Cabiria (1914)

In the 1910s, for the most part, film as a storytelling medium was not yet very mature. Most films were static in their camerawork, and the scripts were often clumsy. Some slapstick comedy from that time can still be amusing (in moderate doses), but the dramas and “action” films of the day are mostly pretty tiresome affairs.

But there are exceptions. Cabiria, even though it is the victim of many problems of its time, is one. This Italian film was one of the first great epic dramas, with spectacular sets, masses of extras and a bombastic storyline filled with hyperbole and melodrama.

The statue of Moloch in Cabiria (1914)

The film is about the girl Cabiria, who is robbed from her home during a volcanic eruption in ancient Roman times, taken as a slave to various places around the ancient world, and finally wins her freedom when she has become a grown woman. But in reality, various sub-plots are much more interesting, such as the story of Fulvio Axilla and his slave Maciste. Truth be told, the film is pretty confusing with all its characters and sub-plots, and sometimes too much, sometimes too little, information conveyed in the title cards.

The poor girl Cabiria is barely even treated as a personality. In the first half of the film, she is dragged and carried around as if she was a thing. In the second half, we get to see a bit more of her as she has grown up, but even then she does not do much to give a lasting impression.

Another character in this film is much more interesting, both due to the actor Bartolomeo Pagano and his portrayal of the character in the film, and due to the character’s later on-screen career. The character is called Maciste, and prior to watching this film, I had noticed that name, as it often appeared in Italian sword-and-sandal films from the early 1960s. But the English-language dubs of those films often used other names, such as Atlas in the Land of the Cyclops (Maciste nella terra dei ciclopi) or Colossus and the Headhunters (Maciste contro i cacciatori di teste). I wondered about this sometimes: Who was this mysterious Maciste, who never got to keep his name in translation? Well, it turns out that Cabiria was his first appearance, and that he was later to star in 26(!) further silents (all with Pagano in the title role) and another 25 films in a revival in the early 1960s.

I have not been able to find any other silents with Maciste at the Internet Archive, but there are several interesting 1960s Macistes. Perhaps I will review one of them in the future.

The version of Cabiria I link to is the one at the Internet Archive with the best image quality, but unfortunately it has no soundtrack. If you feel that your life is incomplete without sound, then you can choose between a version with an electronic score and one with piano music. I personally prefer the latter in this case.

This film is best enjoyed if you are interested in cinematic history. For its time, the film is an epic masterpiece, but I have to be frank and admit that it has aged quite considerably during the more than hundred years that have passed since it premiered. Do watch it, and enjoy what is to be enjoyed, but do not expect too much. It is still a great piece considering its age.

Umberto Mozzato, Gina Marangoni and Bartolomeo Pagano (as Maciste) in Cabiria (1914)

Cabiria
Download link
Year: 1914
Language: English
Running time: 2 h 3 min
Director: Giovanni Pastrone
Stars: Umberto Mozzato, Bartolomeo Pagano
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (512×384)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: Cinepack (1.2 G)

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Three Ages (1923)

A few weeks ago, I wrote about The Birth of a Nation (1915). Griffith was so upset about the charges of racism in that picture that he decided to make a new film about intolerance. The result, aptly named Intolerance (1916), is a majestic epic in its own right and almost as classic and famous as The Birth of a Nation. Like many other great classics, it is at the Internet Archive, free for anyone to download. No strings attached, not even any ads. Oh, someone has to pay for the server space and so on, but let us ignore that for the moment.

So there is such a thing as a free lunch. And yet, sometimes it comes at a price. The price you have to pay is that you get to see a lousy version of this timeless classic. The problems attached to it are not uncommon for IA offerings: The copy it was ditigized from is in bad shape and incomplete; there is no tinting; the resolution is quite low; and to top it off, there is no soundtrack. No, if you want to see a good film, I recommend that you find a good DVD edition and purchase it. Or download something else from the IA.

Three Ages, for instance. Intolerance was a financial fiasco, yet seven years after its release, it was still famous (or notorious) enough that Buster Keaton saw the value in making a parody of it.

Buster Keaton in Three Ages (1923)

Unlike modern movie parodies, such as the Scary Movie series, Three Ages does not depend on familiarity with the original for full enjoyment. Essentially, it only borrows the form, but then Keaton tells his own story, without feeling that he has to mimick the predecessor.

Intolerance suffers from tendencies to be overloaded, confusing and hard to follow as it skips around between stories, sometimes without very clear connections. Three Ages, if anything, suffers from the opposite. It is almost too tidy and obvious, leaving very little for the audience to think about. Then again, this is comedy, not meant to be taken too seriously or to evoke any feelings beyond happiness and well-being. Fair enough. Take it for what it is.

For Three Ages does make you feel well. While far from Keaton’s best, it is yet a very neat little comedy, and extremely well-produced. And even though it lacks the epic grandeur of Intolerance, it is nevertheless majestic in its own right, with several impressive sets. And unlike the older film, this one can boast a number of brilliant Keaton stunts, for instance Buster riding in a car that falls to pieces (see above) or pole-vaulting from horse-back (see below). That alone makes it worth seeing.

This film is best enjoyed if you are already a Buster Keaton fan. If you are new to Keaton, it would be better to start with, for example, his masterpiece The General (1926).

Buster Keaton in Three Ages (1923)

Three Ages
Download link
Year: 1923
Running time: 1 h 4 min
Director: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline
Stars: Buster Keaton
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×576)
Soundtrack: Good; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Cinepack (992 M)