1950s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Western

The Searchers (1956)

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Director: John Ford
Screenwriter: Frank Nugent

By Roderick Heath

John Ford was hardly lacking in fame and acclaim when he released The Searchers. He’d already captured four Oscars as Best Director, proof he stood for his peers as the most admired of American filmmaking talents. Given how rarely Westerns were given such awards and serious critical interest, Ford seemed to be looking for almost the opposite of acclaim. He was chasing something more elusive, something lodged fast and discomforting, like a thorn under skin or a shard of niggling shrapnel. Ford returned from World War II without quite a few of his cherished illusions, but also nursing some ambitions he set about making realities. He moved to gain a level of independence from the Hollywood studio system by setting himself up as a producer-director for his own Argosy Pictures outfit. Keeping up that kind of freedom was to prove a tall order in the following years, but Ford began to come into his own in terms of how we think of him now, as the man who declared bluntly later in life after a career of diverse movies, “I make Westerns.” That was the genre he had found early success in with The Iron Horse (1926) but scarcely returned to during the 1930s, until Stagecoach (1939), a film that not only provided Ford with a big hit and suddenly earned new critical interest and respect for the genre, but gave a boost to its leading man John Wayne.
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Wayne had been lingering in cheap oatsers since his initial breakthrough The Big Trail (1930) had proved a box office disappointment. During the war Wayne’s star had only grown brighter, leaving him poised to become Hollywood’s biggest draw, but he found himself in conflict with his former pal and mentor Ford, as he’d failed to make good on his promises to join up, leading to tensions on the set of They Were Expendable (1945), Ford’s first civilian film in several years. Ford made good on his desire to make Westerns with My Darling Clementine (1946), starring Henry Fonda and evoking the romanticised version of the OK Corral shootout he claimed to have heard from Wyatt Earp’s own lips decades before. The past seemed to be on Ford’s mind too, as he directed Wayne to mimic his old leading man Harry Carey Snr in some places. Despite their personal differences, Ford and Wayne soon proved the kind of teaming that makes for movie legend in the following few years as Wayne became the sturdy frame Ford hung his Cavalry trilogy – Fort Apache (1948), She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949), Rio Grande (1950) – upon. Ford was trying to reprocess the generational experience of the war into terms that could be contained and mediated through the Westerns and tragicomic dramas he liked. His films from this period are filled with sundered but reunited families, bands of soldierly brothers, gatherings of old former comrades, old enemies finding common cause, all trying to get on with nation-building enterprises.
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Native Americans had been provided as cosmic foils in Stagecoach, but whilst they were still often the enemies in the Cavalry trilogy, their situation was no longer so one-dimensional: in Fort Apache they’re provoked by arrogance, treachery, and double-dealing into warfare, in She Wore A Yellow Ribbon they’re neighbours to be disarmed rather than battled, and in Rio Grande a cruel renegade is hunted and surgically taken down. Wayne made one more Western in this phase, Wagon Master (1950), without Wayne, and then took a break from the genre. Ford’s Irish fantasia The Quiet Man (1953) proved his biggest hit to date and gained him his fourth Oscar. But skirmishes with Fonda during the making of Mister Roberts (1955) proved a troubling rupture. Fonda resisted Ford’s desire to follow his usual instinct and scuff up the property, for Fonda wanted to retain the essentially noble spirit of the source play. Frustration eventually, so the legend goes, saw Ford punch his leading man and retreat into a drinking binge that brought on serious illness. To recover, after some forays into TV directing, he looked back to the Western again to find some project that could expiate the poisonous, near-fatal experience. He found the project in a novel by Alan LeMay, who usually wrote scripts for Ford’s rival, and occasional nemesis, Cecil B. DeMille. The Searchers was well-received and successful upon release, but by this time movie and TV screens were so busy with Westerns it was hard to stand out. Only a few years later as Ford became one of the select rank of heralded auteurs in studio cinema, and as young movie lovers grew up and became critics and directors, would it start gaining the reputation it has now as a pinnacle of popular cinema.
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There’s a telling and fascinating conjunction in Ford swinging from a disaster like the Mister Roberts shoot into making his greatest film, and it becomes clearer in concentrating more closely upon the troubled soul of the subsequent film. The Searchers is a study in finding grace in the face of cruelty and hate in large part because it’s coming from a bleak and stymied place. Only cinema, that pool of light between black, rigid fields, offers relief. Small wonder the film starts and ends like it famously does, perfect black broken open and then resealed. The opening, which sees Ethan Edwards (Wayne) returning to family after years away at war, poses the film as the last of Ford’s homecoming-from-war movies. The setting is Texas, 1868, although the location is Monument Valley. Usually Ford’s returning veterans have the benefit of fellowship; Ethan is solitary, embittered, giving away his awards and regalia to kids and negotiating the many psychic eggshells spread about the domicile of his brother Aaron Edwards’ (Walter Coy) frontier homestead. Here also lives Aaron’s wife Martha (Dorothy Jordan) and their three children, Lucy (Pippa Scott), Ben (Robert Lyden), and Debbie (Lana Wood), as well as the adopted and raised family member, Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), a lanky lad with Cherokee heritage (“At least that’s what they tell me”).
