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)

Advertisements

Under the Red Robe (1937)

It seems to me that there is often something special about films set during the period of king Louis XIII (with Cardinal Richelieu in the head of government). I guess it is the gilt from The Three Musketeers, with all of its nice adaptations, that rubs off a bit. One such film that can be found at the Internet Archive is Under the Red Robe.

Conrad Veidt in Victor Sjöström's Under the Red Robe (1937)

This romantic adventure finds the swordsman Gil de Berault in trouble. He is in danger of being executed for duelling, but the sly Cardinal Richelieu gives him an opportunity for pardon if he can find and capture a rebellious protestant. de Berault eagerly sets off to do the task, but as the plot progresses, he is about to find obstacles he had not anticipated.

The director of this typical genre piece was Victor Sjöström (sometimes called “Victor Seastrom” in Hollywood, as also in this British production). Sjöström started making film in Sweden, where he directed simple melodramas in the early 1910s. He quickly moved to more advanced topics, and made several timeless classics, such as The Outlaw and His Wife (1918) and The Phantom Carriage (1921). Sjöström was recruited to Hollywood, where he also made several very good silents, but in the early 1930s, he moved back to Europe. He still acted and produced films, but for some reason he directed very few of his own in the sound era. Under the Red Robe, his last film, is nowhere near as groundbreaking as some of his classic works, but it is a nice piece of craftsmanship.

Unfortunately, the copy at the Internet Archive is pretty blurry in places, and contrast is poor overall. I know of no better online version, however.

This film is best enjoyed if you are a fan of either Conrad Veidt (de Berault) or Raymond Massey (Richelieu). Both are very good, even though I think Massey (always an enjoyable and dedicated actor) perhaps overacts a bit at times. The female lead, Annabella, is given first billing in the credits, but even though she is also good as the sister of the religious rebel, she is mostly forgotten nowadays.

Conrad Veidt and Annabella in Victor Sjöström's Under the Red Robe (1937)

Under the Red Robe
Download link
Year: 1937
Running time: 1 h 22 min
Director: Victor Sjöström
Stars: Conrad Veidt, Annabella
Image quality: Acceptabe
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: DivX (577 M)

U-Boote westwärts! (1941)

When I first discovered and read about the German World War II film U-Boote westwärts!, I was struck by the extreme story similarities with the British film We Dive at Dawn from two years later. So struck that for a while I speculated whether the latter might actually be a loose remake of the former.

German submarine U-123 in U-Boote westwärts / U-Boat, Course West (1941)

The initial story structures are, indeed, strikingly similar. A submarine returns to port after a long and hard mission at sea (scenes of surfaced submarine moving steadily forward through picturesque sea and port backgrounds). The crew is looking forward to a long and well-deserved shore leave. They meet up with families, fiancées and various other female friends. One is about to get married. But duty calls. The Queen/Führer needs them and they have to set to sea immediately in order to fulfil an important mission.

However, even during the brief shore leave sequence, the differences between these two films start to become apparent. Beyond the abovementioned similarities, these films are very different at their cores.

Compared with the British film, U-Boote westwärts! seems much more realistic, both in terms of the submarine interiors, and in terms of the missions and situations that a World War II submarine would typically face. On the other hand, the story lacks the intensity, action and adventurous touch that the British production has. Which version you prefer thus depends on whether you prefer realism or suspense.

This film is best enjoyed if you like old war films. U-Boote Westwärts! is not a great film, and some will be further put off by the propagandistic portrayals of British seamen. Nevertheless, it has several good qualities, including some very solid actors.

