Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         

THE SOLDIER AND THE LADY. RKO Radio Pictures, 1937. Anton Walbrook (debut), Elizabeth Allen, Akim Tamiroff, Margot Grahame, Fay Bainter (debut), Eric Blore, Edward Brophy, Paul Guilfoyle, Paul Harvey. Screenplay by Mortimer Offner, Anthony Veiller, Anne Morrison Chapin, based on Michael Strogoff Courier of the Tzar by Jules Verne. Directed by George Nichols Jr. as George Nicholls Jr.

   This remains one of the most faithful and well done of all Jules Verne’s books adapted to film, an epic portrayal of Verne’s novel about a heroic courier for Alexander II who brings down the Moslem Tartar rebellion of 1870 and saves Russia while finding love and facing one daunting task after another.

   Though Strogoff is another of Verne’s naturalist romantic heroes in the line of Ned Land from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Nik Dek from Castle Carpathian, he has also been rightfully called a 19th century James Bond.

      The splendid cast is the first great asset of this film. Anton Walbrook made his American film debut as Strogoff, and proves a fine swashbuckler more adept than most at the dramatic scenes (or melodramatic in this case). It isn’t as subtle as many of his fine later films, but then it isn’t supposed to be, and he more than suggests the characters nobility and courage.

   Elizabeth Allen (wife of Robert Montgomery and mother of Elizabeth) is the heroine Nadia, beautiful, aristocratic and innocent; Margot Grahame the femme fatale Zangarra with a heart that can be melted by a noble hero; and Fay Bainter in her strong film debut is Michael’s mother. Eric Blore and Edward Brophy are English and American war correspondents for comedy relief, and Paul Harvey the Tzar.

   But the film is stolen to a great extent by Akim Tamiroff as the perfectly named Ivan Ogareff, the traitorous, brutal, sly, cunning, and sadistic Tartar agent plotting to use the uprising to grab power and wealth. It’s Tamiroff at his scenery chewing best as a thorough going rotter, and audiences must have cheered when he meets his deserved end.

   The Tzar himself dispatches Strogoff as a courier to his brother in Irkutsk with instructions that will save him and the city from the Tartar’s treachery, adding for Michael not to even acknowledge his mother, Fay Bainter, whom he will see on his journey to the place of his birth.

   Things go bad quickly: the lovely Nadia is captured when the Tartar’s assault a barge she and Strogoff travel on looking for the courier they know the Tzar sent, and he is left for dead in the river. He escapes but is now afoot, and the Tartars are closing in. Finally he too is captured and Ogareff’s mistress Zangarra, Margot Grahame, who saw him in Moscow is to identify the courier, but she lies and Ogareff must threaten to torture the courier’s mother to bring Strogoff out.

   He comes forth of course, and confesses he destroyed the papers, and in one of the most brutal scenes in Verne’s works Ogareff blinds him with a torch, a crime so brutal that Strogoff’s mother’s heart fails at the horror. It’s pretty strong stuff here too, and unlike almost anything else in Verne’s fiction.

   Now Ogareff poses as the Tzar’s courier to deceive the Tzar’s brother, and Strogoff and Nadia struggle to reach Irkutsk in time.

   Ogareff hasn’t calculated on one thing — Strogoff isn’t blind — the tears he wept saying goodbye to his mother kept the flames from burning his eyes. He slays Ogareff, the city is saved, the rebellion put down with its leader dead, and Stogoff is given a medal by the Tzar and promoted to Colonel as the Tzar praises his heroic mother’s sacrifice.

   Walbrook had starred in the 1936 French version of the story so RKO wisely chose him in the role so they could use the sweeping scenes of battle and marching armies filmed for it. It proved a wise choice and the film was a major hit. Granted it might have been better from one of the bigger studios like Warners or MGM with a director better suited to epics, but it is still a fine swashbuckler very close to Verne’s novel.

   This was remade in the 1960‘s in Germany with Curt Jurgens as Strogoff (known both as Michael Strogoff and Soldier and a Lady) in color, and not a bad film itself, though difficult to find.

   But it’s this version that is the standout, a handsome adaptation of the classic novel with a fine cast and many sweeping scenes from the French original. From the look of things it is clear the French version beats them both, but as far as I know it is lost, so like the scenes of the silent Gold included in The Magnetic Monster, this is all we have.