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In Ford’s earlier Westerns the wandering men of fortune were usually helping out the people who wanted to put down roots. Here the gulf is muted but unbridgeable, despite Ethan’s seeming desire to reintegrate himself at last, or at least to the extent he’s prepared to be, which isn’t much. He has mysterious wealth in a bag of fresh-minted dollars and still considers himself to be a under oath to the defeated Confederate States. Lucy is the first bobby-soxer, trying to snatch her moments with her beau, Brad Jorgensen (Harry Carey, Jr.). Judging by the way she folds Ethan’s coat and swaps a charged look with him, Martha might well have been his lover before Ethan left to fight. Ethan, Martin, and Brad are quickly pressed into helping a posse led by local minister and lawman Rev. Capt. Samuel Johnson Clayton (Ward Bond), after some cattle are stolen away, presumably by a roving Native American band. But when they find the cattle dead, Ethan realises the purpose was to lure away defenders from the ranches, for a “murder raid” of punitive action against settlers.
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By the time Ethan and Martin return, they find the Edwards homestead ablaze, Lucy and Debbie missing, and the other three killed. Clayton’s posse continues after the Indian band, who prove to be a tribe of Comanche under the glowering leadership of Chief Scar or Cicatriz (Henry Brandon). After barely escaping an ambush by their quarries, the posse breaks up and heads home, leaving only Ethan, Martin, and Brad to keep up the pursuit. When Ethan finds Lucy’s dead body, discarded by the Comanche, Brad gets killed riding into their camp in a mad charge, and the other two lose track of the tribe in snow, forcing them to break off the pursuit. After being briefly taken in by Brad’s parents (John Qualen and Olive Carey) and sister Laurie (Vera Miles), who carries a torch for Martin, Ethan and Martin set out again to locate the band after receiving a possible clue to their whereabouts. Martin becomes increasingly worried that Ethan doesn’t intend to rescue Debbie anymore, but plans to kill her in case she’s been “living with a buck.” After several years on the trail, thanks to a Mexican trader, Figueroa (Antonio Moreno), Ethan and Martin finally gain access to Scar’s camp and find him not only aware of who they are, but all too happy to taunt them with the scalps of their murdered family members on his spear, and the sight of a now-grown Debbie (Natalie Wood) become one of his wives.
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The set-up here – the ragged warrior and the settled family, the pining matriarchs and hero-worshipping boy – is reminiscent of Shane (1953). Ford might well have internalised that hit, that most aesthetically purified and self-consciously mythic of Westerns, trying to decide if it meant anything to him or not, and proceeds from the realisation that George Stevens wanted his fabled concept just a little too unspoilt. Shane lived and died for the sake of letting civilisation getting on with its follies, stirring its contradictions but not despoiling them. No blonde seraphim to stir hearts and take the rap here. Ford speeds through that work in miniature and comes out the other side to leave desolation and terror where the little house in the prairie stood. Ethan is no-one’s idea of a white knight. But the actual aesthetic antagonist to be wrestled with here is My Darling Clementine and the Cavalry trilogy, their perfection as a summary of Ford’s concept of the west revisited, tested, and finally endorsed again, but only after the deepest agonistes. Martin is the family’s adopted son, regarded with squint suspicion by Ethan when he sits down to eat at the dinner table: “Fella could mistake you for a half-breed.” Ethan’s jagged, reactionary-racist sensibility is already fully on display. So too is his humane streak, as he rescued Martin as a child from the wreckage of a massacre. Martin and Ethan’s relationship compels the film even as they seem to barely tolerate each-other’s company and even at points seem to be mortal enemies, as Ethan explicitly denies Martin any kind of familial status to him early on, but also becomes almost a caricature of the hard-bitten, tough-love paterfamilias.
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The Searchers’ DNA is scattered today throughout the length and breadth of contemporary cinema, from the dreamlike transpositions of the Star Wars films to the grimy, pensive immediacy of Taxi Driver (1976) and all their descendants in turn. The greater part of The Searchers’ power and vitality wells precisely from contradiction. It’s a film where the hero is also its villain, where the American landscape is both worshipped and regarded as suspicious and duplicitous. The narrative itself rests upon contradiction, as the characters tread the length and breadth of the American heartland and yet find their reckoning mere miles from where the hunt started. It’s no cutely liberal take on the Western like Delmer Daves’ Broken Arrow (1953), but that’s precisely what allows it to dig into the dark side of the American enterprise, capturing the marauding mindset of men like Ethan and Scar, who both operate out of motives of vengeance and tribal identity. Perhaps that’s why Ford socked Fonda over Mister Roberts and then turned around to make this: a little voice in the back of Ford’s mind insisting the only way you could grapple with what infuriates you was not to play wise elder but to swallow the hot coal.
