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Ken Russell films

"It should certainly come as to no surprise that Mr. Nureyev is incapable of making an uninteresting gesture, whether he is daily sipping a vanilla malted out of a champagne glass or reeling dizzily in a boxing ring. More surprising is Mr. Nureyev's malleability, and the apparent effortlessness with which he adapts himself to fit into the film's varied tableaux." (Janet Maslin, 6 Oct 1977, New York Times)

Ken Russell's Valentino, a biography from 1977 of the silent film actor Valentino played by ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev.

Valentino dead

The film starts with Valentino´s funeral and the mass hysteria at the time, then continues as a series of flashbacks in the style of Citizen Kane.  Valentino is a club dancer who gets in trouble with the mob and with the entertainment industry. His foreignness is used against him (whoever heard of a dago playing a dago) and his appeal to women causes resentment and allegations of homosexuality. His reputation grows as a cinema star  ("The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse") and as a lover. Women adore him but continually men insult him ("pink powder puff").

Nuryev as Valentino

Ken Russell Valentino

faun in Ken Russell Valentino

Valentino boxing match 

Finally he is tricked into a boxing match with a journalist who turns out to have been boxing champion in the marines.  In genuinely exciting scenes Valentino is continually pummeled to the ground, till eventually his opponent grabs him, barely conscious, and dances him round the ring. He is only saved by the bell.  In true Rocky fashion after the bell Valentino comes out and unexpectedly has found strength and turns the fight round, grabbing his opponent and dancing, up to the knock-out. Valentino has saved his honour.

Ken Russell Valentino

Ken's Last Supper

At his funeral an actress comes to his coffin and faints. The cameramen have missed it, so she revives, goes to the coffin again and faints again, this time front page news.

Valentino by Ken Russell

Four Horsemen of the Apolalypse 

Above Ken's recreation of Valentino's The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse.

The film is edited well with fast pacing but a good control of the story. It is however too long, 30 minutes shorter would improve it.

The imagery is good, but the film was a major commercial failure.

Ken Russell Valentino   Ken Russell Valentino

Ken Russell Valentino

Valentino Nuryev Ken Russell



Rudolph Nureyev

Nureyev stars but he is not really an actor and probably his ego stopped him giving up totally to Russell's direction. He starts well but the film is a bit too long and the accent starts to grate. He was originally brought in to play the small role of the dancer Nijinsky.  In the film he says "I haven't much acting experience I am afraid", and the scenes where he has a lot of dialogue show his limited acting ability.  Compare with  fellow dancer Christopher Gable who is magnificent in Song of Summer and other Russell films.

"The excerpt from The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse shows Valentino dancing the tango courtesy of Nureyev (a real treat)... Nureyev, in his debut acting performance, is limited in range, can’t deliver the snappy lines with a zing and can’t lose his Russian accent. But he doesn’t ruin the pic, as he catches his character’s insecurity and constant struggle for respect. Unfortunately Russell’s uneven effort never makes Valentino into a sympathetic subject, and offers an odd mix of fact and fiction that often doesn’t work. This is Russell’s Valentino for all its faults and miscalculations. Even if the dialogue is nothing but ham, I still found it irresistible and deliciously in bad taste" (Dennis Schwartz Movie Reviews, 23 Feb 2014, click here).

Nuryev is Valentino

Regular Russell actors include Lindsey Kemp (also a dancer!) as the mortician and Jennie Linden who played Ursula in Women in Love. Other actors are Michelle Phillips (singer from the Mamas and the Papas), Felicity Kendal, Carol Kane.



Cinematography is again by Peter Suschitzky and editing by Stuart Baird. Shirley Russell does the costumes.

The script is by Russell and Mardik Martin, who also contributed to Mean Streets, New York New York and Raging Bull for Scorsese.  The basis is a pulp fiction biography of Valentino by Brad Steiger.  An example of Russell's vision is the scene at the beginning of the book and film where the screaming fans break through the glass of the funeral parlour.  In the book the windows are then boarded up with planks of wood.  Russell's film changes the planks of wood to coffin lids.

Ken Russell in Valentino

Russell appears briefly as, of course, the director.  Ken also has a songwriting credit, the parody lyrics for the updated "The Sheik of Araby".

The Sheik of Araby Ken Russell

The real-life Valentino was a silent film star.  Born in relative poverty in 1895 he entered the film world in bit parts until he starred in The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse when he became a major Hollywood star seen as the “latin lover".  Other major films include The Eagle and Blood and Sand.  Like all great silent film actors he could convey emotion including deep sadness with facial gestures.

Valentino in Blood and Sand  Valentino in Blood and Sand  Valentino in Blood and Sand

And the film shows changing attitudes as the seductress states in captions:

Blood and Sand

"His persona and seductive style were adored by women, but his masculinity was frequently questioned by other American film stars", partly because of his colourful dress style.  Aged 31, he collapsed while in New York and was rushed into surgery for a gastric ulcer and appendicitis and died 8 days later.  "His funeral was a public spectacle attended by fans and Hollywood Stars alike".  Quotes by Teresa C. Schneider from Gentleman's Gazette, 14 Mar 2012 here.  Images of Valentino and caption from the film Blood and Sand.

Best Image

Coffin lids to shore up windows 

In the funeral parlour boarding up the broken windows with coffin lids.


The vulture on a stone in the desert filming scene.

Best Scene

When Valentino gets revenge by seducing in a dance Mr Fatty´s girl.  When the mobster beats up Valentino and the girl shoots the mobster. Three scenes developing the plot pass in ten seconds.



There is a very unconvincing madhouse scene which is a cheap copy of Glenda Jackson's harrowing scene in The Music Lovers.

Valentino in prison 

The film is framed in a Citizen Kane structure, starting with newsreel footage and an exquisite performance, the film progressing in flashbacks that tell the story, and ending with Valentino collapsing and an orange rolling away, Rosebud fashion.  Ken Russell named Citizen Kane as one of his three favorite films along with The Blue Angel and The Wizard of Oz (from Ken Russell on The Blue Angel, 1990 on YouTube click here).

The period fans in the cinema are identical to those in Lisztomania.
The child wears a sailor costume.
There are films within a film, as well as the childrens swing.

In The Boyfriend Twiggy looks at photos of Valentino.


Other films released in the same year include Star Wars, Romero's Martin, Close Encounters, The Spy Who Loved Me and Altman's 3 Women.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind  George Romero Martin  Star Wars  The Spy Who Loved Me  Robert Altman 3 Women


More films

Click title for film French Dressing * Billion Dollar Brain * Women in Love * The Music Lovers* The Devils * The Boy Friend * Savage Messiah * Mahler * Tommy * Lisztomania * Valentino * Altered States * Crimes of Passion * Gothic * Aria * The Lair of the White Worm * Salome's Last Dance * The Rainbow * Whore


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