The Last of the Mohicans (1920)

The Internet Archive contains a bit of everything. High and low. Old and new. Good and bad. You can find just about every major genre that you can think of (short of hard-core pornography). Diversity is a key word, but if there is one genre which is more dominating, it must be the westerns.

IA has given me some perspective on the incredible number of westerns that have been made. The archive contains hundreds; probably only a fraction of all that have been produced. Many of them have generic titles such as Raiders of Old California, Oath of Vengeance or Gangsters of the Frontier. Now, western is not my favourite genre, but I am always ready to acknowledge a good movie when I find one. And one such good western is The Last of the Mohicans.

Wallace Beery and Barbara Bedford in The Last of the Mohicans (1920)

This is not the typical western with John Wayne or Clint Eastwood. There is no main street, no saloon, no six-shooters and no Mexican bandits. Not even a single cowboy as far as eye can reach. All those clichés were already well established by 1920, but this is not that kind of a movie. Instead, it is a movie about native Americans and impossible love.

“The Last of the Mohicans” was originally a novel by James Fenimore Cooper. It is set in the 18th century, during one of the wars between England and France. In those days, natives sometimes took sides in the conflicts of the Europeans and fought side by side with them.

In the movie, two sisters are travelling across hostile territory to visit their father, an English colonel. They soon find themselves in deep trouble, but are helped by the Mohican Uncas and his father; the last remnants of a once mighty tribe, who have sided with the British.

Very much like modern historical movies, The Last of the Mohicans is not an accurate history lesson. It is highly romanticized and historical events are adapted to fit the story rather than the other way around.

By 1920, the art of film had not yet attained the heights that it was to reach within a few years, neither in terms of visual expression nor in the flow of the story. Even so, The Last of the Mohicans is majestic and beautiful almost beyond belief. Whether vistas of nature or battle scenes, everything is breathtaking. And there is no green-screen and no CGI. This is the real deal.

It is common when this film is mentioned to make note of the fact that Boris Karloff (later famous as Frankenstein’s monster) plays a minor role as an Indian. (There, now I went and did it too.) This is unfortunate, because there are so many other reasons why it deserves to be remembered.

This film is best enjoyed if you love historical costume movies.

Maurice Tourneur and Clarence Brown's The Last of the Mohicans (1920)

The Last of the Mohicans
Internet Archive page
Year: 1920
Running time: 1 h 11 min
Directors: Maurice Tourneur, Clarence Brown
Stars: Wallace Beery, Barbara Bedford
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640 x 480)
Soundtrack: Random classical music
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: DivX (721 M)

Kampf um Norwegen (1940)

We Swedes are mainly envious of Norwegians for two reasons. One is their oil. The other is the obvious pride and joy that they show every May 17th, their National Day.

The reason, of course, why they celebrate with so much more abandon than we will when our turn comes in a couple of weeks, is that they had to fight for their freedom. Sweden has been more or less independent for the past 1000 years or so, and we have not even been at war since 1814, when we forced Norway into the so-called union between the two countries. The Norwegians only gained independence from Sweden in 1905.

And even then, their troubles were not over. In April 1940, Germany attacked with no previous provocation. After a short campaign, Norway had to surrender after two months and remained occupied until the end of the war in 1945.

One of the nice things about the Internet Archive is that it is not restricted to American films. Thus, while the World War II propaganda has a large predominance of American and Allied material, you can also find a good share of the Nazi perspective. One such German propaganda film is Kampf um Norwegen, which tells the German story of the campaign against Norway. The film has an interesting history. For some reason, it was never released in Germany and was believed lost until a copy turned up at an Internet auction in 2005.

Kampf um Norwegen (1940)

As a historical document, the film is of course as questionable as any war-time propaganda. The events shown are basically truthful, as far as I can tell with my limited knowledge about the invasion, but everything is told from the German point of view and giving German reasons for the events.

Even so, the film is still very significant today, for at least two reasons. One is that it contains unique photography from the war, much of it dramatic. The other is that it may serve to broaden our perspective not so much of the conflict in question but of propaganda in general. Even though this film is light when compared with other war-time propaganda, I nevertheless believe that it can teach us a number of valuable lessons.

The film is entirely in German and there are no subtitles. But even if you do not understand German, it should be relatively easy to understand what is going on by looking at the pictures. The documentary film sequences are also interrupted by excellent map animations showing troop movements, and which will facilitate comprehension a good deal.

It is possible that this film is best enjoyed when seen together with its American counterpart, Divide and Conquer, Part I (1943), which is actually worse in terms of propagandistic content.

