Yes, this is a flawed film, but it needs to be said that it's been quite underrated since its release, and if given a chance, the film has plenty of rewards for the open minded viewer. Indeed, Ingrid Thulin was miscast and having Angela Lansbury dub her voice only added additional strangeness to a role that should have gone to someone like Jeanne Moreau. Yet, Thulin's performance is not ineffective, and she has a number of very strong moments. Less successful is Yvette Mimieux, who could be quite good in certain types of roles. As the daughter whose passion to make a decision to take the strong political stance her father and brother will not take, Mimieux didn't have enough screen time nor the proper dialog to make it believable. Perhaps the fault here lies with MGM, that forced certain casting decisions on Vincente Minnelli, but whatever the reason, Mimieux's character was ill defined and Minnelli was unable to pull from the actress the performance needed to show her political awakening.
On the other hand, Glenn Ford, who was also forced onto Minnelli by MGM, is far better than critics would have you believe. It's true that seeing Ford as an Argentine is a bit much to swallow, but he was a decent actor and had a likable screen persona that was the essence of his Julio character in "Four Horsemen." Julio, as a man who intends to stay neutral throughout WWII, and is someone who does not alter his position until far into the film, needs something to keep the audience interested. I found him quite appealing in his scenes with Ingrid Thulin, as they get to know each other. Although he doesn't do the tango or blow smoke through his nose like Valentino did in the original silent film, Glenn Ford managed to convey the masculine charm but shallow life choices Julio's character demanded and keeps us interested in him until his political conscience awakens.
I have only seen parts of the silent version, and never read Vicente Blasco Ibanez' novel, so I was not comparing the film to anything it could have been but wasn't. I just saw a story that effectively portrayed how war and the Nazi party in particular, destroyed two families and ripped to shreds the love lives of three passionate people. This story was told well by film and players, with the machinations of the Nazi party, life in occupied Paris, and long held family grudges all intertwining in believable and dramatic ways.
Equally impressive were the performances of Lee J. Cobb as Julio's Argentine grandfather, who has a very strong scene at the beginning of the film, but whose presence and legacy is felt all the way to the end; Charles Boyer, absolutely heart breaking as Julio's father; Paul Lukas, as Julio's uncle whose dedication to family or Nazi party is given the ultimate test; and Paul Henreid, as the husband of Marguerite (Ingrid Thulin's character), whose dedication to the resistance becomes not only his undoing, but that of Julio's, his rival for the love of Marguerite.
Aside from that "Four Horsemen" is a giant production shot in Paris, rich with period atmosphere and Minnelli's attention to detail. It's beautifully photographed by Milton Krasner, and has some cleverly inserted and effective montages made up from archival footage of the war, moodily colorized with filters and stretched horizontally to fit the wide screen. I liked the look of these. I don't think dramatic recreations would have been any better.
Like another underrated financial flop that same year, Brando's "Mutiny on the Bounty," Minnelli's "Four Horsemen" has a very downbeat ending, but in the case of "Four Horsemen" the ending is memorably spectacular. I must mention the symbolic use of the four horsemen, shown galloping through a war torn sky on a number of occasions, and used as the image that ends the film. Some have criticized this as being over the top and hardly believable, yet clearly it was never intended to be taken literally (as if anyone besides Lee J. Cobb could see this vision). Cobb's grandfather character describes the figures, which we initially see as brass figurines - from the book of revelations, Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death - that stand before the mouth of a large fireplace in the family's Argentine home. The grandfather sees the devastation of the family coming because of the events taking place in Germany, and his vision of the four riders in the sky only underscores the power of his fear. The vision is repeated for the audience's sake a few times following, and only once is it a bit clumsily handled when we see Glenn Ford's worried eyes over the imagery.
And finally, the score by Andre Previn is one of his best, if not the best. He apparently, considered it his best. It is very much of its time, the early 60s, with strong love themes, romantic sweep and massive orchestration, but it works really well in the film. Previn's music reaches an incredible intensity in sequences showing the four horsemen, only equaled by his underscore for the onset of the German occupation of Paris. The love theme for Julio and Marguerite is lovely, but don't expect contemporary scoring here. Previn wasn't afraid of strings. This is really strong music, but be aware this score comes from a period when scores focused on melody. Contemporary scores often avoid this, so initial exposure to such forceful and upfront music in a film, can be jarring. But, please, give the music and the film itself a try. As long as you go in knowing the film has its flaws, you may find a lot to appreciate.