This silent drama directed by Sam Taylor is a love story which takes place on the eve of the Russian Revolution. John Barrymore stars as a peasant Sergeant Ivan Markov that’s promoted to the Ranks that of Lieutenant with the help of a certain General played by George Fawcett. However when Markov is irresistibly drawn to the General’s daughter Princess Tamara (Camilla Horn) he ends up insulting the "snuck up" blue blood which causes him to be stripped of his rank and imprisoned. When the Revolution occurs the tables are turned. Even though the print I saw was scratched in many places it’s easy to see why William Cameron Menzies won the very first Art Direction Oscar ever given (for his work on this and The Dove (1927)) even exceeding that of Rochus Gliese’s work on Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927). Louis Wolheim plays a fellow non-commissioned Sergeant of Barrymore’s character.
The film begins with Sergeant Ivan Markov (Barrymore) studying through the night for a commissioned officer position. Even though it’s been decades since a peasant received an officer’s commission Markov believes he’ll be an exception because of support he’s been given from a certain General (Fawcett). A peddler (Boris de Fast) tells him otherwise insists that he’ll never be accepted by the aristocrats in any case. This peddler appears many times speaking vaguely of a day of reckoning as he grins knowingly through his broken teeth. However in front of the review board with fellow Sergeant Bulba (Wolheim) watching it seems that Markov will be promoted to Lieutenant after all. Just then the General’s daughter Princess Tamara (Horn) arrives to greet her fiancé Captain (Ullrich Haupt). She sits on her father’s lap and reads a paper signifying Markov’s perfect marks before she leaves. Markov seems to have noticed her beauty.
Later there is an incident near the lake when the bathing Princess discovers that Markov has the clothes she’d hung in a bush near the shore. He tells her he is returning them to her and then is unable to keep from kissing her. Insulted from being kissed by a peasant Tamara threatens to tell her father that Markov isn’t so perfect after all. But she doesn’t and the peasant receives his "stripes". The Princess’s birthday party is the first for the new Lieutenant but he finds that no one will accept him especially Tamara. So he gets drunk and in his drunken wandering happens upon her room. Now completely captivated by her photograph and seeing the large flower arrangement from her fiancé the Captain he puts together a small bouquet of his own and wraps them with some jewelry of his that he labels with "I Love You (from) Ivan". He places it on her pillow and then promptly falls asleep on her bed smelling her fragrance. When the Princess catches him asleep on her bed after she’d changed into her negligee she pulls the cord in her room which brings her father and fiancé there. He is sentenced to five years in prison and the Captain adds to his sentence by placing him in solitary confinement. Bulba is also imprisoned for failing to salute the Captain. By now Tamara has discovered the flowers & jewelry and decided she cares for Markov as well. She goes to meet him but Markov insults her back since she is the cause of his situation. When the Captain hears of the rebuke and confronts the Princess with her newfound affections she removes his engagement ring from her hand and gives it back to him.
The Revolution breaks and Markov must watch the goings on by climbing up to peer through his cell’s prison bars. The Captain has arranged for all the prisoners to go to the front except he though he tells the Princess that Markov was sent to the front. Markov slowly goes somewhat mad imaging the war and the Princess on his prison cell wall. The Revolution succeeds and Bulba returns to release his friend. He is finally able to get Markov to recognize him and Markov learns that the peddler is now the Commissar who gleefully sentences everyone his minions capture from the former aristocracy to death. Markov is by his side until the General and then his daughter come before the "people’s" board.
*** SPOILERS ***
Markov questions the Commissar’s authority to make such life and death decisions. The Commissar is about to sentence Markov to death for being seen holding the General dear after his execution and rescuing the Princess (at least temporarily) from hers. Bulba witnesses Markov’s realization that the Princess loved him too she’s kept his "inscribed" jewelry. The wrap up is entirely too quick and less than satisfying: Markov wrestles with the Commissar who’s just signed his death warrant for treason and Markov comes out on top shooting the Commissar dead. He then uses the Commissar’s signature to escape with Bulba’s help and the Princess.