George Arliss: Ladies’ Man and War Hero

Ladies, please - there's enough of me for all
George Arliss battles Napoleon and swooning ladies.

Frankly, we feel some movies are best left in obscurity.

Ever heard of The Iron Duke from 1934? No? There is a reason for that.

We hadn’t heard of this movie either, until last week. We thought we would benefit from an unknown British historical drama about the Duke of Wellington and how he took down Napoleon after the former French leader escaped from captivity.

Oh boy. How wrong we were!

This we understand: In 1934, the world had an uncertain outlook. Britain, like many other nations, was feeling the effects of the Great Depression; a suspiciously-busy Hitler was the new leader of Germany; and motion pictures were needed to buttress a nation’s spirits.

This we do not understand: Why is The Iron Duke so awful?

It could be the screenplay; it doesn’t seem to know what it’s supposed to do. Is the main goal Napoleon’s capture or downfall? Or is it about Wellington himself? Or his enemies? Or the scores of women who are madly in love with him? Or is it about World War I?

The film opens at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, a big meeting with all the “crowned heads” of Europe to discuss Napoleon’s capture and exile on the island of Elba. This meeting, along with another conference later in the film, seem like a combined 1919 Paris Peace Congress. In the movie meetings, European leaders discuss the unconditional surrender of Napoleon (Germany), reparation (Germany), and making sure Napoleon (Germany) can never be that powerful again.

Then! Napoleon escapes! Shock and horror ensue. Will he gather an army? Will he try to re-take the French throne?

The King of France is understandably fretful about this situation. Fortunately, his niece dispatches someone to re-capture Napoleon. But can this person beat the bossy Duke of Wellington (George Arliss) to it? Because the Duke is on Napoleon’s trail, too, when he’s not fending off women.

Here’s another thing about the script – it portrays Wellington as quite the philanderer. Arliss is an actor with distinct facial features (see photo), and his makeup seems weirdly overdone in some scenes. (What is WITH the lipstick!) As a result, it’s a bit tricky for us in our day to imagine the women of Europe fawning over him. Not only that, Arliss spouts some lines without a trace of irony: “It’s a mystery to me why the Creator wastes his time turning out ugly women.”

From here the script gets increasingly bad. In one scene, a jealous husband, freshly home from battle, shows up at the Duke’s house demanding to know why his wife wasn’t home to greet him. The wife suddenly appears from another room (where did she come from?) and describes, to her husband, her love for Arliss: “Call it reverence, if you will.” In the next breath, she tells her husband she loves him the most, and the poor slob actually believes her. This is the same girl who fainted when she met the Duke for the first time. Good gravy!

At this point we (as in, yours truly) wandered into the kitchen to make brownies.

However, the film is not without its merits. There is an impressively-staged battle with lots of extras and horses and artillery, much of it filmed out of doors. And, after the battle’s end, Arliss gives a touching portrayal of a sad and lonely commander who has lost too many of his men. He begins to weep as a soldier reads the roll call of the dead. It’s too bad such genuine moments are tainted with Arliss’ cringing melodramatics, where he looks slightly upwards and declares, “Except for defeat, there is nothing more tragic than a great victory.”

We realize we were not very kind about this movie. But we only have your best interests at heart, Dear Reader. We would not want you to sully your movie-watching schedule with this fare. If you still insist upon watching The Iron Duke, well, don’t say you weren’t warned.

The Iron Duke: starring George Arliss, Gladys Cooper, Ellaline Terriss. Directed by Victor Saville. Written by H.M. Harwood and Bess Meredyth. Gaumont-British Picture Corporation, 1934, B&W, 88 long mins.



  1. Oh, George Arliss. Academy Award winning actor. Considered by some to be one of the greats. I’ve never felt that, honestly. There are some effective moments in his performances but, overall, he skews a bit too much to the hammy side (and not in a good way like, say, John Barrymore) of the spectrum to be believable.


      • When he did films, he brought too much of the theatre with him (and not always in a good way like JB). Yet, there’s something strangely compelling about even his most ham-laden performances. It leaves me wanting more, and by more I really mean less of the ham and more of the beautiful subtlety he was definitely capable of underneath the extravagance.


  2. Not at all familiar with this one and, I dare say, I won’t be checking it out any time soon. I must admit, though, a lipstick wearing George Arliss does tempt me to give the movie a shot. 🙂


  3. I see this movie at the library all the time. I always pick it up, then set it back down. I guess there’s a reason for that!

    Movie aside, this is still a great read. I’ll no doubt be keeping an eye out for George Arliss….I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of his movies before.


  4. I see Gladys Cooper’s name high on the cast list, which stirs some interest…but the film otherwise doesn’t hold much appeal. George Arliss seems to have been one of the legends of the stage whose presence/style didn’t translate that well to the screen. He seems especially out-of-date these days.


    • Yes, I didn’t want to drag Gladys Cooper’s name into it, so I didn’t mention her. (She’s fabulous, as always.)

      And poor Arliss. He does seem really out of date these days. His style has not aged well.


  5. While clearing out my email box of more than 11,000 emails, I came across a great number of blog posts that I’d saved to read later. This is one — and boy, am I glad I saved it! I won’t be watching this movie any time soon (ever), but I must say I just loved your write-up! It was hilarious!


Start Singin', Mac!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.