The director’s name was Rex Ingram and he was born Reginald Ingram Montgomery Hitchcock, on January 18th, 1893, in Rathmines in Dublin. If there was one family member whom Ingram might have wanted at his side that night, it would probably have been his only brother, Frances Hitchcock who was recovering from being gassed in the trenches. The two Irish Hitchcock brothers were to leave behind them two different legacies, one as a film director, the other as a chronicler of the first World War.
As the children of a Church of Ireland rector a Trinity classics scholar and boxing enthusiast – Rex and Frank moved from rectory to rectory before the family settled in Kinnitty, in Co Offaly. Their mother, Kathleen, died in 1908 after failing to recover from an operation. Propelled by the loss of his mother and by his inability to pass the entrance examinations to Trinity College Dublin, Rex emigrated to the United States in 1911, aged 18.
Frank was devastated by his brother’s departure. His father remarried the following August, but Frank never took to his stepmother, and shortly afterwards he escaped the difficult atmosphere at home by enrolling as a boarder at Campbell College in Belfast. Two years later he began his army career as a cadet at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.
After a short spell of manual labour at the New Haven dockyard, Rex secured a place at Yale to study sculpture. But a chance visit to the Edison family set him on another path, and the following year he dropped out of college and joined the brazen new world of moving pictures, based at that time in New York.
The outbreak of the first World War saw one brother hustling for work in whatever capacity he could – actor, writer, stuntman – while the other was stationed as a junior officer in the Leinster Regiment at Victoria Barracks in Cork. In May 1915 Frank received orders for the front. Two weeks later the 19-year-old was at Armentières, commanding a platoon. Next up came Ypres. The dirt, the fatigue, the filthy, lice-infested men in the front line were all recorded in Hitchcock’s trench diary, which he kept in great detail throughout the war and skilfully illustrated with maps and sketches.
Rex, also keen to join, applied to train as a pilot with the Signal Corps. By now he had also taken his mother’s name and was known as Rex Ingram. This would later cause confusion thanks to the American actor of the same name. The family were also no relation to any other film director named Hitchcock.
Rex married a young starlet, Doris Pawn. He discovered that he had never fully completed his citizenship application, and to enlist in the Signal Corps one had to be a full citizen. The alternative was to join Britain’s newly formed Royal Flying Corps Canada (RFC Canada). In March 1918 Rex started life as a cadet in the RFC. He wrote to his brother and asked him to get a pair of riding breeches and a pair of Fox’s puttees – leggings – from the Kinnitty tailor Joe Molloy. A photograph from the time shows him standing on the wing of a plane, his goggles perched on his forehead, his leather coat tightly belted. He smiles with a faint air of self-consciousness.
While working as an instructor to the Officers’ Cadet Battalion at Fermoy Barracks, Frank met Elisabeth Brazier, who was running a voluntary canteen for the soldiers, and a year later they were married. In Canada Rex struggled with pilot training. He was prone to dreaminess, and once up in the air the words of his instructor faded into oblivion.
“In a few seconds I had forgotten him and his advice,” he wrote in his unpublished memoirs, which are held by Trinity College Dublin. “I was in an airplane, alone, the sky above us, resplendent now with the crimson of sunset. A good omen! For some reason – later I realised it was not enough right rudder – the machine began to describe a circle. Instead of heeding instructions, I gritted my teeth and opened the throttle full. With a roar the machine and I left the ground in something approaching a flat turn and rose with the wind instead of against it.”
Ingram roared high above the aerodrome and out of sight, and, 45 minutes later, he crash-landed his Curtis Jenny, taking out another stationary plane as he hit the aerodrome. Perhaps fortunately, as he readied himself to travel to Europe, the news came through: war was over.
Frank had returned to the Western Front in August 1918 and was involved in the triumphal march into Germany. Despite poor health he soldiered on with the Leinsters in India, until the regiment was disbanded in 1922 with the coming of Irish independence. He spent several years in a sanatorium in Switzerland, and it was there that the brothers were to meet again after 15 years.
Rex Ingram’s active service may have been undistinguished, but The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is one of the great anti-war films, a blockbuster for its times. Its profits saved Metro Pictures from certain bankruptcy. An obstinate perfectionist, Ingram fell out with Louis B. Mayer at MGM, but the studio agreed to set him up in southern France. It was here that he made another first World War epic, Mare Nostrum, written by the author of the original novel of The Four Horsemen, Vicente Blasco Ibáñez. Rex’s marriage to Doris Pawn had ended as easily as it began; his second wife, silent film actress a former co-star of Rudolph Valentino who starred in Mare Nostrum. She played Freya, an Austrian spy who seduces a sea captain (played by Antonio Moreno) to win his loyalty to the enemy side. The action spanned three countries, included a magnificent set-piece submarine attack, and was visually stunning. He would continue to make films out of Nice until the arrival of the talkies, at which point he retired from film-making, converted to Islam and travelled around north Africa, gathering stories about its people.