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)

Won in the Clouds (1928)

Aviation film has a long history. One of the first films to use an aeroplane as an integrated part of the story was Dash Through the Clouds (1912), a trivial comedy which today is only worth remembering for the amazing Wright aeroplane which is its real main character. A long range of films, today mostly forgotten, followed during the rest of the silent era.

Almost the only one of the silent aviation films that is still remembered today is Wings (1927), but that classic (the first to win the Academy Award for best picture) is not available at the Internet Archive. Fortunately, there is another typical (though considerably less lavish) representative of the genre in the form of Won in the Clouds.

Al Wilson and his Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny" in Won in the Clouds (1928)

I have previously stated that the late 1920s was a period of very high film-making standards. But of course, not every film can be innovative and ground-breaking. Won in the Clouds is not one of those films that will leave you deeply touched and perhaps even with a changed perspective on some aspect of life, such as Sunrise: A Song of two Humans (1927) or La passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928).

Fortunately, it has other qualities. Won in the Clouds is a good example of light entertainment of the kind that Hollywood has always done best. The story is a bit silly, but not as silly as many other films, both new and old. The acting is typical of the silent era. But most importantly, some of the stunts made in this film are absolutely spectactular. Not that they cannot be reproduced and improved upon with modern film-making techniques. It is just that when you see these stunts, you know that it has to be the real thing. There is little opportunity for trick filming, and no room for extreme safety measures. And there are definitely no stunt men.

The story is a fast-moving one involving diamonds, a crooked mine manager, cars, jungle animals, sick natives, romance, and, of course, aeroplanes. Unless you place too high demands on credibility, this is good entertainment.

With its African setting, Won in the Clouds definitely does contain some racial stereotyping. Racism can never be excused by the passage of time, but racism in popular culture is one source that can help us analyze the time and the culture that it mirrors. As such, it can perhaps also help us understand our own time and help avoid making the same mistakes that previous generations did.

This film is best enjoyed for the wonderful aeroplanes and neat stunts.

Grace James and Percy Hogan in Won in the Clouds (1928)

Won in the Clouds
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Year: 1928
Running time: 52 min
Director: Bruce M Mitchell
Stars: Al Wilson
Image quality: Poor
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: Good; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Windows Media (2.0 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
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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 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)

The Klansman (1974)

“I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, […] little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” Thus spoke Martin Luther King, nearly exactly fifty years ago.

King’s words were prompted by his own activities previously in 1963, fighting for civil rights in a state where the Ku Klux Klan was very strong, and often had support from local police and mayor. Eleven years later, those “vicious racists” and the violence they instigated inspired the film The Klansman.

The film depicts a small Alabama town where a white woman is raped, and Klan members (led by the local mayor) target a black man as guilty, trying to have him lynched. The local sheriff, torn between conflicting emotions and loyalties, try to maintain order, but violence escalates and threaten to go out of hand as a black vigilante starts to kill Klan members.

Lee Marvin, Richard Burton and a bottle of whiskey in The Klansman (1974)

The version available at the Internet Archive, unfortunately, is not the original. It is a version for TV distribution, cut down both in terms of aspect ratio and playing time. I suspect that much of the eleven missing minutes consist of explicit sex and violence, although a fair portion of graphic violence remains.

Some say this is a bad movie (see for instance the excellent blog Cheap as they Come for some thoughtful opinions). Me, I do not think it is bad, but it certainly is uneven. The dialogue is sometimes captivating, sometimes corny. Some actors – Lee Marvin in particular – are very good, others are outright bad. The plot is tight and interesting in some spots, hard to take seriously in others.

Judging by accounts at IMDb and Wikipedia, the production seems to have been cursed with trouble. Intended director and writer Samuel Fuller left the project in protest after financers had rejected his daring and controversial treatment of the racial issues. Stars Richard Burton and Lee Marvin were both drinking heavily during shooting of the film, the former to the extent that he had to be institutionalized after shooting was completed.

It is interesting to ponder what this movie could have been if it had been made according to the original visions, and with a cast that cared enough to stay sober. Even as it stands, it is a powerful drama, heavy with tension and aggression. Had things been different, it could have been a great classic, a forerunner to Mississippi Burning (1988). As it is, it is just another typical 70s drama, interesting to watch because it depicts a shameful part of United States history.

So, what have we learned from that history, real and fictional? Well, some things have undoubtedly improved over the last forty or fifty years. The Klan is no longer a major threat. But in many places, both in and out of the United States, racism still exists. Focus have shifted from coloured people to muslims, and racist actions are often more covert and less spectacular (thereby less interesting to make films about and generally more difficult to target). In Europe there are strong right-wing parties in almost all countries with aggressive anti-immigration agendas. So while not everything in The Klansman is relevant today, and even though its message may be a bit muddled by changed scripts and cuts, I still think it holds a lesson and a message that deserves to be considered. We must not let King’s dream die just yet.

This film is best enjoyed if your expectations of actor performances are not set too high.

Lee Marvin faces the Ku Klux Klan with a burning cross in The Klansman (1974)

The Klansman
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Year: 1974
Running time: 1 h 41 min
Directors: Terence Young
Stars: Richard Burton, Lee Marvin, O.J. Simpson
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (512×384)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (1.5 G)

Black Fist (1975)

Exactly 40 years ago last Saturday, Bruce Lee passed away. In retrospect, Lee’s sudden and dramatic death (he died unexpectedly just after the completion of his first Hollywood production, Enter the Dragon) immediately gave him a “legend” status. No-one can tell, but perhaps Lee would not have achieved the huge fame that he did had he lived on. Such is the irony of stardom.

Bruce Lee’s death opened the doors for a flood of imitators. Many were Chinese, picked because they looked vaguely like Lee and could imitate some of his body language. Their acting was almost as mediocre as their kung fu, and most were quickly forgotten. For some embarrassing examples, take a look at the so-called “documentary” The Real Bruce Lee (1979). Just don’t come and say I did not warn you.

Bruce Lee’s rising popularity in the early 1970s coincided with the emergence of the blaxploitation movement: movies which were made to appeal to a black audience. The heroes and most of the cast were coloured, and many whites in supporting roles were either crooked or incompetent. (The money made from these films went directly into the pockets of the white financers, of course.)

Richard Lawson in Black Fist (1975)

It was not a far leap for these two genres on the rise to merge, and a number of blaxplo martial arts films were made as a result. One good example is Black Fist. The story is about the young streetfighter Leroy, who starts to participate in illegal fights for money. The fights allow him and his girfriend a life in luxury, but he soon finds that the crime boss and the cops will not let him have his success without paying the price.

This movie is not worth watching because of the martial arts (the fight coreography is almost laughable in some moments, brutally unsophisticated in others), but because it delivers everything you would expect from a good blaxploitation: close-ups of the shady aspects of society, dirty 70s street slang, funky music, and a total lack of sentimentality that almost hurts.

The best thing about Black Fist is that, even though it is a child of the Bruce Lee boom, it does not try to copy the master. Therefore, it is a much better film than many of the Hong Kong “bruceploitation” movies.

This film is best enjoyed on your mobile phone or iPad, since the resolution of the best copy on the Internet Archive is inadequate for viewing on a large screen.

Carolyn Calcote and Philip Michael Thomas in Black Fist (1975)

Black Fist
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Year: 1975
Running time: 1 h 32 min
Directors: Timothy Galfas, Richard Kaye
Stars: Richard Lawson
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Low (416×320)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (699 M)