophecy at her birth that a mighty warrior would come from the East and marry her, and rule by her side in Samarkand as head of a great empire. 

She made that part up.

Of course, both Henry Brandon and Howard Pietrie thinks he is the lucky guy.  Since they already hate each other, it’s not a hard sell for them to try to kill each other over Ann, which is what Ann is hoping will happen.

She makes one of those glorious movie entrances atop a stone staircase, used with the same breathtaking effect in pretty much any film this was done.  If you want to make a grand entrance at a party, get a great gown and walk down stairs, slowly, inviting everyone to look at you.

Enter David Farrar.

Here’s where you really have to suspend disbelief, never mind the guys who sound like they come from Jersey.  When David and his small band of Christian leftovers from other lost battles ride over the dunes, we are faced with the memory of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, with pompous Crusaders in chain mail shouting every line as if it were a great pontification.  The only difference is the Monty Python gang galloped on foot, banging coconut halves together to emulate the sound of hoof beats, while David Farrar and his boys really ride horses. 

To be fair, Russell Metty’s cinematography of the rough, barren landscape and the soldiers crossing the plains, armies clashing swords is pretty good, but with David Farrar bellowing, a dopey friar whose unimaginative lines such as, “poor misguided heathen,” there are cringeworthy moments that make one wish the script was tightened up just a little.

For instance, though David Farrar, with his brooding, sulky good looks was one of the first of the anti-heroes of his generation, we’re still supposed to pull for him, but we can’t when he proudly reports his résumé of qualifications to the princess that includes his own army being wiped out just before he made a daring escape and lived, a fact of which he is immensely proud.

Ann is told by her counselor of her own defeated soldiers, “They died with honor, your Highness.”

She responds, “Only in the peculiar thinking of men does that make them less dead.”  With sharp lines like this, we expect Ann’s future consort—and obviously, David Farrar, according to the rules of the game, is going to end up romantically involved with her—should be her equal.

Instead, when she nixes his plan to destroy Samarkand in order to save it (?) he furiously calls her, and will call her repeatedly through the movie, a “pigeon-brained half-wit.”

He berates Captain Robert Hunter, “Have you sand in your belly that you take orders from a stupid female?”  Mr. Farrar eventually concedes her beauty is a plus, but he never notices her dignity, her courage, or her sense of honor.  He never really seems to fall in love with her, but rather takes her as spoils of war.

It is an irresistible, but fruitless hope, that the man at Farrar’s side, his aide played by Richard Egan, will take over and be the hero of the movie.  But we keep hoping for it.  Egan has such quietly authoritative screen presence, even in this very small role, that you can really see the future star.  A more controlled, world-weary and cunning anti-hero would have been a better romantic match for the princess, someone who did not insult her quite so much, but might actually try to woo her a little.

There are a few places in the script that point out the mismatched personalities between the leads with intentional humor, such as when Ann, frustrated at David Farrar’s blustering attempts to save her that ruin her plans, “He’s a meddling fool.  He can do nothing but interfere,” and “I should have poisoned that English lout.  He’ll spoil everything,” and at her wit’s end when he bungles another plot, “For the sake of heaven, will you stop protecting me!”

There are also unintentionally funny lines, with poor David Farrar carrying the brunt of them.  However, when she rescues him and his trapped men by showing him a secret tunnel out of the palace and leading into the hills, he marvels at the construction. 

“Shrewd general.  At least one of your ancestors must have had some brains.”

“The shrew general was my great-grandmother.”

He eventually comes to appreciate, if not admire, her intelligence and the nobility of her matriarchal ruling family.  We notice, more than he does, her physical bravery, scuttling about between palace and hills to plant herself as a decoy to the two combative warrior chiefs.  For her part, she comes to see the worth of his soldier’s experience in training her men in the hills. That will have value when Genghis Khan shows up and needs convincing.

When Genghis Khan comes to town himself, leading a long ribbon of his army stretching to the farthest horizon, he is stopped at the gates by the combination of the skills of both princess and knight, and the survival instincts of the deceitful shaman: the prophecy that Samarkand will be the burial place of anybody who comes to destroy it.  The sight of a mass of dead bodies in the courtyard convinces Genghis Khan that Samarkand is not worth his time.  He turns away.

The real terror in this movie is George Macready as the sinister shaman, a little orange man with more intelligence than any of Ann’s assorted enemies.  Genghis Khan enters too late, coming off as a tired old high-level manager who’s miffed with his college kid son working in the stockroom during summer vacation.

