"Mare Nostrum" is one of those films that is good the first time you watch it and better the second time. The first time, you must take in the settings and the cinematography, the authentic location shooting and the absence of "Hollywood" in the film. The second time the viewer is much more able to focus on the story and the wonderful acting, especially of the beautiful Alice Terry.
The authenticity is due to the fact that this was the first film produced at Rex Ingram's Victorine studios in Nice, France. Also, location filming did actually take place in Barcelona, Pompeii and Paestum, as well as at Nice. Two World War I German submarines were loaned by the French government for use in the film, and those scenes were filmed at Toulon and Villefranche.
The cast was also composed almost entirely of Europeans. Moreno was Spanish. Mlle. Kithnou, who was from the island of Mauritius, played Ulysses' wife. Ulysses' uncle was played by Uni Apollon, a strong man with the Folies Bergeres. Hughie Mack ("Uncle" Caragol in the film) was Irish, and the French Mme. Paquerette played Dr. Fedelman.
All of this contributed to the atmosphere, mood and "look" of the film, but no less credit should be given to the brilliant cameraman John Seitz and to Ingram himself who served as set designer after firing the highly respected Ben Carré.
Ingram was as much a "stickler" for authenticity as the infamous Erich von Stroheim, and the sets appear that way - stark, dim and many times dingy. There is nothing "pretty" about the look of the film. Even the "well-appointed" sets are nothing exceptional - Ulysses' home or the headquarters of Dr. Fedelman in Naples, for example. However, there is nothing "pretty" in the Blasco Ibañez story either which includes adultery, war, deception, grief at the loss of a child, remorse and even death for every leading character.
But the story is not so heavy-handed that it cannot be enjoyed or appreciated for the tender playing of human foibles and emotions that it portrays so well. Ulysses succumbing to the bewitching Freya has shades of "A Fool There Was" to it especially considering the subsequent ruin he experiences as a result of the affair, but this this all-too-common situation is presented in a much less melodramatic yet much more believable manner here.
The film is by far a starring vehicle for Moreno with much more screen time than Terry, but Terry's performance is the memorable one. Upon their first meeting, she is aloof and sultry. In their love scenes she is alluring and sexy. When she pleads for him to take her away before she is captured by the French she is fragile and pitiful. As she readies for her execution, she is dignified and yet terrified. Throughout the film she never ceases to be anything but beautiful with the camera work more favorable to her than in "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse," "The Prisoner of Zenda" or "The Conquering Power."
"Mare Nostrum" was Terry's favorite film, and it is easy to see why - she never looked better or had a better opportunity for a range of emotions. "I feel that 'Mare Nostrum' was the only film I ever did really," she said. Terry commented at one time, "I will never get another part like that. I will never like a part better, and I will never have the luck I had on that." Ibañez himself was very praiseworthy of the "authenticity" of Terry's performance.
Rex Ingram's perfectionism paid off on this film. It took 15 months to film, and the amount of exposed film was in a league with "Greed." The first cut of the film was still at 23,000 feet, and, due to several different cuts in different countries, it is not known how Ingram's final version should look. Nevertheless, the film is powerful and moving. It was a success when it was released, and it still succeeds today, because anyone viewing the film will come away moved by it and commiserating on the many "what if's" that would have taken the story in a different direction. Apparently studio heads did some commiserating of their own as Ingram had to fight to retain Ibañez's original tragic ending.
"Mare Nostrum" is a top notch silent film. At present, it doesn't appear to be offered by anyone on video, and its lack of availability could be the reason it does not receive more attention.
What others said about "Mare Nostrum" . . .
Liam O'Leary . . .
"A great deal of value of the film depended on the casting and here Ingram selected his people very carefully. First, of course, came Alice Terry who was to give the performance of her career as Freya. She had previously played ingenue roles and here was a mature intellectual woman of great personality and beauty. Alice rose to the challenge.
"When the spy is chased through the streets of the French town or the ship sails across the blue water or the spirit of the ancient gods breathes over the ruins of Paestum and Pompeii one is impressed with the rich texture which Ingram has wrought. The execution of Freya at the hands of the French firing squad at dawn is one of the most moving sequences Ingram ever achieved." (Rex Ingram, Master of the Silent Cinema by Liam O'Leary, Barnes & Noble, 1980).
National Board of Review Magazine, March-April, 1926
"It is nothing new to report that Rex Ingram has produced a beautiful film; this is expected of him by his admirers and he still persists in not disappointing them.
"The story runs through in an entertaining way despite some sluggish spots and acheives an effect of serious undertaking on the part of Mr. Ingram.
"'Mare Nostrum's' success will lie in its appreciation by those who see deeply enough to recognize a physically beautiful, entertaining and well done motion picture, but not too deep to have a suspicion that Mr. Ingram, by exceptional direction and the ingenuity of some unusual incidences, has saved what, notwithstanding Ibanez, is not such a very extraordinary story from being a not too ordinary film."
DeWitt Bodeen . . .
"'Mare Nostrum' was Rex Ingram's personal favorite of all the films he directed, and it became the personal favorite of its two stars, Alice Terry and Moreno. They made a handsome pair of ill-fated lovers, and I don't think either ever appeared to better advantage. Its story gave Miss Terry an opportunity to play the femme fatale kind of role she had always wanted, and Moreno, as a romantic Spanish sea captain who loses, and is claimed by, the sea, had a chance for facets of rich characterisation none of his other romantic roles had so plenteously afforded. And all against lovely Mediterranean backgrounds. It is a beautiful picture, and after its release MGM offered Moreno a contract. It enabled him to be co-starred with, or be leading man to, some of the most popular actresses on the MGM roster." (More From Hollywood by DeWitt Bodeen, A.S. Barnes and Company, 1977)
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