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Ethan is reminiscent of Jesse James as a veteran whose post-war crime spree seems to him at least have been a mere extension of the conflict, as it’s hinted Ethan might have been supporting himself in a similar way. “You match a lot of descriptions,” Clayton notes when Ethan won’t take his deputising oath because “it wouldn’t be legal.” Later, he guns down the duplicitous Futterman (Peter Mamakos), a trader who sells Ethan and Martin a clue for gold but who then tries to kill them to get more, and his helpmates with cool thoroughness, so much so that later he and Martin are suspected of murder. Ethan and Scar are the frontier death-dream incarnate. There’s a tonal reflex reminiscent of horror cinema in some of The Searchers, particularly the creepy moment when Scar’s shadow falls upon the child Debbie in the graveyard where her grandparents are buried and soon too will be the rest of her family, and the rhyming scene at the climax as he looms over Debbie and Martin. The bookending doorway shots feel more than a little inspired by Hugo Fregonese’s Apache Drums (1951), a film which transmitted its producer Val Lewton’s psychological and folkloric sensibility into the Western, and perhaps Ford absorbed a little of that sensibility along with the technique. The struggle for domain that takes place in the course of the movie is physical but also subsists on this atavistic level, fought on the level of symbols and totems, to which in a way Debbie is reduced often throughout.
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Scar’s spear loaded with scalps, including those of the Edwards clan and Martin’s mother, is held out as a triumphant standard, in the grip of Debbie, another captured prize. Ethan removes any dividing line between himself and his enemy as he stoops to claiming Scar’s scalp. But the laws of tribalism negate the need for moral discernment. What I do to you is righteous and what you do to me is savagery. Ford’s celebration of space throughout, the grandiose forms and climes of the Monument Valley locations and all their primeval strength, is constantly contradicted and complicated. Ethan is all too aware the posse’s been drawn out just far enough to stop them fending off the murder raid; the vastness becomes a trap under such circumstances. Scar’s tribe are able to remain ever so tauntingly ahead of Ethan and Martin. The open area around the Edwards homestead harbours enemies advancing unseen and nightmarish. The bluffs of Monument Valley are a canvas to describe the tension: they stand grand and worshipful but also dominate and dwarf Ford’s characters as the posse rides out to chase down. Ford constantly captures his actors with the rock forms behind or looming over them, trying to cage their elastic physicality, their volatility, their challenge to nature.
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Stagecoach was a legend that skirted Monument Valley but found its stage in the open ground; The Searchers inhabits vertiginous zones where the moral danger seems mapped out in canyons and caves. Scar’s tribe exploit the folds of land to surround the posse, riding along parallel ridges, whilst the posse use a river as a defence. Ethan and Martin wander a continent but the first time they attain their goal they’re chased inside a cave that seems like a zone of moral nullity, a cave that looms again at the end as Ethan hunts down Debbie with apparent murderous intent. This oppressive use of the landscape is particularly apparent in a uniquely vicious scene in which the posse, still in the early stage of its pursuit, come across the body of a dead brave, actors and rock forms constantly caught in dialogue. Spiritual violence is stirred: Brad picks up a rock and pummels the corpse, but Ethan has a more exacting sense of justice, shooting out the body’s eyes so that the dead man’s spirit must roam the afterlife in blind desolation.
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Ford’s frontier homes and outposts have low, slightly oppressive ceilings (one of many lessons Orson Welles took from Ford: in cinema, the sets don’t just frame drama but generate it), and his camera framings obey the rectilinear demarcations of the architecture as much as his exterior framings respond to the jagged upthrust of the land. Here cotillions form and rituals of marriage and justice unfold, obeying their own social architecture, cordons far more unyielding than any cavalry column into which Ethan and Martin crash upon their second return home. Years of fruitless wandering, is reported via a letter Martin writes to Laurie, a missive she’s obliged to read out to her parents and to the letter’s deliverer, the guitar-picking, haw-hawing local flash Charlie McCory (Ken Curtis). A great chunk of narrative and time is ingeniously compressed this way, whilst making other points, as Charlie presents a romantic threat to Martin whilst Laurie’s increasing exasperation with her peripatetic beau boils over at the news that Martin picked himself up a wife. Accidentally, of course, as Martin thought he was trying to trade for a blanket but found he’d purchased a squaw instead, a woman he dubs “Look” (Beulah Archuletta) and whose presence, helpful as she tries to be, he can’t stand. When he and Ethan got the idea of asking her about Scar, she became fearful and left them, and they later found her dead in an Indian village, attacked and left in carnage by a Cavalry patrol, leaving the perplexing question as to whether Look was merely trying to get away or was trying to help Martin.
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The Searchers is as much a film about generation conflict as Rebel Without A Cause (1955), which Wood had starred in the year before, and its many followers. One reason, perhaps, why so many young men watched the film and found in its something like their cinematic bible, over and beyond its imagistic and storytelling force. Home, the locus of simplicity and order, is shattered early in the film, and tensions were already brewing; gruff pseudo-father and maturing pseudo-son are then obliged to chase the ghost of common meaning. So easy to see the conflict between Ethan and Martin as the uncomprehending gap between a generation of fathers who had been off to war to defend a settled world and sons who wanted to renew it, and the bewilderment and sullen anxiety of the young in the face of their elders’ mysterious prejudices and unreasoning demarcations. Despite his many protestations to disinterest in Martin’s lot, Ethan acts like his father – one of the great bits of movie business comes in the cantina scene in which Ethan keeps foiling Martin’s attempts to get a drink of liquor even as the conversation involves something else entirely. It’s a moment that’s just as revealing and even more cunningly parsed as the more famous scene with Martha folding Ethan’s coat: bonds of family, of love, of instinctive connection take place on a level that’s near-subliminal. Moreover, this sort of thing illustrates exactly what a filmmaker like Ford can conjure, and any great filmmaker, over and above even the layers of Frank Nugent’s already tight-wound script.