One of the things I get a kick out of in these far-off land of long ago stories is the image in my mind of Tatars and knights, along with cowboys and princesses and circus clowns all eating at the studio commissary in costume.  The studio is a universe as exotic as any of these far-off lands, and just as dangerous.  Especially for the Princess.  According to the syndicated column of Sheilah Graham:

Ann Blyth was sent home Friday after a freak accident on the set of The Golden Horde…David Farrar, trying to save her from Genghis Khan, accidently flicked her face with the tip of his sword.  Gave her a bloody nose and a cut lip.

Another column reported:

…a broadsword in the hand of Ann’s co-star, British leading man David Farrar, slid off the metal helmet of his adversary and stuck Ann in the face.  The actress was momentarily stunned and received first aid treatment for a cut cross her forehead.  Two days later the Irish lass was holding a golden goblet of wine in one hand while a bowman drew a bead on the goblet and shot it out of her grasp.  Ann was showered with the goblet’s contents and the arrow barely missed her wrist and hand by scarcely an inch.”

You can almost hear Ann tell her cast, “WILL you stop protecting me!”

It seems, with the intelligent, appealing character and the beautiful costumes, this would have been a fun role for Ann Blyth to play, if you don’t count getting slashed with swords and shot with arrows.

It was a world where David Farrar, in his first American film, had to contend with that other outside world wrecking his scene.  From a report by columnist Harold Heffernan, as soon as Farrar began a speech:

…a huge DC-6 transport plane roars over the sky over the Universal-International lot, drowning out the sound of the actor’s voice.  Without hesitation, Farrar goes right on,

“We’ve also invented a large flying machine which verily makes the sound of a thousand windmills.  Forsooth, Milady, if my ears do not deceive me, there’s one of them up there now!”

The cast broke up and the director hollered, “Cut!”

Mr. Farrar, understandably, hoped his new Hollywood contract would lead to better things, but after a string of mediocre films where he was invariably cast as an historically costumed villain, he left Hollywood for good and went back to England.  He was twenty years older than Ann Blyth when they made this film, but with his rugged good looks, his age was not the problem.  Perhaps his swagger was overcompensation for his being middle-aged, or perhaps it was the imprint of the script and studio that felt a bellowing male was a strong male. 

Whatever the fault, I can enjoy a fantasy spectacle such as this.  I can believe the smart princess on whose delicate shoulders the burdens of an entire kingdom rest.  I can accept the blustering warriors who sound like they come from Jersey or Fort Wayne, the enigmatic dancing girls who look like they've been trained by Martha Graham, the grubby warriors from central casting.  I can overlook the storytelling necessity that different cultures from far ends of the earth can meet in one distant place and all communicate in American English.  I can even believe a swaggering English knight who does more harm than good.

What I can’t swallow is the romance between that knight and the princess who is his intellectual, emotional, and moral superior. 

What does she see in him?  That is the question the movie must answer, but spends more time dazzling us with the thwok sound of arrows piercing into the chests of a hundred extras, the exotic costumes of the clashing cultures, and the gauzy and colorful drapery tight against the womanly figure of Ann Blyth.

By the way, the thundering theme song you may recognize as later being re-used for King Kong Versus Godzilla (1962), US version at least.  I have to thank my twin brother John for pointing that out.  Waste not, want not, I guess.

As far as I know, this movie is one of the lost tribes of Universal. You might find a knock-off homemade DVD from some guy selling them pinned to the inside of his trenchcoat in a back alley somewhere.

Come back next Thursday for another historical costume drama when Ann attempts to avenge her murdered father in the court of England’s King Charles II in The King’s Thief (1955).  David Niven plays a scoundrel, as only David Niven can.

RADIO:  I'll be a guest on John Losh's radio program this Sunday, August 24th, noon to 1:00 CT, 1:00 to 2:00 p.m. ET.  Tune into Losh-Man's Hollywood Classics on and 102.7 FM-Excelsior Springs, Missouri.  If you've ever wondered if I am as long-winded speaking as I am writing, now's your chance to find out.

The Bonham Daily Favorite, Bonham, Texas, November 18, 1951, “Tiny Ann Blyth Proves Durable in Film Roles,” p. 2.

Classic Images, February 1995, “Ann Blyth: Ann of a Thousand Smiles,” by Lance Erickson Ghulam.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, November 12, 1951, syndicated column by Harold V. Cohen; February 7, 1951, syndicated column by Sheilah Graham, p. 16.

 THANK the following folks whose aid in gathering material for this series has been invaluable:  EBH; Kevin Deany of Kevin's Movie Corner; Gerry Szymski of Westmont Movie Classics, Westmont, Illinois; and Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.

