It goes without saying that the discovery and restoration of the 1922 Gloria Swanson/Rudolph Valentino melodrama Beyond the Rocks is a cause for celebration. As Martin Scorsese notes in an accompanying introduction, “Every film found restores another piece of our collective memory, our sense of our past, and our history,” a statement that should hold true across the cinema spectrum regardless of the quality of the work in question. Certainly to this latter end, Beyond the Rocks is no masterpiece. After a rousing opening two reels (in which Swanson’s doe-eyed Theodora Fitzgerald is twice rescued from cliffhanging peril by Valentino’s dashing Lord Bracondale) the film settles into a rather static and dull rhythm dictated by a subdued pile-up of plot contrivances and by the leads’ distinct lack of hearts-afire chemistry. Surprising that the impossible love between Theodora and Bracondale is so dispassionate considering the actors involved (can this be the same woman who later let loose with a Martyr Mary’s display of mother-love in The Trespasser and the same man who made a female populace swoon with Son of the Sheik?)
It wouldn’t be the first time that two extreme movie personalities cancelled each other out; ultimately, the best moments of Beyond the Rocks are those that isolate the actors within their own negative space, emphasizing silent cinema’s spiritual power through gesture and close-up (Swanson projects outwards, her liveliness simultaneously repelling and attracting the audience, while Valentino draws us closer into envious contemplation—how appropriate that their characters’ love revolves around a narcissus flower.) It is these intimate, isolationist sequences that offset Beyond the Rocks’ soggy, submissive melodrama and act as a pressure-cooker undercurrent that explodes in the film’s lunatic climax, which finds Theodora’s cuckolded husband Josiah (Robert Bolder) fending off a gaggle of rampaging North African mercenaries, but not before entertaining a hilarious revenge fantasy against his unfaithful wife that effectively raises the film’s triangle of self-love and loathing into the realm of myth.