The Invaders (1912)

In my review of Ingeborg Holm (1913), I suggested that it is hard to find good feature film older than that, but during the early years of the 1910s, many good films were created that do not quite qualify as a “feature” by modern standards, yet are long enough to tell a reasonably complex story and helped to pave the way for future film makers. The Invaders is one of those films.

Francis Ford and William Eagle Shirt in The Invaders (1912)

The Invaders, which has been called “cinema’s first great Western epic”, starts with a peace treaty being signed by a U.S. colonel and a Sioux chief (both fictional, as far as I can tell). This gives the Indians the rights to their own land. The treaty, however, is soon broken. Some white people are killed by the Indians, and all of a sudden the war is in full swing.

The film contains many great battle scenes, and though they were dwarfed by D.W. Griffith’s great epics a few years later, they are still very impressive for this time.

Another important factor is the camerawork. Long distance unmoving camera was the norm at this time, and while that is common in this film as well, we see several scenes when the camera breaks free of its limitations, either panning or showing details in close-up. While not very spectacular today, it must have been effective for the audiences of the day.

This film is best enjoyed not only because it is a good film for its time, but also because it treats the Indians in a much more respectful manner than many later Westerns, especially during the sound era. These Indians, evidently played by real Sioux, are actually portrayed as people, with humans rights and human feelings.

Francis Ford and Ethel Grandin in The Invaders (1912)

The Invaders
Internet Archive page
Year: 1912
Running time: 41 min
Directors: Francis Ford, Thomas H. Ince
Stars: William Eagle Shirt, Francis Ford
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (651×498; not counting black border)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.4 G)

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The Mark of Zorro (1920)

Depending on what sources you care to trust, the masked hero Zorro turns 95 either tomorrow or nine days ago. And while he would seem to be as vital as ever, he would probably not have become famous at all, if not for the film The Mark of Zorro.

Douglas Fairbanks as Zorro and Robert McKim as Capitán Ramón in The Mark of Zorro (1920)

Zorro was the brain child of one Johnston McCulley, who invented the character and wrote a series of stories about him. But McCulley’s first story, quite frankly, was not very good, nor very interesting. His Zorro was just another masked Western hero, interesting only because of the catchy name (which was not originally in the title of the first story) and the secret dilettante identity (which, frankly, was not very well handled). The trademark Z, carved in the opponent’s flesh, was only added as a throwaway gimmick towards the end. Today, the story feels stale, not only becuase the writing was awkward even by pulp standards, but moreso because it reeks with sexism, racism and lack of historical accuracy.

No, Zorro would have been quickly forgotten, if it was not for Douglas Fairbanks. He was already a popular star in comedies (see my review of The Nut for more information), but wanted more. He was looking for a good franchise to turn into an adventure movie, and found what he was looking for in Zorro.

In adapting the story, Fairbanks changed the title to put focus on the hero and his signature. He also introduced many other dramatic improvements, such as: the black hat and cape; Don Diego’s horseback and fencing skills can be kept secret since he just returned from a long visit to Spain; the underground secret hideout (which was later to become the inspiration for Batman’s cave); the faithful servant who knows the secret; just to mention some of the changes that have come to stay with the character. And, to top it all off, he added his own set of acrobatic stunts and coreographed fights, something which has become characteristic of the entire adventure film genre.

Adventure movies had already existed for some years, especially within the Western subgenre. But the action in those movies was fairly simple, usually taking the shape of gunfights, fistfights or chases with relatively simple stunts and choreography.

In the comedies, on the other hand, geniuses such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton had started to experiment with more advanced stunts, using complex choreography and trick filming, among other things.

Douglas Fairbanks merged the two genres, and threw in his own magnetic screen personality as a bonus. This proved to be enormously successful, and has basically shaped the entire motion picture industry into what it is today.

This film is best enjoyed for its historical significance. The Mark of Zorro has had a tremendous impact upon Hollywood filmmaking. It has more or less by itself defined the entire romantic adventure subgenre, a genre which has not significantly altered during the past 94 years since its origins.

Douglas Fairbanks as Zorro and Marguerite De La Motte as Lolita Pulido in The Mark of Zorro (1920)

The Mark of Zorro
Download link
Year: 1920
Running time: 1 h 14 min
Director: Fred Niblo
Stars: Douglas Fairbanks
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: Acceptable; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (2.3 G)

The American West of John Ford (1971)

Last week, I wrote about the John Wayne film Angel and the Badman, and about John Wayne’s status as a Hollywood legend.

Wayne made his big breakthrough in the classic western Stagecoach (1939). The director was John Ford, and if John Wayne is the leading western actor of all time, then Ford is the leading western director. Ford’s career and legacy are described in the documentary The American West of John Ford.

John Wayne in The American West of John Ford (1971)

Clips from many of Ford’s films are shown in the documentary, and some more are mentioned in passing. Of all those films, the only ones that I know to be at the Internet Archive are two wartime propaganda films, namely The Battle of Midway (1942) and December 7th (1943).