TRIVIA QUESTION:  I've recently been contacted by someone who wants to know if the piano player in Dillinger (1945-see post here) is the boogie-woogie artist Albert Ammons. Please leave comment or drop me a line if you know.
 UPDATE:  This series on Ann Blyth is now a book - ANN BLYTH: ACTRESS. SINGER. STAR. -
The audio book for Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is now for sale on, and on Amazon and iTunes.

Also in paperback and eBook from Amazon, CreateSpace, and my Etsy shop: LynchTwinsPublishing.

 "Lynch’s book is organized and well-written – and has plenty of amusing observations – but when it comes to describing Blyth’s movies, Lynch’s writing sparkles." - Ruth Kerr, Silver Screenings

"Jacqueline T. Lynch creates a poignant and thoroughly-researched mosaic of memories of a fine, upstanding human being who also happens to be a legendary entertainer." - Deborah Thomas, Java's Journey

"One of the great strengths of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is that Lynch not only gives an excellent overview of Blyth's career -- she offers detailed analyses of each of Blyth's roles -- but she puts them in the context of the larger issues of the day."- Amanda Garrett, Old Hollywood Films

"Jacqueline's book will hopefully cause many more people to take a look at this multitalented woman whose career encompassed just about every possible aspect of 20th Century entertainment." - Laura Grieve, Laura's Miscellaneous Musings''

"Jacqueline T. Lynch’s Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is an extremely well researched undertaking that is a must for all Blyth fans." - Annette Bochenek, Hometowns to Hollywood

Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. 
by Jacqueline T. Lynch

The first book on the career of actress Ann Blyth. Multitalented and remarkably versatile, Blyth began on radio as a child, appeared on Broadway at the age of twelve in Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine, and enjoyed a long and diverse career in films, theatre, television, and concerts. A sensitive dramatic actress, the youngest at the time to be nominated for her role in Mildred Pierce (1945), she also displayed a gift for comedy, and was especially endeared to fans for her expressive and exquisite lyric soprano, which was showcased in many film and stage musicals. Still a popular guest at film festivals, lovely Ms. Blyth remains a treasure of the Hollywood's golden age.

The eBook and paperback are available from Amazon and CreateSpace, which is the printer.  You can also order it from my Etsy shop. It is also available at the Broadside Bookshop, 247 Main Street, Northampton, Massachusetts.

If you wish a signed copy, then email me at and I'll get back to you with the details.


A new collection of essays, some old, some new, from this blog titled Movies in Our Time: Hollywood Mimics and Mirrors the 20th Century is now out in eBook, and in paperback here.


Kevin Deany said...

I've never seen this one, but it sounds like fun. That's too bad about Henry Brandon's performance. He made a splendid Fu Manchu in the Republic serial DRUMS OF FU MANCHU (1940).

I believe the score was written by Universal house composer Hans J. Salter. Universal would sometimes license their music out, which is likely how it wound up in KING KONG VS. GODZILLA. That's why the theme from CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON also shows up in that movie.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Hi, Kevin. I haven't seen Brandon's turn as Fu Manchu, but he still seems like B-movie material here. That's interesting about CREATURE music being in the Godzilla movie, too. Funny.

grandoldmovies said...

I love this great line: " in an old Hollywood movie like this, we have to accept that some of the Mongol troops are going to sound like they come from Jersey" - I think that's the appeal of these movies, that so many of them entertain because they are wildly anachronistic and sometimes will star actors who don't belong there (another case of a too-modern actor in historical epics: Tony Curtis in "The Black Shield of Falworth" and "Spartacus"). I know that feeling of frustration when watching a movie when the female character is so much smarter than every male around her (often starring Bette Davis or Katharine Hepburn), yet in the end she's forced to submit to male authority - I think it may be how Hollywood was reflecting (or thinking it was reflecting) the culture of its time. That female audiences of those times responded to strong actresses (such as Bette Davis) makes me wonder if they felt that frustration, too.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

These are fun movies, and, shamelessly, maybe some of the fun is in picking out the actors who stick out like sore thumbs.

That's an interesting point you make about wondering if female audiences of the day responded as we do. I think perhaps many did, thinking of generations past of strong-minded females in my own family. But I guess there must have been a lot of acceptance for this sort of thing too. In this movie, I think it would have been fine to have a strong male, but a different kind of strength, one that matched the cerebral strength of the Ann Blyth character, someone we could understand her respecting and loving.

The Metzinger Sisters said...

Now this sounds like a film not to be passed up...those screenshots really sold me, and I just love films with Jersey-born Mongols. Ann Blyth was beautiful in every film she made but she looked best in period films, especially The Student Prince. I doubt any Heidelberg biergarten kellnerin looked as pretty as she did! Thanks for a great review of a film I never heard of.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Metzinger girls, I agree, she was quite lovely in these period films. It's a fun movie, despite it's weaknesses.

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