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The Fighting Eagle

Napoleon (Max Barwyn) receives a pleasant surprise.
Release Year: 1927
Country: United States
Director: Donald Crisp
Writer: Douglas Z. Doty (from a play by Arthur Conan Doyle)
Cast: Rod La Rocque, Phyllis Haver, Sam De Grasse, Max Barwyn, Julia Faye, Sally Rand, Clarence Burton, and Alphonse Ethier
Sound Mix: Silent
Company: DeMille Pictures Corporation
Runtime: 54 minutes


tory: Unaware that his Minister of Foreign Affairs, the traitorous Talleyrand (Sam De Grasse), is in the pay of Spain, the Emperor Napoleon (Max Barwyn) informs him that his secret agent, the Countess de Launay (Phyllis Haver), is returning from Madrid with information that may justify war with that country. Talleyrand warns that attacking Spain will inflame Europe, but Napoleon rudely tells Talleyrand that he did not ask him for his opinion. Relaying this information to the Spanish ambassador, Talleyrand is told that Spain will pay him a million francs if the Countess de Launay is stopped at the border.

Talleyrand (Sam De Grasse) discreetly confers
with the Spanish ambassador.
Meanwhile, high in the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain, in the neutral Principality of Andorra, the Countess de Launay stops at a roadside inn run by the widow Gerard and her grandson, Etienne Gerard (Rod La Rocque), whose sole ambition in life is to be a soldier in Napoleon's army.

Talleyrand, his secretary Fräulein Hertz (Sally Rand), and his minions arrive at the inn seeking to steal the secret paper containing the vital information from Spain that is being carried by the Countess de Launay. As Talleyrand has dinner with the Countess, one of his agents searches her room for the paper. Gerard, smitten with the Countess and eager to serve the Emperor, orders that her carriage be readied for a quick exit.

After dinner, the Countess retires to her room and Talleyrand orders a bottle of cognac from Gerard. Talleyrand's agents lock Gerard in the wine cellar and then confront the Countess in her room in an effort to take the paper. Breaking free from the cellar, Gerard rescues the Countess from Talleyrand's agents. They escape to the waiting carriage and Gerard rides off with the Countess.

Gerard (Rod La Rocque) is promoted to captain
by a grateful Napoleon (Max Barwyn).
Eighteen months later, Captain Etienne Gerard is assigned to the wartime quarters of the Hussars of Conflans, known as the Fighting Eagles (thereby justifying the film's title). As Gerard joins them at table, the other officers lead him on with flattery, hoping to make sport of him should he start boasting about his accomplishments. Taking their interest at face value, Gerard recounts the story of how he first met Napoleon, saved a brigade, and was a made captain. As the hussars mock him for his "lies", Gerard rises and demands satisfaction, promising to meet each and every one of them at the old stone bridge at dawn.

A carriage arrives just as Gerard angrily stalks outside. It is the Countess de Launay, with orders from Napoleon that Gerard assist her in secret service. The Countess informs him that they are to steal a letter from Talleyrand which will prove him guilty of treason. The next morning the officers await Gerard at the old stone bridge. When he doesn't show up at the appointed time they condemn him as a coward.

Meanwhile, Talleyrand prepares his letter of resignation to present to the Emperor. As his servants pack his things, Talleyrand is visited by the Countess de Launay, who claims that she too has lost favor with Napoleon and wishes to seek asylum in Russia. She suggests that together they can wreak their revenge through the Czar.

The Countess de Launay (Phyllis Haver) has a
tense interview with Talleyrand (Sam De Grasse).
Making a noise while sneaking in through a window, Gerard inadvertently alerts Talleyrand to his presence. Realizing that he's being set up, Talleyrand threatens the Countess and Gerard comes to her rescue, tying Talleyrand up with the rope from the bell pull which causes the bell to ring in the servants' quarters. The Countess finds the incriminating letter and Gerard hides the bound and gagged Talleyrand in a chest. When the servants arrive in response to the bell the Countess tells them to cart the chest away, but Fräulein Hertz appears on the scene and suspecting treachery orders the servants to put the chest down. She frees Talleyrand and he orders his guards to place Gerard in the chest and deliver it to the Emperor.

When no one is looking, the Countess ensures that Gerard sees her placing the letter in his vest, but as he's placed in the chest the letter drops to the floor. Unbeknownst to Gerard, the Countess retrieves the letter and hides it in Gerard's hat, which is thrown into the chest with him.