As a documentary, this is a fairly unique film, because some of Ford’s most respected leading actors, John Wayne, James Stewart and Henry Fonda, appear as cicerones, talking about Ford and also with him (Ford was still alive when the documentary was made, but died two years after its premiere). Thus, the film revolves around first-hand accounts of the legandary director, and also those of legandary actors, now gone.

The documentary is nice because it tells the story in a very personal way. John Ford’s own participation is not in the traditional interview situation, but in locations where he shot some of his best-known pictures. He seems relaxed, and this is perhaps the film’s greatest strength, because we feel like we get close to him.

This film is best enjoyed by western fans who want to see some of the actors and the director that were perhaps most responsible for shaping and popularising the genre in the decades following the 1930s.

James Stewart and John Ford in The American West of John Ford (1971)

The American West of John Ford
Download link
Year: 1971
Running time: 1 h 40 min
Director: Denis Sanders
Stars: John Wayne, James Stewart, Henry Fonda
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×406)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: DivX (698 M)

Angel and the Badman (1947)

John Wayne. The name alone sings of legend. Few, if any, actors have become so famous, neither during their lives nor after. John Wayne started making movies in the 1920s, and he had some lead roles in the 1930s, but it was in the 1940s that he made his big break-through. He then remained among the top Hollywood names until he stopped filming a few years before his death in 1979. According to IMDb, he acted in no less than 181 films.

There are quite a few Wayne films available at the Internet Archive, but unfortunately most are from his early career, before he was big enough to be given only the best in terms of scripts, directors and production values. One of the few that are really good (I would not hesitate to call it an underrated pearl of Wayne’s production) is Angel and the Badman.

John Wayne in Angel and the Badman (1947)

The film is about Quirt Evans, a tough guy with a bad reputation, who does not hesitate to use violence to achieve his ends. When he becomes wounded he is taken in by a family of quakers. The daughter, Penelope, nurses him to health and at the same time falls in love with him. But their lives are completely different. Is there any way they can find common ground?

Angel and the Badman has its share of clichés. It would not be a western otherwise. But in many ways it is also original and thought-provoking. Not your standard western, by any means. The ending in particular is not your typical “rode into the sunset” variety, even though it is true it has been done a few times before and since.

This film is best enjoyed for its dramatic and romantic values. As an action, it falls somewhat short, in spite of a couple of nice stunts. Oh, and of course, without John Wayne it would have been completely forgotten today.

John Wayne and Gail Russell in Angel and the Badman (1947)

Angel and the Badman
Download link
Year: 1947
Running time: 1 h 40 min
Director: James Edward Grant
Stars: John Wayne
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (3.2 G)

Santa Fe Trail (1940)

It is really the most absurd sensation to watch an old film with Ronald Reagan and ponder that a few decades later, this was to become the president of the United States. But there it is, and when the film in question deals with important events in American history, that absurdity increases.

In Santa Fe Trail, he plays a young George Custer (yes, the George Custer of Little Big Horn) alongside the film’s leading male Errol Flynn as “Jeb” Stuart (another famous American general). And between them, in that eternal Hollywood love triangle, stands Olivia de Havilland, the only leading actor to play a fictional character in this film.

Ronald Reagan as George Custer, Olivia de Havilland and Errol Flynn as J.E.B. "Jeb" Stuart in Santa Fe Trail (1940)

There are more than just a few parallels between this film and The Birth of a Nation from 25 years earlier. In terms of chronology, Santa Fe Trail describes the events leading up to those depicted in the older film. Both films also feature many historical persons, casting them in a sympathetic light or lack thereof depending on what fits the film’s message. And even that message is partly the same: that the African Americans and their supporters were the ones responsible for the American Civil War, even though Santa Fe Trail is not quite so open and outspoken about it, trying to hide its racism behind double meanings and generalisations.

So this film should not be seen as a history lesson. In terms of historical accuracy, it is standard Hollywood nationalistic nonsense, or worse, and when that nationalistic nonsense is delivered with an Australian accent, it tends to become a bit silly at times. Indeed, Flynn is not making his best role here, though his natural charm shines through as always.

But of course, this movie has a number of good sides, or there would be no reason to report it here. There are many things to recommend it. Lighting and camerawork show excellent craftsmanship, and the actors are good overall. And better than all the rest put together is an absolutely brilliant Raymond Massey as John Brown. Massey delivers every line with just the perfect touch of madness.

This film is best enjoyed if you can see past its shortcomings and enjoy it as a typical period piece with some very interesting actors at the height of their careers.

Raymond Massey as John Brown in Santa Fe Trail (1940)

Santa Fe Trail
Download link
Year: 1940
Running time: 1 h 49 min
Director: Michael Curtiz
Stars: Erroll Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Ronald Reagan, Raymond Massey
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.4 G)

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)