Les Vampires (1915–16)

I have previously written about a number of serials. Looking at those earlier reviews, one might easily get the impression that serials were mostly a sound film phenomenon. Ah, but nothing could be further from the truth.

It has proven difficult to find reliable facts about silent serials, but the first ones seem to have appeared as early as the first decade of the 20th Century. By 1915, production was in full swing, on both sides of the Atlantic, and before the era came to an end around 1930, hundreds of silent serials had been made. I am guessing that many are incomplete or lost today, but many others survive, and the best are quite up to the standards of the so-called “Golden Age” serials of the 1930s and 1940s. They were not yet as clichéd and predictable as the later serials usually were, and quite often they created the elements that were later to become cliché.

Édouard Mathé in Les Vampires (1915)

The French serial Les Vampires (episodes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10) is often considered to be among the best of those early ones, and indeed some claim that it is one of the best serials of all time. It tells the story of how newspaper reporter Philippe Guérande tries to thwart a group of criminals who terrorize Paris. In spite of the title, Les Vampires has nothing to do with any vampires. It was simply the name that this gang of criminals used for themselves.

The plot, meandering in various directions, is a bit too complex to summarize here, but it is impossible to review this serial and not mention the character Irma Vep (note the anagram), who makes her first appearance in Episode 3. Vep is a close associate to the leader of The Vampires. She is totally unscrupulous and a master of disguise, and for the rest of the serial, she remains the main antagonist. Irma Vep has certainly been one of the strongest cultural footprints of Les Vampires. She remains a popular character and icon among silent movie fans.

According to Wikipedia, Les Vampires was made “quickly and inexpensively with very little written script.” Well, that shows, and the plot seems pretty random and incoherent at times. I know that some people have a problem with that, but I do not find that it detracts from my enjoyment. There is so much to like about this serial that some small rough spots are easily overlooked. Besides, modern Hollywood scripts are not always too coherent either.

This serial is best enjoyed because of the huge influence it has had on later crime cinema. Among the film makers said to be strongly inspired by it are such giants as Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock. There are good reasons why this particular serial became so influential. Watch it and find out for yourself!

A Vampire thief in Les Vampires (1915)

Les Vampires
Download links: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10
Year: 1915–16
Running time: 6 h 40 min
Language: English
Director: Louis Feuillade
Stars: Édouard Mathé, Musidora
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Low (352×288)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack

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The Birth of a Nation (1915)

D. W. Griffith’s classic The Birth of a Nation holds a very peculiar position in the history of cinema. On one hand, it is celebrated as a milestone of cinematic storytelling, and a majestic epic. On the other, it is looked down upon for its racist content.

Last week, I wrote about The Klansman (1974) and its roots in the civil rights struggle. The Birth of a Nation describes the beginning of that struggle. Interestingly, it was based on a novel titled “The Clansman” and that was also the film’s title at the first screening. Whether the makers of the 1974 movie consciously referenced this or not, I do not know, but it seems appropriate, considering that in many ways The Birth of a Nation is The Klansman’s distorted hall of mirrors reflection.

The Ku Klux Klan prepares the lynching of a black man in The Birth of a Nation (1915)

The first third of the film tells the story of two families, one from the North and one from the South, and how the sons of each fight the war. Griffith’s primary message with the film (rarely mentioned today) was anti-war, and that the (white) people of the North and South must stand united in peace.

The rest of the film deals with the Reconstruction Era during the twelve years after the war. We follow the same characters as in the first part as they struggle for or against the rights of the former slaves in the new order. This is where Griffith became controversial (even back when the film was first released) because he openly blames the blacks and their political supporters for all the problems that the South had to see.

It is easy today to condemn Griffith’s portrayal of post-war South, but it must be remembered that the movie was made less than forty years after Reconstruction Era ended. It was still a period in living memory, and a period that caused many dramatic changes in a society that was already badly burned by four years of brutal war. Certainly, many of the changes during the Era caused grief and it is understandable that, even four decades later, it was easier to blame the problems on the aspect of race, rather than deal with the real matters, which were far more complex and difficult to change.

Several films were made as a direct response to The Birth of a Nation. One of the more interesting (though considerably more restricted in its visual language) was Within Our Gates (1920), the first feature film made by an African American director.

For my own part (being a European) I knew very little about the period following the Civil War before I watched this movie. And while the movie itself did not really help much in terms of learning the true events, it nevertheless prompted me to look up some facts on the Internet. Very informative, indeed.

The Birth of a Nation suffers considerably from the fact that all blacks are played by poorly made-up whites. See for instance the image below, where the face is blackened, but the arms and chest remain white.

But in many ways, the film is still powerful and captivating. Especially the mass battle scenes are impressive. The film was in many ways a forerunner to the giant leaps that film-making was to take in the years to follow, and even though it does not reach up to the standards of the best films from the 1920s, it looks extremely impressive when compared to any other film from earlier or about the same time.

There are two versions of the film at the Internet Archive. One is incomplete (the first 45 minutes only) but is of superior image quality and soundtrack to the version otherwise linked from this post.

This film is best enjoyed if you know something about the historical background against which it is set. I would encourage you to look up some facts about the Reconstruction Era before watching the movie.

Racial tension in The Birth of a Nation (1915)

The Birth of a Nation
Download link
Year: 1915
Running time: 3 h 0 min
Director: D. W. Griffith
Stars: Lilian Gish, Mae Marsh
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: Acceptable; classical music partly illustrating the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: DivX (1.5 G)