Napoleon (Max Barwyn) is disappointed in
Gerard's (Rod La Rocque) efforts as a spy.
The chest is delivered to Napoleon and Gerard is released. When he fails to find the letter which he mistakenly believes to be hidden in his vest, Napoleon sends him back to his regiment. When Gerard returns to his regiment, he is challenged as a deserter and a liar. He draws his sword in answer to the insult to his honor and impresses the other hussars with his swordsmanship, but ultimately submits to a court martial for desertion. He is sentenced to be executed by a firing squad.

The Countess de Launay arrives and tells the confined Gerard that the letter was concealed in his hat. She tells him that Napoleon is on his way to Paris, and orders Gerard to bring him to her. Ever mindful of his duty, Gerard escapes and rides off to intercept Napoleon as the Countess distracts his guard. As Napoleon's coach stops near a stream to water the horses, Gerard jumps on the lead horse and spurs the team back to the regiment with the Emperor in tow.

Napoleon (Max Barwyn) demonstrates his
regard for Gerard (Rod La Rocque).
At regimental headquarters, Gerard tells Napoleon that the Countess de Launay had requested that he bring him there on a matter of great importance. As Gerard is marched away to be shot, Napoleon confronts the Countess and demands an explanation. The missing letter is retrieved from Gerard's hat and given to Napoleon, who recognizes it as proof of Talleyrand's treachery.

Napoleon halts the execution, pins a medal on Gerard, promotes him to colonel, and asks what he would do without him—all to the astonishment of Gerard's fellow officers in the regiment. Under Napoleon's watchful gaze, Gerard takes the Countess de Launay in his arms.


omment: The Fighting Eagle was rather freely adapted by screenwriter Douglas Z. Doty from a play that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had originally written in 1903 and later revised in 1906. Having killed off his better known character, Sherlock Holmes (or so he had thought), Conan Doyle first started work on a new series of stories for publication in The Strand magazine in late 1894, each to feature an adventure of his new character, Etienne Gerard, a Hussar in Napoleon's Army. Brigadier Gerard is a vain, boastful, naïve, but brave and loyal officer in the French Army, and is devoted to his mother, his Emperor, and his country—roughly in that order. Although not as well known today as his Sherlock Holmes stories, Conan Doyle's Gerard stories were quite popular in their day, and after the first batch of eight were published between December 1894 and December 1895, Conan Doyle sold another nine stories between January 1900 and May 1903. A final follow-up story was published in September 1910. Etienne Gerard also shows up as a major supporting character in Conan Doyle's 1897 historical novel, Uncle Bernac: A Memory of the Empire.

Conan Doyle's 1903 play, The Adventures of Gerard, adapted for its initial production by Eugene W. Presbrey, a successful American playwright, stage manager, and director, drew elements from three Gerard stories, "How the Brigadier Won His Medal" (adapted for television in 1954 as an episode of Schlitz Playhouse), "How the Brigadier Captured Saragossa", and "How the Brigadier was Tempted by the Devil". After a brief run, Conan Doyle revised the play for production in 1906 under the title Brigadier Gerard, presumably deleting the elements added by Presbrey, since his name no longer appears in the credits.

Although the script for Conan Doyle's play has never been published, Theatre Magazine's review, published in December 1906, describes a familiar scene in the first act, where "Gerard's brother officers, who see him for the first time, by a prearranged plan, draw out his boastfulness and make game of him. When he discovers this he offers to fight any number of them, the duels being prevented by his orders to go on his mission." The balance of the plot is described in the review as:

A young trooper, under Napoleon, handsome, brave, dashing, but somewhat stupid, is chosen by Napoleon to go to Paris as a civilian and recover certain important "papers" from a countess. She is in love with the young man and is about to surrender them to him. At that moment the emissaries of Talleyrand break in and take possession of them. The young officer as a civilian, visits Talleyrand, who entraps him, has him bound and stowed away in a wooden cabinet. The countess enters, and in the absence of Talleyrand discovers the trick and releases him. Talleyrand is then made the victim of the same trick, and the cabinet is conveyed to Napoleon, with his compliments, according to the previous directions of the wily diplomat. Between the acts Talleyrand escapes from the cabinet. Napoleon is mystified and sends the young officer back to his regiment disgraced. In an interview with Talleyrand's secretary, Napoleon, by adroit questioning, learns the truth of what has been told him by Gerard, and that the missing papers are in a cloak belonging to Talleyrand, which had been taken away by Gerard. This solves the action. Napoleon forgives Gerard and makes him a Brigadier.

