Out of the cradle, endlessly rocking...
D.W. Griffith practically invented the concept of epic, and certainly reinvented it with Intolerance. Resulting from the backlash levied against his previous work, The Birth of a Nation, Griffith set out to silence his naysayers with one of the most humongously extravagant productions of the era. Indeed, he succeeds in just about every way, other than the box office, as the film was a commercial failure. It is, however, well regarded thanks to the passage of time and new generations of filmmakers that understand what Griffith set out to accomplish.
The prologue explains the concept of the film as a series of stories in which hate and intolerance are shown in battle against love and charity. A simple idea of a premise, taken to the extreme through four separate tales that each could’ve been a movie in their own right. Set in different eras of time, each has its own story to tell about intolerance and the fight against it. Thankfully, Griffith’s use of stylized title cards for each era makes following the story relatively simple, even though the rapid interchange between each story as the film goes on can too easily lose our track of what’s going on in each. Even with the somewhat convoluted method, Griffith was still a master filmmaker and storyteller, and he shows his skill with this film. I almost recoiled in surprise when I saw what looked to be a modern day dolly shot among the works, and Griffith uses many other modern day conventions of filmmaking to tell his story.
I don’t know if I would recommend this one as a vehicle for entertainment; the stories got increasingly hard to follow just due to the over-saturation of plot details, and the inter-cut style of telling the stories, while ahead of its time, made for even more convoluted following of what was going on. Film historians and students of the cinema will gain a great appreciation for Griffith and what he accomplishes with this one, but this isn’t one I’d tell the layman moviegoer to see. Still, again, what Griffith manages to do here was remarkable, and way ahead of its era, so points for that at least.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10
Liberty and union, one and inseparable, now and forever!
The Birth of a Nation is more of a historically important film than one I would recommend to a casual viewer. It is D.W. Griffith’s racially charged masterwork (Intolerance notwithstanding), and really showcases the director’s skill and talent as both a film director and as a storyteller.
A fair warning: this film is very racist, like, disturbingly so for a modern audience. The film is about the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and paints the men behind it as the heroes of the film. So once again, you’ve been warned about this one. Nonetheless, the film is well done in typical Griffith fashion, especially the story (as racially charged as it is). Griffith’s typical style of using his monogrammed title cards to convey most of the story bits while leaving dialogue to the wayside for the most part helps keep the film going, even despite the 3 hour running time.
This is a hard one to sit through, I’ll admit, and it gets points off because of it. It’s well done, but there just isn’t a whole lot of entertainment value in it, especially any that can’t be found in other more appealing films. But, if you’re a completionist or film historian, this is definitely one to check out.
Arbitrary Rating: 6/10
I must become...Caligari.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is one of the most influential horror films in history, and indeed could be considered the first true horror film. Not merely historically significant, this is a fine film as well, and one that is never uninteresting to watch.
This is a curious look into how differently classic films were made back then. Even with the limited techniques they had toward crafting films, there is still a great deal of skill to be found here. The production and art design is an absolute wonder, and is immensely influential on so many films that travel the warped canvas of human creativity. I love all the angles and crazy constructions that draw the eye all over the screen; even the text cards evoke a supreme sense of macabre.
To me, this was more of a thriller than a horror film. The story is rather hard to follow at times, but it is a very good one; this film is also credited with introducing the twist ending, which really throws into question the veracity of the rest of the film. A very well done and very visually impressive piece of work.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10
What makes you so good to me?
Broken Blossoms is the shortest of D.W. Griffith’s works to appear in the Must See list, yet it is no less impactful than its brothers. It is a beautiful film, in very many ways that may not seem evident to the naked eye.
This is a serious film, filled with dramatic presence. The title cards are artfully written, if not perhaps a little prudent, and evoke a sense of grandeur that extends beyond the contained frame of the screen. Many may find this an example of showing too little and telling too much, but I found it a happy medium between the two. Here, Griffith uses the art of the visual and the text of the narrative to give impressions to the audience, hoping to inflict us with whatever his aim may be. The film borders on the melodramatic rather often, but rarely skirts past this line. The players of the film all do admirable jobs, especially the lovely Lillian Gish, who is the main tool Griffith uses to inflict emotion onto us. The ending is a whopper, and one of the finest “down” endings in all of early cinema.
This film is a great example of how the right score can elevate a silent film far above and beyond what it otherwise would be. This is a very touching and affecting film that rightfully belongs on the Must See list, and deserves to be seen by all classic movie lovers.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10
I am...The Great Vampire.
Les Vampires is an interesting one, mainly because it is a movie serial that comprises ten episodes. It’s also French, but being a silent film it is easily translatable into other languages, so no worry there. As always, I’ve tried to review the film(s) as I would if I were living in the time period of the film’s release, watching it for the first time, and garnering what I would from that. However, in this case, even though I was watching it as if I were in 1915, I still didn’t really get why I had to watch it in the first place.
The plot is very interesting, and really is about the only thing that’s really redeemable about the series. The cinematography is basic at best, even for the times. The color coding for the types of lighting is a little odd, but you quickly become accustomed to it, and it becomes a useful tool for the story. There are a number of subplots that are all taking place around the same time, but few of them warrant any real attention and seem to be there mostly for padding the serial.
To be honest, I’m not really certain why this, above others, was chosen to be on the Must See list. Aside from the marginally compelling plot, there’s nothing here that’s really notable enough to warrant “must see” status. I’ve noticed my reviews have tended to be curved more towards the higher end of the scale, so I’ve gotten a little stricter with my arbitrary ratings as of late, but even still, this is one I can’t really recommend aside from 1001 Movie completionists, and they’ve got quite a long haul to get through with this one.
Arbitrary Rating: 4/10
One of the first Westerns, as well as the first widely received film to feature separately filmed continuity sequences, The Great Train Robbery took the film world by storm. It is now regarded as one of the first true American classic films, both historically and critically. It was an early example of narrative, and it holds together quite well. Again, as with Trip to the Moon, most of the boon in seeing this is of historical value, but it succeeds at being entertaining, and at 10 mins, it’s a perfect little time-killer. Can’t go wrong with this one.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10
A quaint little film that is now regarded as one of the first classic films, and quite possibly the very first science-fiction film. This is moreso a lesson in film antiquity and history, but it is still entertaining nonetheless. Filmed as more of a theatrical presence than a film as we know it, it is an informative exercise in how much films have evolved and progressed from their earliest origins. Still, there are quite a good number of great visual tricks at play, which form the foundations of later special-effects. Even if you aren’t merely seeing it for historical significance, entertain yourself with a quick viewing. A very charming little film-that-could.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10