The Unchanging Sea (1910)

The oldest films I have previously reviewed on this site have been from the years 1913 and 1914, and I personally think it is very difficult to go any further back in time than that when you are looking for good feature films. But shorter films of more than just curiosity interest certainly exist from earlier, and we now end our Short Film Month by looking at one example.

There can be no denying that D. W. Griffith was one of the most important early pioneers in Hollywood, which first started to attract filmmakers around this time. One of his earliest Hollywood productions was The Unchanging Sea.

Arthur V. Johnson and Linda Arvidson in D. W. Griffith's The Unchanging Sea (1910)

These many years later, the film does feel a bit aged. The camera is mostly static; actors move around inside the picture as if on a stage. But this was conventional at the time, and even with this limitation, Griffith manages to create magnificent tension and visual poetry. The first half, in particular, is excellent, though melodrama creeps into the later part of the film.

Griffith had his greatest period – both in terms of artistic achievement and popularity – a few years later with films such as The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Broken Blossoms (1919). But some of his early shorts are also worth exploring, and The Unchanging Sea is definitely one of them.

This film is best enjoyed for the beautiful sceneries of the sea and the fishing village. Griffith apparently built no sets, but used a real village in California as his backdrop, for excellent effect. The documentary qualities of this film are considerable. The film is also noticeable for an early appearance by Hollywood star Mary Pickford as the fisherman’s adult daughter.

Linda Arvidson in D. W. Griffith's The Unchanging Sea (1910)

The Unchanging Sea
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Year: 1910
Running time: 14 min
Director: D. W. Griffith
Stars: Arthur V. Johnson, Mary Pickford
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: DivX (72 M)

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Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919)

D. W. Griffith seems a very peculiar character in retrospect. Already an experienced director, he went ahead in 1915 and created one of the greatest classics in the history of cinema, The Birth of a Nation. Though a great financial success, it was justly criticized for racism and falsifying history. So the next year, he made Intolerance, allegedly in response to his critics of the former film. This was another majestic classic, but as for the response over the previous film, it falls flat.

So Griffith could have gone down in history as a racist film maker, but then in 1919, he made yet another of his greatest classics, Broken Blossoms or the Yellow Man and the Girl. Here we find a direct and unequivocal statement against racism and intolerance. Hard to tell what Griffith really thought on the subject; the films are his legacy and still deserve to be watched.

Richard Barthelness and Lilian Gish in Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919)

Broken Blossoms tells the story of poor Lucy, whose father is a brutish and alcoholic boxer. He beats her for any poor excuse and forces her to do all the menial tasks in the household. But then she meets a young Chinese. He is also lonesome and disheartened, and they find that they are soulmates, able to lift each other to happiness neither thought possible. Fortune cannot hold forever, of course, though I will not reveal the ending here.

Lilian Gish, one of Griffith’s favourite actors, plays Lucy. Gish is sometimes mentioned as one of the greatest actresses of the silent era. Well, I am not entirely convinced, but she certainly makes a fine portrait in this particular film. In a time when overacting was the norm, Gish did it more than most. She had a pronounced flair for acting miserable, distressed or frightened, and in this film she has little reason to do anything else. In particular, there is a famous scene where she hides in a closet, while her raving father breaks down the door with an axe. This was the kind of scene where Gish absolutely excelled.

Artisitically, Griffith was perhaps at his peak here. He had a few great films ahead of him, but by the mid 1920s, it became steadily clearer that the man who once revolutionized film making had failed to stay ahead of the pack. Hence, you will find that in some ways the film has not aged well. Even so, its classic status cannot be denied.

This film is best enjoyed when you are in the mood for tragedy. This is not a feel-good movie.

Lilian Gish in Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919)

Broken Blossoms or the Yellow Man and the Girl
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Year: 1919
Running time: 1 h 29 min
Director: D. W. Griffith
Stars: Lilian Gish, Richard Barthelmess
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (512×384)
Soundtrack: Good; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: DivX (493 M)

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
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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)