Captain America (1944)

The latest Captain America movie is currently making its rounds all over the world. I have not yet decided whether I will see it or not. If you are like me, a bit fed up with all the superhero hype, you may want to consider a classic movie serial instead. Such as the first screen appearance of Captain America from 1944.

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In this version of the character, Captain America’s alter ego, instead of being super-soldier Steve Rogers, is district attorney Grant Gardner. Exactly why Gardner sometimes hunts criminals in his suit and sometimes as a masked vigilante is not very clear. It seems to be no more than a matter of effect, since he does more or less the same things. But the most glaring difference between the Captain of the comics and the Captain of the serial is that this one has no shield!

Captain America is a fairly typical serial in the sense that it seems to have been made quickly. Little effort was wasted on the script, and the only acting they invested any real energy into is the spectacularly choreographed fights.

The story is simple: A crook who calls himself The Scarab wants more power and money, and he also wants revenge on some scientists (his motives are rather vague and seem to shift from one episode to the next). In a vaguely chess-like fashion (and very typical of such serials) each of the two opponents tries to out-guess the other’s intentions.

It is hard to imagine that anyone, including directors, actors and audience, took this short and slightly flabby hero seriously even when he first appeared in the theatres. To me, that is the reason why the Captain America serial still entertains. Because it is fun, camp and cult. Not as fancy or well-produced as the three years older Adventures of Captain Marvel (which was an obvious inspiration for this one), it still has its own sparkling energy and a good dose of humour.

This film is best enjoyed if you are not too peculiar about producers messing around with the details concerning your favourite superhero. Like any serial, Captain America should be viewed one episode a day, or less. There is too much repetition beween episodes — most of the cliffhangers involve the hero running or jumping from an exploding or falling building — to enjoy watching them in immediate succession.

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Captain America
Download link (first chapter and links to the other fourteen)
Year: 1944
Running time: 3 h 52 min
Directors: Elmer Clifton, John English
Stars: Dick Purcell
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4

Orwell Rolls in His Grave (2003)

When I was a young man in the 80s and 90s, I used to think that I was living in a good world. That humanity, generally speaking, was going in the right direction and that we had a bright future ahead of us. Well, time has moved on, and so has my mind. Nowadays, I tend to be increasingly cynical about the future of mankind. Perhaps that is why I am writing a blog about cinema instead of anything important. A form of denial. Do something fun, and anxiety may perhaps be kept at a distance for a few hours more.

But even in the world of film, reality creeps up every once in a while, even though it is reality filtered through the minds and performances of the filmmakers. A good example of this is Robert Kane Pappas’ documentary Orwell Rolls in His Grave. Even though it is more than ten years old, it still has some interesting things to say about where today’s media are headed.

George W. Bush - one of the targets of the documentary Orwell Rolls in His Grave (2003)

It is important, when watching a film like this, to realize that it is not a balanced account of the state of things. Quite to the contrary, every person in the film who is allowed to speak freely is someone who shares Pappas’ point of view. That is not to say that it lacks value, nor that there is no truth in it. As a matter of fact, I find it absolutely terrifying to ponder the kind of world we are living in if only half of the accusations are true, and especially given developments such as the NSA surveillance, that were not known when the film was made.

Yes, the film is relevant, in spite of its age, and even though it has in some ways aged considedrably. There is much reporting about George W. Bush, for example, who was president at the time. Today, we tend to think that Bush was some kind of cruel American joke on humanity, not deserving to be taken seriously, but back then Bush was actually real and his statements and actions carried meaning.

The strength of this documentary, and the reason why it remains relevant, is the way in which it intertwines interviews and other typical documentary material with quotes from George Orwell’s book Nineteen Eighty-Four. As I have already noted in my review of the 1954 film Nineteen Eighty-Four, the US is not Oceania, and there is no reason to believe that it will turn into Orwell’s dystopia. But the allegories in the book and film are perhaps even more relevant today than they were when the book was written.