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Martin seems exempt from the ranks of tribalism as such identities are melded in his frame as well as nullified by his youthful openness. Ethan and Martin represent a dichotomy of experience commonly seen in Ford’s films but usually safely contained by social constructs like the military, the youth learning about the world and passing through baptisms of fire, and the older, hardened, life-scarred man. Look to one of Ford’s early films like Seas Beneath (1931), where the young man has his first erotic experience with a senorita and the older man is the stalwart captain shepherding all through the curtain of fire. Here the rhythms are off-kilter, the figurations twisted. The captain is a landlubber Ahab chasing after a girl who may or may not be his daughter from a transgressive romance, and the young man, played by Hunter with his stark blue eyes and passion play physique as a beautiful gelding, never gets time to get it on with Laurie or the flamenco dancer making eyes at him in the frontier cantina. Sexual transgression lurks behind so much of The Searchers, in the barely-coded anxiety over miscegenation and sexual slavery, but its tenor is rather one of neurotic severance from the erotic. The ascending order of racist neurosis is invoked, driving Confederate holdout Ethan crazy, and Scar’s motives are calculated as revenge by precisely triggering them, for the chieftain who’s lost two sons to the encroaching white man knows well what hurts his foe. The resulting sense of obsession builds relentlessly to specific moments of baleful paroxysm, as in Martin placing himself between Ethan and Debbie as he moves to gun her down, and the final battle. The film repeats the generational conflict in miniature towards the end with a level of in-joke humour. Ethan and Clayton find themselves confronted by green, young, sabre-waving Lieutenant Greenhill, envoy of his Cavalry commanding father, breezing in to alert the elders to Scar’s presence with callow energy, and played by Wayne’s son Patrick.
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The margins of the central drama are filled out by such a gallery of oddballs and frontier grotesques, covering a range of types and cultural entities, filled out by ingenious detail and performances. Clayton is a leader both spiritual and temporal, embodiment of all social authority in the sparse precincts of the frontier and perfect contrast to Ethan’s individualist indomitability. Yet he’s anything but abstract in his bristling, bustling vigour, tying his top hat to his crown with a handkerchief and vowing to get himself “unsurrounded” and barking at Greenhill to “Watch out for that knife” only to cop it in the backside in the midst of battle. Crackpot Mose Harper (Hank Worden) longs for a rocking chair and makes fun of the Comanche by mimicking their war cries, tolerated and patronised by all who know him, which proves to be a great survival talent, as he gives Scar the slip and alerts the heroes to the tribe’s return. Brandon, a character actor who bobbed about Hollywood for decades and who had bigger parts than this but none more famous, makes a tremendous impression although Scar remains for the most part an antagonist over the horizon. His appearances early in the film galvanise the characters aura of threat and dark, scowling, brutal charisma, from looming over young Debbie as he comes across her attempting to flee the homestead to putting on his chieftain’s bonnet and sporting the medal Ethan gave to Debbie about his neck. When he and Ethan finally meet, the doppelgangers stand almost touching in their fearsome mutual challenge, whilst refusing to break the rules of the chivalrous game of hospitality.
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The Searchers also undoubtedly contains Wayne’s best performance, lacking the slightly calculated feel to some of his other major turns like the aging Nathan Brittles in She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and ornery Rooster Cogburn in True Grit (1969). His Ethan Edwards simply is – his smouldering aggression, his patronising assurance, his surly turns of phrase (“That’ll be the day”) and grit-toothed ferocity and private moments with eyes deep pools of sorrow and regret and flashes of lunatic rage. For a man of undoubted, bullish presence and martial skill, Ethan is trapped in states of impotence throughout much of the film, reduced to finding and burying the mangled remnants of his family. Wayne’s performing intuition grasped gesture as the essence of film acting, the sort of considered motions generations of kids have mimicked in trying to grasp the essence of screen cool. The badass spectacle of whipping out his Winchester from its holster before riding in to the burning homestead. The spins of his revolver as he shoots out the dead Comanche’s eyes. More than that, though, here Wayne uses such gestural precision to describe Ethan’s frustrated power, finally blatant in the seething fury in his eyes as he barks at Clayton for spoiling a shot at Scar and finally near-lunacy as he shoots down buffalo in his desire to starve the Comanches, becoming in his unreasoning wrath and sense of punitive mission the embodiment of the dark side of the Western conquest, and his schoolyard posturing before Scar when finally they men meet.
