1916 - Troops battled in the trenches of France, Woodrow Wilson won re-election, and James Joyce wrote his first novel, The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Here are the year’s top 5 movies, the way I see it: 1) Intolerance (dir. D.W. Griffith) D. W. Griffith didn't take criticism of his 1915 racist masterpiece The Birth of a Nation well. Despite becoming by far the highest-grossing movie of all-time and garnering for Griffith some of the highest praise that has ever been afforded a director, ("D.W. Griffith is the Creator of the Eighth Art of the World!") it also brought about some backlash from certain citizens who didn't appreciate a film in which the Ku Klux Klan is portrayed as a heroic force against free African Americans. The NAACP called for boycotts, and the film was banned in Kansas, Chicago, and St. Louis, and New York City ordered about 500 feet of film cut.
Griffith, the son of a Confederate soldier, never seemed to quite understand exactly what the problem was. He had toned down much of the source material and had only intended to tell the truth. So, Griffith blamed the forces of "INTOLERANCE" in a pamphlet he wrote and released to the public, free of copyright. In The Rise and Fall of Free Speech in America, he links the forces that censored his film to those which "murder Socrates," "crucified the Christ," "put Columbus in chains," "destroyed Assyria's civilization," and "smashed the first printing press."
My first reaction to reading Griffith's pamphlet is how little has changed in 100 years. Griffith's screed would seem right at home in the comments section of a news story about a Confederate flag removal. (Read 'Disappearing the Confederacy' by Ian Tuttle of The National Review and 'Is "Free Speech" Becoming the New "All Lives Matter"' by Michelle Goldberg of Slate for two well-written articles that disagree with each other over this issue.)
The existence of this pamphlet puts Griffith's next film, Intolerance, in an entirely different context. Not only the title, but the entire structure and style of the film seem to be an extension of the argument he laid forth in his written expostulation. The pamphlet has a rapid, frenzied pace and one imagines that Griffith wrote the entire thing during one excited night. It jumps through history, linking Russian pogroms with the trial of Joan of Arc, the outbreak of contemporary war in Europe, and the censorship of D.W. Griffith's own The Birth of a Nation.
The pamphlet, like the film, builds and crescendos unevenly. But while Griffith was a juvenile polemicist, he was a masterful filmmaker. The film was originally only a contemporary drama called The Mother and the Law, but inspired by his newfound hatred of INTOLERANCE!, Griffith added storylines for ancient Babylon, the Christian Gospels, and the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre. Griffith had seen the 1914 Italian film Cabiria, which included gigantic sets, moving cameras and an ancient setting.These additions gave Griffith a story large enough to create his own epic.
Having built Intolerance up, the studio ordered Griffith to edit the film down from an initial runtime of 8 hours to less than 3 and a half. This form of corporate censorship gave Griffith occasion to pioneer yet another filmic technique. He cross-cuts between the stories, spending only a short period of time on each one. The camera takes us across the sky and across centuries in less than a blink, sending our souls on a journey no other art form had ever before. Cross-cutting today is a staple necessity of film and television - try to imagine even Sesame Street without it. Only occasionally a film comes along that reminds us how radical this technique can be. (Pulp Fiction and Inception are two of my favorite examples from the past few decades)
2) One A.M. (dir. Charles Chaplin) Chaplin had been making films for years, and by 1916 he was already a household name. One A.M. is one of his most delightful. Chaplin plays a drunk who comes home late and finds it impossible to navigate his home. He's (almost) the solo performer, and uses the story as a framework to show off his acrobatic skill. One A.M. also gives us the iconic example of the Murphy Bed gag.
3) Hell's Hinges (dir. Charles Swickard) A minister and his sister ride into a Western town intending to clean things up and bring Christianity to the outlaws. Things don't turn out well. I'm not sure if SPOILER rules apply after a century, but the power of the movie is ruined if I tell you what happens. So go ahead and highlight over the next part to read it: Decency fails, and the minister's allies burn the town down in anger. The apocalyptic finale seems like a clear inspiration for Lars Von Trier's Dogville. What seemed like a run-of-the-mill progressive film during the first 20 minutes turns dark, Old Testament style.
4) The Battle of the Somme (produced by W. F. Jury) As if to illustrate to future generations the insanity of World War I, the film The Battle of the Somme was shot, produced, released and became a blockbuster all while the actual Battle of the Somme was still happening. About 1.3 million men were casualties of the battle, while 20 million Britons watched a film about their fight. The filmmakers mixed actual war footage with reenactments in such a way that it has been impossible for historians to definitively sort out which is which.
I've been watching The Great War YouTube Channel, which presents the events of World War I week by week, 100 years ago after they happened. Although I have far less at stake, I imagine I'm not too different form those Britons who watched The Battle to learn about the battle - I'm simultaneously horrified and fascinated by the horrors of war.
5) Judex (dir. Louis Feuillade) Judex is a 5-hour long crime serial, in 12-parts. Directed by Louis Feuillade, who also made the 1915 serial Les vampires, which I loved, I felt like Judex lacked some of the romantic power of his earlier film. It attempted to rely on plot more than atmosphere, but I never could figure out exactly who did what to whom or why. Still, Judex had many pulp crimefighter elements I still enjoy today; Batman and V for Vendetta are two of its obvious heirs.