This film is best enjoyed when you are ready to step out of your bubble for a moment and look at some not so very nice aspects of reality.

They could be made to accept the most flagrant violations of reality ... and were not sufficiently interested in public events to notice what was happening. Quote from Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, from the documentary Orwell Rolls in his Grave (2003)

Orwell Rolls in His Grave
Download link
Year: 2003
Running time: 1 h 44 min
Director: Robert Kane Pappas
Image quality: Excellent
Resolution: Low (480×320)
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Cinepack (1.5 G)

Sinbad the Sailor (1947)

Last week I wrote about the original The Thief of Bagdad with Douglas Fairbanks. That film was remade in England in 1940. Well, not a remake, exactly, since there was very little left of Fairbanks’ story, but it shared the title and a number of central themes.

The 1940 movie did not stay very close to The Arabian Nights stories. It developed the fantastic characters (the thief, the sultan, the princess, the genie) and their surroundings (the architecture, the clothes, the magical objects), but wove these into completely new stories, not based on the original film nor the books.

The success was spectacular (it is still a magnificent film) and it opened the gates for a flood of imitators. In 1942 came Hollywood’s response, Arabian Nights (the second-ever Technicolor movie), and in 1944 there were two more. Through the rest of the 40s and most of the 50s, Hollywood released on average one new Arabian Nights film every two years, culminating in 1958 with Ray Harryhausen’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. After that there were considerably fewer Arabian Nights movies from Hollywood for a while, which is ironic, considering that Harryhausen was the first one in eighteen years who actually offered something original to the genre.

Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Maureen O'Hara in Sinbad the Sailor (1947)

Typical of the kind was Sinbad the Sailor, the only one of these films that seems to exist at the Internet Archive. It follows the 1940 Thief tradition in that it uses some characters and themes from The Arabian Nights, but the stories told, indeed the entire storytelling strucutres, have nothing to do with the books.

Sinbad, who beside Aladdin is the most frequent Arabian Nights hero in the movies, tells the story of how he (once again) is about to embark on his previously unknown eighth voyage. (I wonder exactly how many eighth voyages of Sinbad there are.) In this telling, in accordance with the Hollywood Arabian Nights tradition, Sinbad is a thief and a swindler, rather than the peaceful merchant from the books. It all begins as he finds a ship adrift, the crew having been killed by poison in the drinking water. He and his sidekick Abbu take the ship to port, hoping to claim it as theirs. In the captain’s cabin they find an interesting chart and a medallion, and this sets them on the course for Alexander the Great’s(!) fabulous treasure. But others are also looking for the same treasure, including the beautiful woman Shireen.

Compared with The Thief of Bagdad (both versions), Sinbad the Sailor is cheaply made and does not really offer anything new. But it is still worthwhile if you are interested in Hollywood’s treatment of The Arabian Nights. Though cheaper, the sets share the fantastic and magical qualities of the older movies.

It becomes even more interesting because it features Douglas Fairbanks’ son, Douglas Jr., in the title role. Junior was not a bad actor and made a decent career, but he was doomed to act in his father’s shadow. Occasionally, as in this case, he was cast in an apparent attempt to reflect some of the light from his father’s greatest successes.

This film is best enjoyed for the colourful and interesting characters, which make up for the sometimes rather thin plot.

The Arabian Nights, as seen in Sinbad the Sailor (1947)

Sinbad the Sailor
Download link
Year: 1947
Running time: 1 h 38 min
Director: Richard Wallace
Stars: Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Maureen O’Hara
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: h.264 (688 M)

The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

The Arabian Nights. The very name suggests oriental mystery. Genies, flying carpets, tale-spinning princesses and giant rocs. The truth, though, is that the cultural fingerprint of the Nights is just as much a product of Western imagination as of Eastern. Even the first European translator, Antoine Galland, interpreted the original texts in his own ways, and added considerably from other sources. Thus, most of the well-known stories, such as those about Aladdin, Ali Baba and Sindbad, are not even part of the original collection.