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Ford, like Raoul Walsh and Howard Hawks, had always made complex Westerns, although there was certainly a general accuracy to the notion the genre was becoming more meditative in its historical considerations. Although his political allegiances were becoming more conservative, Ford was becoming more direct and questioning about who could be considered American and what the country could mean to them were becoming more pointed. He would soon construct creation myths for African-Americans (Sergeant Rutledge, 1960) and finally Native Americans (Cheyenne Autumn) in terms of his traditional Western form, on the way towards the cosmic crack-up of his last film 7 Women (1966). The sequence here where Ethan and Martin encounter the massacred tribe and the Cavalry who did it evokes his Cavalry trilogy through music cues and images but there’s no sense of heroic necessity: Martin is bewildered by their motives. This is the west being bludgeoned into passivity and coherence rather than coolly policed. The ruined, lunatic women the soldiers gather, inspected by Ethan and Martin in hope Debbie is amongst their number, are the by-products of civilisations crashing together. “It’s hard to believe they’re white,” one of the Cavalry officers comments, but notably, the women are all in a crazed state after being rescued, whilst Debbie, when they finally encounter her, remains entirely lucid and intelligent enough not just to simply remember her old life but to try and save Ethan and Martin from imminent attack. Ethan repays the favour by advancing to shoot her down, with Martin thrusting himself between them. Fortunately, Scar and his braves interrupt the moment of truth.
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Ford stands today as one of the definitive classicists in film technique, but to watch The Searchers is to experience an unusual approach to storytelling and cinematic structure. To see Ford utilise the mid-‘50s widescreen colour format is to see a born cinematic eye unleashed upon a natural habitat, exploiting space from actors’ faces looming in close to features in the peering distance. Ford’s DP Winton C. Hoch isn’t exactly one of the celebrated cinematographers of his time, and yet few films are better shot than The Searchers. Hoch imbues Ford’s precisely-composed tableaux with life through jostling, precisely inscribed detail even in the midst of colossal landscape shots. Ford and Hoch work in hints of Expressionist texture into interior and dialogue scenes, hinting at the repressed and the fetid in even the most seemingly easygoing interludes, and capturing the intensity of existence out in these tiny abodes and hamlets through the decor in a homestead. The Searchers is a big movie, and yet big moments are almost thrown away, like the final confrontation between Martin and Scar. Exposition scenes double as character revelations, jokes distract from momentous discoveries and urgent truths. Nothing in The Searchers is ever just one thing, one reason Ford was able to knock over such an epic tale in less than two hours. Perhaps the most notable example of this discursiveness comes in the action climax, as the long-nursed thirst for revenge against Scar comes as fast as reflex, in perfect contrast to the ceremonial death-dealing in Sergio Leone’s Westerns. Few directors could resist the bloodthirsty spectacle of moments like Ethan’s discovery of Lucy’s body and Brad’s subsequent ride to a quick death, but Ford elides both, describing the first by Ethan’s harassed and snarling behaviour afterwards, and marking out the events of the latter purely by sound.
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The hint of Expressionist influence in the film is hardly surprising. Ford had gained a great deal of early acclaim and admiration for his skill in fusing that heady Germanic style with Hollywood exigencies in movies like The Informer (1935) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Like many directors who had started working in the silent era now confronted by the blazing colour and stretched screen of ’50s film culture, he seemed to be thinking back to those days wistfully in shots like one filmed in silence and silhouette, in which Martin is lowered down a cliff face as he goes to pluck Debbie from the midst of Scar’s camp. One of the best shots in the film – in cinema in general – comes when Debbie appears on the sand dune behind Martin and Ethan as they bicker outside Scar’s camp, unnoticed for a long time as she approaches. The perfect economy of Ford’s framing allows the epic, even the miraculous, to suddenly transform the drama, as if the land itself has finally unleashed its captive. Ford’s love of alternations in tone between high drama and slapstick humour has long been one of his peccadilloes that can vex contemporary viewers. But it’s also essential to his cinema, where sobriety and clowning are indivisible as part of the texture of life, expressions of the unruly energy released by common humanity, mimicking and to a certain extent offsetting more genuinely chaotic instincts. This aspect of Ford’s art had been purveyed with careful, contrapuntal rhythm in his Cavalry trilogy, but here comes in a series of violent swerves and headlong crashes. Certainly the “comic relief” of Martin’s irritation with Look never sits well, particularly as he shoves her rolling down a slope when she tries to sleep by his side: it’s supposed to play as rambunctious in a brotherly manner, echoing Laurie’s exasperated assaults on Martin, but just comes across as mean and bullying.
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The awkwardness is also a by-product of the film’s hysterical, blue-balled intensity, an aesthetic reflex on Ford’s part in registering the need to relieve its perpetually gathering psychic thunderclouds. Better moments of comedy include Ethan tossing a glass full of rotgut tequila on a fire to save Martin from unthinkingly drinking it, and the full-on physical comedy of Martin’s fistfight with Charlie, upon returning him to find him about to marry Laurie, another moment that converts the larger tension of the drama into an absurd islet, as the two young men battle over their lady. Ford’s unique blend of precision and elision in staging reaches its height in the finale, as Clayton’s posse join Greenhill, Ethan, and Martin in a raid on Scar’s encampment. Ford’s dashing tracking shots move with the charging horses through the camp offer the deliverance of unfettered movement after the tight and stifled precursor, but also with haphazard speed and reckless force: Ethan riding in it to chase down his foe casually knocks over a fleeing Comanche woman. Nobody’s standing around duelling or going down in noble last stands.