Herbert Wilk in U-Boote westwärts / U-Boat, Course West (1941)

U-Boote westwärts!
Download link
Year: 1941
Language: German (English subtitles)
Running time: 1 h 37 min
Director: Günther Rittau
Stars: Herbert Wilk
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Matroska (681 M)

Stukas (1941)

I have had an almost lifelong fascination for aviation movies. When I was a kid, I dreamt of becoming a pilot, and I guess the best aviation movies sort of made that dream seem true for a brief time. For several years now, I have wanted to see a number of German World War II propaganda films on that topic, and in particular the film Stukas, about the infamous dive bombers that totally dominated the sky during the successful Blitz in the early parts of the war. I was therefore very excited to find, at last, a good copy of the film at the Internet Archive some time ago, and my expectations were completely met.

Carl Raddatz and O. E. Hasse in Stukas (1941)

Set during the Battle of France, which had ended only about a year before the film’s release, the film depicts the joys and hardships of a Luftwaffe group of Stuka pilots. The need of constantly being on the alert and the sorrows of losing dear friends in battle, but also the strong comradeship and the sense of accomplishment after a successful mission.

The film is well paced for the most part. In the beginning the constant victorious missions over French territory may feel a bit repetitive at times, and the final segment of the film is too long and drawn out. But these are minor quibbles over a film that, in spite of the subject matter, is overall very enjoyable.

The choice of Stukas was not coincidental. It was one of Germany’s most important and efficient weapons during the early parts of the war. Later, however, such as during the Battle of Britain, the Stukas would suffer considerably when they no longer could enjoy the luxury of full air superiority and therefore much less fighter support. This knowledge gives an unintended ironic twist to the final scenes, where the brave pilots fly off towards England, singing a gay patriotic song (yes, really!).

The copy I downloaded appears to be spliced together from at least two copies of vastly varying technical quality. Fortunately, the larger part of the film is in good shape, but during some short scenes, sound and image are barely tolerable.

This film is best enjoyed if you can stomach some pretty thick German propaganda, but if you do you will be treated with a number of effective and often spectacular flight scenes. As far as I know, no flying Stukas exist anywhere in the world, so films like this one are the only chance to see actual Stukas in action. This is not to be missed if you are an aviation history nerd!

Junkers Ju-87 Stuka in Stukas (1941)

Stukas
Download link
Year: 1941
Language: German (English subtitles)
Running time: 1 h 38 min
Director: Karl Ritter
Stars: Carl Raddatz
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: DivX (903 M)

The Battle of China (1944)

In Frank Capra’s classic Why We Fight series, where he tried to explain to the American public why it is important to participate in World War II, the turn has now come to The Battle of China.

Frank Capra's The Battle of China (1944)

Actually, there never was a battle of China as such. There were a great many battles fought in and around Chinese territory during as well as before World War II. And, unlike The Battle of Britain (which was also not a “battle” in the traditional sense), the term “The Battle of China” has not stuck in people’s conscience.

Ok, so the title is a misnomer. Big deal. The film is brilliantly produced, and while it does not exactly present any right out lies (that I can detect, anyway), it bends and omits facts to suit its purposes. The Chinese people in general and Chiang Kai-shek in particular are glorified to the heights of heaven. They are brave, strong and hard-working. They are a worthy ally to the American people.

Like other parts in the series, and like many other American propaganda films from the war, it does not shy away from presenting some of the cruelties of war, such as wounded soldiers, or even dead children. That may seem surprising, but was probably done because it would presumably strengthen the American people’s will to fight.

This film is best enjoyed if you like the other parts in the series, or if you want to watch an episode to see what it is all about. I know that many hold it as their favourite of the entire series, and I am not going to say that they are all wrong.

Frank Capra's The Battle of China (1944)

The Battle of China
Download link
Year: 1944
Running time: 1 h 3 min
Directors: Frank Capra, Anatole Litvak
Stars: Walter Huston (narration)
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (2.9 G)

49th Parallel (1941)

One of the first films made by the famous British team of writers/producers/directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (jointly known as “The Archers”) was the World War II propaganda 49th Parallel.