Kampf um Norwegen (1940)

Kampf um Norwegen
Download link
Year: 1940
Language: German (no subtitles)
Running time: 1 h 21 min
Directors: Martin Rikli, Werner Buhre
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (704×512)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (1.5 G)

Non-Stop New York (1937)

On this day in history, exactly one hundred years ago, Igor Sikorsky braved the dangers faced by every early airman and made the world’s first flight in a four-engined aircraft. At the time, many people did not believe the news, thinking that an aircraft of such dimensions (27 m wingspan) could never get off the ground. But Sikorsky’s plane proved its worth, and eventually developed into just about every heavy passenger and cargo aircraft known to the world. (Sikorsky’s was a bi-plane, but otherwise the basic design still holds.)

Exactly twenty-four years later, the world’s first commercial transatlantic roundtrip was in its final phase (completed on May 14, 1937). That event probably helped to inspire the movie Non-Stop New York, which reminds us that Sikorsky’s design is not the only possible solution. At least not in the imagination of film-makers.

Non-Stop New York is a fairly straight-forward thriller, quite light and typical of the 30s. The plot is simple (but not stupid, mind), the dialogue is well-paced and the actors are good. In particular Anna Lee shines in the leading role. What sets it apart, however, is a touch of science fiction. The film is set two years into the future (1939), because the plot leads up to a transatlantic passenger flight which is the setting for the second half, and transatlantic passenger flights just did not happen in 1937. (Actually they did, with rigid airships, but the Hindenburg disaster that same year probably did not inspire the script writer to use that kind of vehicle.)

Robert Stevenson's Non-Stop New York (1937)

Notice how the shadows in the above image fall differently on the plane and on the ground.

In one respect the film was rather prophetic, because the world’s first transatlantic passenger flight was indeed made in 1939, but the design and scale of the movie’s aircraft came to surpass reality by far. The plane in the movie has spacious cabins, a bar, dining room, and even an outside observation deck! Its interior reminds more of a miniature ocean liner than an airplane.

But while there is a touch of sci-fi, it is no more than a touch. In terms of mood and intent, this is a pure romantic thriller. As such, it stands on its own and is well worth watching. The curiosity factor is just an added bonus.

This film is best enjoyed in anticipation of a long flight, to get in the right mood.

John Loder and Anna Lee in Non-Stop New York (1937)

Non-Stop New York
Download link
Year: 1937
Running time: 1 h 37 min
Director: Robert Stevenson
Stars: Anna Lee, John Loder
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×528)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: DivX (690 M)

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

 

1927 was a pivotal year in the history of film. A pivotal year, and also a great year.

The roaring twenties were still roaring and money was aplenty. For the past 15 years or so, the making of feature films had seen a rapid development from an unwieldy curiosity into a full-fledged art form. Not only had the use of angles and cutting improved vastly, but the cameras themselves were much more advanced and also more light-weight, allowing for shots that seem modern even today.

Artistically, Hollywood and Europe had gone in separate directions. Hollywood was producing masterworks in the adventure genre with stars such as Douglas Fairbanks and Rudolph Valentino. In Germany, a very different style had developed, called German Expressionism. While Hollywood strived for realistic sets and fantastic action, the Germans used sets and techniques which placed the characters in dreamlike, deliberately unrealistic environments. The themes were often the supernatural and macabre.

One of the leading expressionists was F. W. Murnau, mostly remembered today for making Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922), the first movie adaptation of Dracula. In the mid 20s he came to Hollywood to make an American expressionist film. The result was Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans.

Sunrise is a true masterpiece, a groundbreaking film and one of the best silents ever made. It is not a horror film (although there are definitely elements of psychological terror in it), but rather a romantic drama. None of the characters are named. They remain throughout the film “The Man”, “The Wife”, and so on, creating perhaps a deliberate distance to the viewer.

George O'Brien and Janet Gaynor in Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

Combining his own expressionistic visions with the money and craftsmanship of Hollywood, Murnau was able to create some amazing sets and a story which balances delicately between dream and reality. The acting is exquisite and if some of the character development may seem a bit extreme, that only serves to harmonize with the film’s dramatic imagery.

Sunrise stands as a symbol of the height of the silent film’s artistic achievements, but at the same time, that art form was already doomed. For that very same year another pivotal film was released: The Jazz Singer, the first feature film with synchronized sound. Within three years, this would mean the definite end of silent films, and with them the elegant but noisy cameras that made possible much of the visual technique. And that same period would also see the beginnings of the Great Depression. The 1930s would be a totally different society with totally different film-making, for better or worse.

This film is best enjoyed in a calm and relaxed mood.


Addendum, 2014-08-08: Since first writing this review, the version I linked to has been taken down, possibly because of copyright considerations regarding the score. I have now changed the link (and the relevant information below) to point to the only remaining version on the Internet Archive known to me. It has good music, free to distribute, but has low resolution. So low, in fact, that had that version been the only available at the time, this review would not have been written.


 

F.W. Murnau's Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
Download link
Year: 1927
Running time: 1 h 35 min
Director: F. W. Murnau
Stars: George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor
Image quality: Poor
Resolution: Low (400×304)
Soundtrack: Good; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Ogg (424 M)