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Martin sneaks into Scar’s tent to locate Debbie: the sound of the great war chief cocking his rifle is matched to a mere shot of his legs in the tent flaps. Martin spins, lets loose with his revolver. By the time Ethan arrives, he finds only the oblivious corpse of his foe, felled by the kid. The famous upshot, one of those moments that can make ancient cynics get misty, one that tormented even Jean-Luc Godard with its mysterious impact: Ethan chases down a fleeing, fearful Debbie, only to snatch her up like he might have as a child, cradle her in her arms, and softly suggest, “Let’s go home, Debbie.” Some of the power of this lies in surprise, but also in its subterranean logic. Scar, his mirror, his task, his animus, is dead. Ethan’s concerted rage is spent, and all that’s left is an ageing man clutching the last thing he might call kin in the world. It’s easy to hate Ethan Edwards so often throughout The Searchers, but then you love him, much as Debbie runs in terror from him only to curl up against his chest, like a father who has lapses of inchoate and unknowable darkness at night but returns like the sun in the morning.
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Ford’s 1961 follow-up Two Rode Together would deal explicitly with the problem elided here, as the protagonists of that film would become obliged to help the woman they rescue from living with an Indian tribe overcome stigmatisation as someone beyond the pale, socially and sexually speaking. Ford obsessively examined a schism in his own mindset that was also a schism in his concept of America, albeit one that could also manifest in his portraits of Ireland and Wales and anywhere else. The need to belong to a community, an ordered way of life, a hierarchy, striking sparks against an opposing truth, the desire for freedom, for essential being, for standing beyond the power of the corrupt and the hypocritical, those ignoble foils that always come with society. Younger Ford had happily sent Ringo and Dallas off to be “saved from the blessings of Civilisation” at the end of Stagecoach.
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Older Ford envisions the possibility of a future free of racial neurosis and violent instinct, and knows it’s right, but also knows very well it means the end of something else he cherishes, that great stage upon which his dreams live and die. When the door closes on Ethan, much as it found him, it closes not just upon the character and his embodiment of the Western hero cut off from the settling world, but upon an entire concept of the genre, perhaps even the genre itself. Everything else was just waiting for Sam Peckinpah to come and shoot it full of holes. Ford’s overreaching artistic desire, to create mythic-styled narratives about becoming and finding, here admits at last a failure, a point where some things cannot be contained, reconciled, kneaded into the great American project. History rolls on, leaving its ruins, its dead, its forgotten, heroes and villains all churned together in the dust.

Standard
1950s, British cinema, Film Noir, Romance

Pool of London (1951)

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Director: Basil Dearden

By Roderick Heath

Basil Dearden remains an underappreciated figure of British cinema, although he made some of the most fondly-remembered hits it saw from the mid-1940s to the 1960s. Perhaps he’s neglected precisely because of that, as he was one of those establishment figures loathed by the young guns of the various new wave movements, in spite of the fact Dearden helped define a peculiarly British model of realist cinema subsequent generations would assimilate. Dearden started as a screenwriter and made his directing debut on The Black Sheep of Whitehall (1942), and contributed some segments to the famous omnibus film Dead of Night (1945), the first British horror movie produced after a total ban on such movies for World War II’s duration was relaxed. Dearden had presaged it with the eerie but gently humane fantasy The Halfway House (1944), where the dead linger in a haunted house for the purpose of coaching the living through the terrors of the war, something of a mission statement for Dearden’s later career as he continued nudging the national consciousness towards the next problem on the frontier of attitude.
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Dearden was a weathered professional who would dabble in many genres, from historical melodramas like Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948), to comedies like The Smallest Show on Earth (1957) and Man in the Moon (1960), and later in his career he would take a whack at a David Lean-like epic with the stodgy but interesting Khartoum (1966), before returning to supernatural fare for his last film before dying in a car crash in 1971, The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970). Dearden was at first associated with Ealing Studios, but he left them after being obliged to make too many anodyne comedies, the studio’s commercial stock-in-trade. Dearden scored a big domestic hit for Ealing with The Blue Lamp (1950), a police drama starring Jack Warner as PC George Dixon: although the character was killed in the film, he was so popular he was revived for a long-running TV series. Dearden’s proven knack would see him often return to dramas about criminals and ordinary people caught between them and the law, but he also began cultivating a habit of utilising a nominal genre setting to take a long, hard look at some interesting corner of modern British life.
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In this regard Dearden was following a brief moment of social conscience cinema seen in Hollywood after the war from the likes of Elia Kazan, Robert Rossen, and Nicholas Ray, and his own labours would run concurrent with Stanley Kramer’s. But Dearden for the most part avoided Kramer’s rhetorical dramatic modes, preferring instead to tie his commentary to strong genre plots, in a manner that feels crucially anticipatory of a vast swathe of contemporary film and television, particularly in crime dramas made in Britain and Scandinavia. Dearden’s visual approach to these films appropriated the chiaroscuro black-and-white of film noir and combined it with location shooting techniques, weaving in the influence of neorealism. Dearden’s work in this vein encompassed racism in Pool of London, Sapphire (1959), and All Night Long (1961), homosexuality in Victim (1961), the lingering undercurrents of resentment and violence inherent in Britain’s relations with Ireland on The Gentle Gunman (1952), delinquency and urban crime with Violent Playground (1957), the lot of former veterans left bereft and aimless after the war in The Ship That Died of Shame (1955) and The League of Gentlemen (1959), and questions of medical responsibility clashing with religious scruples in Life for Ruth (1962).