Finlay Currie, Laurence Olivier and Eric Portman in 49th Parallel (1941)

The film begins with a German submarine that tries to hide in Hudson Bay after being hunted by the Canadian navy. The submarine is eventually caught up with and sunk, but a small group of survivors start to make their long way across the enormous nation of Canada, trying somehow to find a way to neutral or allied territory.

The film has an interesting structure. It is basically a series of short stories, strung together by the evil protagonist in the shape of Leutnant Hirth. Hirth is well played (though not exactly delicately) by Eric Portman. As he and his small group of Germans go from one place to the next, they also move from story to story. And there is where we meet the true heroes, played by Laurence Olivier, Leslie Howard, Raymond Massey, and others. They are true-blooded Canadians, who stand up for their country, against oppression and tyranny.

49th Parallel in some ways forms an interesting counterweight to One of Our Aircraft Is Missing, Powell’s and Pressburger’s joint project from the following year. Both films share the theme of a crew that has lost their vessel and now have to make their way through enemy territory. The two stories share many similarities, but through the filter of propaganda they still emerge as completely different films. They are also very good, so I can only recommend that you download and watch both.

This film is best enjoyed for its powerful and well played drama. Even though Powell and Pressburger were yet to develop their true mastership in film making, we can already see many of the techniques that were to be used to make some of the best films in the history of cinema. 49th Parallel may not be quite up to that standard, but it is still excellent.

Peter Moore and Leslie Howard in 49th Parallel (1941)

49th Parallel
Download link
Year: 1941
Running time: 2 h 2 min
Director: Michael Powell
Stars: Laurence Olivier, Raymond Massey, Leslie Howard
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (664×502, not counting black border)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.2 G)

No Man’s Land – Hell on Earth (1931)

When the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, they immediately banned a number of films that they perceived as spreading “dangerous” propaganda. One of them was Niemandsland, known in English under different titles; the copy at the Internet Archive is called No Man’s Land – Hell on Earth.

No Man’s Land is set during World War I, and begins by telling the background stories of five different men of different nationalities. Stories that are perfectly everyday, until the men are drafted into World War I. These men come together when they seek cover in the cellar of a bombed-out house in the middle of no man’s land. They each have their own loyalties, and their own families back home, yet have to cooperate in order to survive.

World War I soldiers going over the top in Niemandsland / No Man's Land - Hell on Earth (1931)

The film sends a strong anti-war message. This may have been one reason why it scared the Nazis, but probably more importantly because one of the five men is a Jew, a Jew depicted as a perfectly normal and honest human being. Imagine the threat.

Just like last week’s Vampyr (1932), No Man’s Land is a film from the period just after sound film had broken through, and again an example of inexperience with sound technology. As a result, the poor sound detracts somewhat from the enjoyment of watching, though this film is still good enough that such a small detail can be overlooked.

I saw a comment somewhere on the Internet that this film is pointless, because five men cannot stop a war anyway. It takes the will of an entire civilization to do that. Well, that is exactly the kind of attitude that means war will never come to an end, because first and last, it always comes down to the individual. Sure, there must be powerful political leaders to sign the treaties, but they will never do it unless they feel popular demand behind them; they will never be elected in the first place unless the people support their opinions. So, yes, five men’s stand, or even one man’s stand, counts. Because as long as everyone sits on their behinds waiting for someone else to act, nothing is ever going to change.

This film is best enjoyed for its warm and deep humanism. The five men in the cellar all come through as living, three-dimensional characters. As a viewer, I care about each of them, and therefore the film’s message also comes through as meaningful and interesting.

Ernst Busch, Vladimir Sokoloff, Hugh Douglas, Georges Péclet and Louis Douglas in Niemandsland / No Man's Land - Hell on Earth (1931)

No Man’s Land – Hell on Earth
Download link
Year: 1931
Language: English, German, French, Yiddish
Running time: 1 h 6 min
Director: Victor Trivas, George Shdanoff
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×480)
Sound quality: Poor
Best file format: Cinepack (517 M)