One of the most entertaining films now in release was made way back in 1919:
Maurice Tourneur’s adaptation of the Joseph Conrad novel “Victory” is a vintage blast of entertainment that is almost too much fun to watch. Long unavailable for viewing, with the only surviving print residing in the Library of Congress, “Victory” has been liberated by a small Indiana company called LSVideo and offers an invaluable lesson how our grandparents enjoyed themselves at the movies. Comparing this film to most of the releases now in theaters, it seems that our grandparents had a better time!
For a film only running 50 minutes, “Victory” is a damn busy affair. The setting is the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), where the reclusive Axel Heyst (played by Jack Holt) lives in seclusion on a private island with a cute kitten and a not-so-cute Chinese houseboy. Poor Axel has been alone for so long that his mind and heart have turned to ice. But a rare trip to civilization on a neighboring island offers Axel a chance to swing with the rest of the human race. His hotel is offering entertainment in the form of an all-girl orchestra and Axel feels deep pangs of pity for the nasty manner in which the orchestra leader and his battle-axe wife treat their sexy young first violinist Alma (Seena Owen). Axel, in a rare display of spontaneous emotion, helps Alma escape from her orchestral imprisonment and brings her to his island.
Wait, it gets better! On the island, Alma is even more depressed because Axel sinks back into his emotional zombie state and never bothers to notice her va-va-voom sex appeal. But things liven up in the form of a trio of globetrotting miscreants (Ben Deely, Lon Chaney and Bull Montana) who sail to the island under the belief there is a treasure buried somewhere. Although Axel is a gracious host, his three guests don’t behave very politely and soon there is a torrent of gunshots, knife tossing, chases, a rape (or the potential for rape — the film is a bit fuzzy on that point), double and triple crossing and the shoving of a tied-up man into a raging fireplace. Oh, the island’s long-dormant volcano also gets into the act with hefty belches of fire and lava.
I never read the Joseph Conrad novel which inspired the film, but I would guess that something got goofed up in the transition from page to screen. But that is no bother, since “Victory” is such a joyride that any pretense of art is out of place. The film offers unapologetic lapses in logic, contrivances which come out of nowhere, shameless politically incorrect depictions of several ethnic groups and a surprisingly healthy dose of violence (including a scene, shot in silhouette, showing a man’s back being broken via an overdone bear hug). The cheesy volcano special effects offer
unintentional laughs and the entire venture is one of such undiluted escapism that any fault-finding can only be dismissed as anal-retentive behavior at its most excessive.
One of the main pleasures of “Victory” is the wonderfully florid performance by the great Lon Chaney as Ricardo, the dumbest of the villains. With his snarky smirks, perpetually crouching posture, infantile delight in crime and inability to think fast, Chaney creates a peerless character which is clearly among his finest screen work. Most delightful is the scene where Chaney’s Ricardo is planted with the idea of treasure on Axel’s island. The source behind that notion is a hotel owner played by Wallace Beery, who was no slouch in the scene-stealing department. Watching these two movie titans
battle for screen supremacy with an inventory of arched eyebrows, facial ticks, darting eyes and furrowed foreheads is a duel of extraordinary acting.
The presentation of “Victory” is spiced with a wonderful piano score composed and performed by Jon Mirsalis, a film preservationist specializing in restoring the legacy of Lon Chaney. His pianist skills are considerable and he provides the perfect touch to make the return of “Victory” an unconditional success.