The influence of The Arabian Nights on European culture during the past three hundred years has been tremendous, and early film makers were not late to catch on. On the Internet Archive can be found a delightful little French film from as early as 1902 titled Ali Baba et les quarante voleurs.

Douglas Fairbanks and Julanne Johnston in The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

The first feature-length production, however, was probably Douglas Fairbanks’ The Thief of Bagdad. Fairbanks, at the time, was the most brightly shining star in Hollywood, and had more or less single-handedly created the costume adventure genre, as it still appears in Hollywood. Already, he had played Zorro, Robin Hood and d’Artagnan in interpretations that continue to define them to this day. No mean feat, that.

Unlike previous cinematic attempts, Fairbanks’ version of The Arabian Nights did not follow any of the original tales exactly. Instead, Fairbanks and his writers took bits and pieces from various tales and stitched them together with other elements, most notably the ever-present Hollywood romantic drama as the core of the story.

By and large, however, Fairbanks was still true to the original themes. The thief, although far from typical, exists as a heroic character in at least one tale, and the story of the poor boy who becomes a prince is of course from Aladdin. Most other major plot elements can also be traced to Galland’s version of the work, and archetypal objects, such as the flying carpet, exist more or less within their original dramatic contexts.

In the years following immediately after its release, however, The Thief of Bagdad was less important as an interpretation of The Arabian Nights. Its immediate effect was to reinforce Fairbanks’ status as “The King of Hollywood” and, in particular, the master of the costume adventure.

This film is best enjoyed for the magnificent sets, Fairbanks’ cat-like athletics, and his powerful screen personality. It is literally cinematic history in the making, and thoroughly enjoyable at that.

Snitz Edwards and Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

The Thief of Bagdad
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Year: 1923
Running time: 2 h 20 min
Director: Raoul Walsh
Stars: Douglas Fairbanks
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Low (320×240)
Soundtrack: Good; synchronized with images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (629 M)

La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928)

Motion pictures today is very much a man’s world. Sure, there are many strong women in popular movies, but they are always sexy and usually there is also a strong man somewhere in the background to help out when needed.

This has not always been so, however. It may perhaps surprise some to learn that in the days of silent cinema, strong and independent female characters where not at all uncommon.

Renée Jeanne Falconetti (Maria Falconetti) in La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc aka The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

With La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc), director Carl Theodor Dreyer created a film which is so powerful, so naked and so immediate that it still, over 85 years later, will take your breath away.

The film was made in France, with actress Renée Jeanne Falconetti (usually credited as “Maria Falconetti”) in the title role, but the director is Danish, and it was also first screened in Denmark.

The director’s own copies of the film were destroyed by fire (a fate shared with many a silent film) and for many years only inferior copies, not approved by the director, were available. But in the 1980s, a single remaining original copy surfaced in Oslo, Norway.

In my opinion, there is only one problem with this film. Dreyer based the film very closely on historical transcripts of Joan of Arc’s trial, but gives us next to no background. In the beginning, only the title tells us who the central character is, and we are not informed of the place, the time, or any other characters. In a way, this beginning strengthens the force of the narrative, but since Dreyer binds himself to telling the story in strict linear fashion with no apparent deviations from actual historical events, the viewer is left even at the end with next to no knowledge of why anything in the movie happened in the first place. The viewing experience is totally dependent on whether you know the background or not.

In spite of this, La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc is a must see for every cineast. It is one of the most important films in the history of silent cinema, and it is a powerful experience.

This film is best enjoyed as a celebration of International Women’s Day, the 8th of March every year.

Carl Theodor Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc aka The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc
Download link
Year: 1928
Running time: 1 h 22 min
Language: French (no subtitles)
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Stars: Renée Jeanne “Maria” Falconetti
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Low (384×288)
Soundtrack: None
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Cinepack (700 M)