Comparing the plot description of the original play to the scenario of the film gives us an idea of the changes to Conan Doyle's story that were made by scriptwriter Doty in his screen adaptation. The movie adds the business in the first act about the secret paper justifying war with Spain, greatly expands the involvement of the Countess de Launay (whose name has been shortened from the Countess de Roquelaure in the play), and re-locates Gerard's original home from Gascony to Andorra, substituting his grandmother for his dear mother as described in Conan Doyle's stories. The flashback scene where Gerard relates how he first met Napoleon and became a captain was taken from an incident in Conan Doyle's story, "How the Brigadier Saved the Army".

Early screen idol Rod La Rocque was under contract to Cecil DeMille when production began on The Fighting Eagle in the spring of 1927. He was in his late twenties when cast as Etienne Gerard and his youthful good looks and athletic physique made him a perfect choice for the role, especially after some diligent work with famous Hollywood fencing master Fred Cavens to perfect his skill with the foil. La Rocque began acting as a teenager and became a star when he was cast in the 1923 version of DeMille's The Ten Commandments. He retired from acting in 1941 and went on to sell real estate. He died in 1969.

Phyllis Haver began her film work as a Sennett Bathing Beauty in 1915 and soon graduated to prominent roles in Sennett's two-reelers. Buster Keaton fans probably know her best as the love interest in 1923's The Balloonatic. She was under contract to Cecil B. DeMille when she was cast to play the Countess de Launay in The Fighting Eagle. Haver retired from acting in 1929 when she married millionaire William Seeman, though the marriage ended in 1945. She died of a barbiturate overdose in 1960.

Max Barwyn, also known as Max Berwyn, had been a stage actor in Europe and was described in press releases as having been a Shakespearean actor in Germany. He became a reliable character actor in Hollywood and in The Fighting Eagle played the role of Napoleon with his tongue somewhat in cheek and with a slight twinkle in his eye. Apparently it was felt that his less than serious performance would not go over well in France, especially so quickly on the heals of Abel Glance's Napoleon, so his close-ups were replaced with footage shot of French actor Émile Drain as Napoleon when the film was released in France as Le Brigadier Gérard in 1928. Max Barwyn died in 1955.

The role of Talleyrand was played by Sam De Grasse, who specialized in villainous roles. His secretary in the film, Fräulein Hertz, was played by Sally Rand, who later became famous as the celebrated fan dancer of the burlesque circuit. From comments made much later by director Donald Crisp and star Rod La Rocque, there has been speculation that Hollywood star Carole Lombard made an early appearance in this film, though I've been unable to spot her.

The Fighting Eagle opened to mixed reviews, though critics were generally pleased with the performances of the leads. The major complaint seems to be that while amusing, the picture is a bit pedestrian. For fans of the Emperor on film, however, it is well worth seeking out.


istorical Context: Conan Doyle was something of a stickler for historical accuracy in his Brigadier Gerard stories, and presumably took pains to ensure that his play met his usual high standards, so perhaps it was screenwriter Douglas Z. Doty who introduced historical confusion into the picture. The film opens with Napoleon finding cause to invade Spain. The actual invasion of Spain took place in 1808, so presumably the events in the first act take place somewhere between 1807 and 1808. However, we are told that eighteen months later Talleyrand is preparing to resign as Napoleon's Minister of Foreign Affairs, which actually took place in 1807.

After he's prepared his letter of resignation, the Countess de Launay tries to convince Talleyrand that she's prepared to defect to the Russians and work against Napoleon, but Napoleon had made peace with Russia at Tilsit in July of 1807 and Talleyrand did not resign until August, so Russia was an ally at the time. To add to the confusion, the chest that both Talleyrand and Gerard briefly occupy in the second act is called "the Kremlin chest," which suggests that it may have been brought back from Russia after Napoleon's disastrous campaign of 1812.

In short, one should not look to The Fighting Eagle for an outline of French history.

Availability: Copies of The Fighting Eagle exist from 16mm reduction prints and the film has been released on DVD-R by Grapevine Video. It is available at

References: IMDb; Wikipedia; Goldfarb, Clifford S. The Great Shadow: Arthur Conan Doyle, Brigadier Gerard and Napoleon Ashcroft, British Columbia, Canada. Calabash Press, 1997; The Current Plays, The Theatre Magazine, Vol. VI, No. 70, The Theatre Magazine Company, New York, December 1906; Mattei, Jean-Pierre, Napoleon & le cinema: Un siecle d'images (French Edition), Ajaccio, Editions Alain Piazzola, Cinémathèque de Corse, 1998.

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© 2012 by Clark J. Holloway.