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Dearden’s best works are epic in a compressed fashion, trying to encompass a survey of a whole social moment as they unfold. The League of Gentlemen offers a cross-section of former veterans ranging from bottom feeders to bored upper-class layabouts who decide to rob a bank. All Night Long contemplated race and gender relations through the prism of Britain’s jazz hipster scene. Victim contemplates the tenuous existence and vulnerability of gay men via a potent lead performance by Dirk Bogarde, whose taking the role amounted to a tacit coming out before the entire filmgoing public. Dearden sometimes let slip a blackly comic sense of humour in the likes of The League of Gentlemen and The Assassination Bureau (1969), and the reworking of Othello in All Night Long spoke of an ingenuity and openness to playing around with familiar storytelling modes he didn’t get to work out much in his more earnest and mainstream-minded projects.
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Pool of London is possibly Dearden’s best film, mating a sturdy crime tale to a study in slowly shifting social mores in the London of 1951, seen through the eyes of two outsiders, sailors Johnny Lambert (Earl Cameron), a black Jamaican, and Dan McDonald (Bonar Colleano), a Canadian. They’re both hands on a cargo ship, the Dunbar, which docks in the Pool of London, then a hub of London’s maritime trade but long since redeveloped into a zone of upscale apartments, directly adjacent to Tower Bridge and across the river from the Tower of London. The sailors often try to make a little extra cash by sneaking in foreign goods to sell or win hearts, trying to outfox the exacting Customs Officer Andrews (Michael Golden): one fellow crewman gets busted with a bunch of watches after declaring himself innocent a little too forcibly, whilst Dan gets caught later trying to sneak out some nylon stockings, gifts intended for his girl in the city, Maisie (Moira Lister).
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Another sailor, Harry (Leslie Phillips), has a steady girl in the shipping company’s secretary pool, Sally (Renée Asherson), but he’s growing bored with her, whilst she remains steadfastly loyal, always awaiting his returns. The engine room officer, Trotter (James Robertson Justice), prefers to ignore the city altogether, calling it a den of depravity, bunking down in his cabin instead with a few bottles of scotch and a volume of English poetry to await the time to sail again. Dan’s reputation as a guy on the make sees an acquaintance recommend him to Charlie Vernon (Max Adrian), a music hall acrobat who’s cooking up a heist: Vernon has made an alliance with some gangsters to rob an importer’s stash of diamonds, and Dan will sneak the haul out of the country on the Dunbar for a £100 fee. Johnny follows Dan to the music hall where he meets Vernon, whilst Johnny loiters in the foyer, chatting with the ticket seller, Pat (Susan Shaw). Johnny is racially abused by a theatre commissionaire for peeking in on the show and chased out, earning the wrath of Pat and Dan. They meet again cueing for a bus shortly after, and they start hanging out together over the next few days, glimmerings of romantic interest apparent in both.
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Pool of London is as much romance, character study, and social realist document as it is a thriller, with jots of comedy and satire in the mix. You could call it a down-to-earth remake of Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s On The Town (1948), taking up the same basic idea but utilising it as the basis for anatomising a place and culture at a certain moment rather than idealising it. The film betrays a certain commonality of spirit with the works of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and Sidney Gilliat, filmmakers who resisted making movies in the post-war period that belong neatly to any generic classification. Fellow Ealing hero Robert Hamer would make a breakneck swerve from the tart black comedy of Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) to The Long Memory (1952), a film that plays a downriver counterpart to Dearden’s in its obsession with harsh dramas of life and death played out amongst the rubble and ash-heaps and cast-off wares a waning imperial-industrial age.
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Dearden devotes early scenes to describing the diverse crewmen of the Dunbar with all their different habits for coping with their lot as perpetual wanderers. He details the nuisance of the period’s onerous enforcement of import rules and the lack of consumer goods in those still-straitened post-war years, as well as the characters’ efforts to subvert it on both a petty and felonious level. Economic pressure is a general reality. Vernon has developed his heist plan as he’s fed up with performing for a pittance, and he’s hardly alone in looking for some kind of edge or angle to beef up his earnings. Dan foils his own seemingly easy job in the plot in his need to show off to Maisie, who’s furious with him for failing to bring his promised bounty of nylons.
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The photography, by the brilliant but little-celebrated Gordon Dines, sketches Dearden’s evocation of time and place in hues of hard blacks and whites and smoky greys, turning the brick and ironwork of the city’s famous landmarks into a landscape replete with vertiginous highs and lows and boles of inky blackness. His palette is perfect for recording Dearden’s attempt to anatomise London, a city stranded between its industrial and commercial height and its renewal, still bearing the scars of war and littered with the ruins of the Blitz and the oncoming wane of an industrial and commercial age. The façades of the old and upright business and institutional buildings showing their implacable bars and brickwork to the street like an urban Stonehenge. The soaring geometric splendours of St Paul’s and the Greenwich Observatory, which Johnny visits with Pat in ticking off tourist sights, offer the grandeur of a great stage of civilisation that nonetheless enacts its true passions and appetites down on the dirty street. Those unfold in its smoky, gritty pubs and seamy music halls and dank tenements, the faint air of desperation collecting like dampness on the grubby walls or the film of perspiration seen daubing many a brow, from Vernon after a performance to Dan as he realises he’s plunged himself into a cruel trap. Only occasionally does something as transfixing, even transporting, as Pat’s face suddenly gleams out amongst the morass.
