Lewis Milestone is surely one of the most under-appreciated directors from Hollywood's Golden Era. He may be the best example to illustrate how cinematographers and film editors have less to do with how good a movie looks than the director himself. Lewis Milestone's pictures exhibit the same fluid, sensuous, exhilarating black and white cinematography and silky smooth scene changes no matter who his camera man and editor were. The fluid movement of his camera was his trade mark and an innovative style much copied, especially in the 'forties. He is in fact credited with the invention of the camera dolly while filming the early talkie classic All Quiet On The Western Front (1930).
In The General Died At Dawn the gorgeous cinematography finds a worthy subject of concentration in the breath-taking beauty of leading lady Madeleine Carroll, who plays a tormented femme fa-tale, manipulated into wicked and even murderous money-making schemes by her terminally ill and morally challenged father (Porter Hall). When she has to lure idealistic soldier of fortune Gary Cooper into the clutches of cruel, tyrannical Chinese warlord Akim Tamiroff, she quite naturally falls in love with him -- Cooper, not Tamiroff, of course! Miss Carol has never looked lovelier than in this picture. As she reached thirty years of age, a dawning maturity was adding character to her beauty and endowing her gorgeous face with an aching sensuality. Okay, trying to describe what makes a beautiful woman that way is like trying to describe what makes Oreo cookies taste so good. Believe me, Madeleine had it! Not to mention, she was a terrific actress!
When Gary Cooper is on screen, he doesn't have to worry about anyone stealing attention, even a beaut like Madeline Carroll. Tamiroff, who earned an Accademy Award nomination for his role, is bizarrely riveting, as he was in nearly every movie appearance. Good support is also provided by Hall in one of his best performances, Dudley Digges, and William Frawley. Frawley is rather irritating, as in all his roles, but it was intended here.
The plot is confusing at times, and doesn't always make complete sense, but it wasn't so difficult to keep up with as others have carried on. Compared to, say, The Big Sleep (1946), it was as easy to follow as The Three Little Pigs. Whatever the story, Milestone knew how to reel it out in a way that would keep your peepers glued to the screen. This style of suspenseful story-telling immersed in eye-grabbing cinematography would be honed to a fine edge in the next decade with his masterpieces Edge Of Darkness (1943) (see my review) and The Strange Loves of Martha Ivers (1946). In fact this 1936 movie's flowing camera work, oblique angles, frequent night scenes, and dark, brutal story seem to be pointing the way to the stylish noir thrillers of the next decade.
The General Died At Dawn has everything you could ask from a movie -- top stars, exciting action, gorgeous cinematography. Top-notch Old Hollywood entertainment from the smoothest of the smooth, Lewis Milestone!