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Industrial detritus, from barges ranked up on the Thames shore to old train carriages left to rust on the wayside downriver, speak of the teeming infrastructure needed to build, maintain, and supply such a metropolis. Yet Dearden’s London, sometimes a desolate wasteland, is occasionally decorated by islets of frenetic and eager human energy, from Salvation Army band providing a mostly free distraction for onlookers to a flock of bicyclists escaping the narrow streets for the channels to the countryside. “It always seemed before as a big, lonesome sort of a place,” Johnny tells Pat. Johnny’s solitary strolls back to the Dunbar punctuate the film, which unfolds over three days and nights. First he’s a lonely figure kicking a can down through Shad Thames, second a love-struck man skipping along the way, third an anxious and bitter refugee glad to escape a city that’s chewed him up and spat him out. After deciding to forget their perfidious other lovers by dancing away the night, Dan and Sally make their way through the streets only to start dancing there too. Vernon turns the rooftops into a playground where he tries to defy fate and gravity by using his acrobatic skills as part of his planned heist.
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Part of Dearden’s attraction to hot topics and tabloid issues was partly fuelled not just by civic-mindedness but his genuine interest in characters with powerfully schismatic world views forced to confront each-other and mediate their understanding, or be destroyed by that refusal. This motif in his work reached an apex with the confrontations of two titanic zealots, Chinese Gordon and the Mahdi, in Khartoum. Here the meeting is the much gentler one of Johnny and Pat, two potential lovers separated by Johnny’s anxiety rather than Pat’s. It’s also embodied by Johnny and Dan, but their distinction is more that of their approach to life, Dan’s opportunism versus Johnny’s quiet resolve to give up sailing and return to Jamaica to get some education; the one gift of his otherness is that it imbues him with a sense of a future that can be won rather than a present to be merely occupied. Otherwise the steadfastness of their friendship is a given, to the point where Dan thinks nothing of endangering his pal by asking him to perform an illegal act and Johnny thinks nothing of performing it.
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This idea of personal loyalty as a strange and rigorous faith was another consistent Dearden concern, particularly where it ran contrary to larger social assumptions: Victim and All Night Long in particular would repeat the motif of women bewildered by their partners’ wayward tastes and perversities, trying to swim against a too-strong current in dealing with aspects of monstrosity they uncover. Sally’s dedication to the unfaithful Harry is a minor aspect of Pool of London but Dearden notes, with a blend of romanticism and dubiety, the process of her shifting loyalty to Dan, who is himself doomed to be, at least for the foreseeable future, another absentee mate. The film’s very end encompasses an ugly moment when Dan deliberately offends and spurns Johnny in order to save him from his own heedless allegiance. Dearden’s jabs of humour extend to a sequence in which the coppers bust a usual suspect who’s just been announcing with noisy confidence as a Hyde Park speaker his close communications with great statesmen (his lectern reads, “Truth over Party”). The portrayal of the police isn’t far from The Blue Lamp’s straightforward enforcers of justice, but here they have a slightly alien, antiseptic quality, cheerless and competent except for the street beat bobby, like an occupying army making sure the proles don’t act up too much.
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Adrian’s Vernon (the musical hall bill calls him “The Gentleman Acrobat”) is a fascinating marginal creation, a stage performer turned criminal mastermind, the sort of character you’d expect to see in a Lang or Hitchcock film, or, in his acrobatic prowess and rooftop daring, like a French silent serial character. Except that Dearden renders him as realistically as the other characters, first glimpsed all clammy from his performing, caked in make-up like a rough draft for Joel Grey’s emcee in Cabaret (1972) and wearing his evening tuxedo over a shirt with no sleeves, another sweat-reaping labourer who covers it in a veneer of showbiz class. Vernon is glimpsed in the music hall’s grimy dressing room where a sign on the wall reads, “Silence is Always Golden – Speech is Counterfeit Sometimes.” He’s talked forcibly retired clerk George (George Benson) into coughing up all the details for the heist in exchange for a cut, but Vernon is in turn obliged to surrender more of the potential take to his professional criminal acquaintances because he needs their particular skills.
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Vernon’s robbery plan most crucially demands his special talent however – a leap across a great height so he can penetrate an office building in the daylight, a move of perfect daring that evokes the existential state of the entire scene Dearden surveys. But he undoes his own daring by getting sloppy and violent with the building’s elderly caretaker (Beckett Bould), knocking him out but failing to restrain him, so that when the man wakes up, he grabs at Vernon, who throws him off, accidentally killing him as he slams his head against a step. Dearden’s very British sensibility manifested in his approach to how his criminals and villains get caught out, by small changes to routines or idle habits, like the nerdy schoolboy whose fondness for recording licence plates in The League of Gentlemen. Here, the heist is turned from a smooth operation to a deadly adventure by a policeman noticing a bottle of milk that hasn’t been taken in like usual, and then by a sisterly quarrel. Dan’s boasting to Maisie over his turn of good luck, and then realisation that he’s quite literally holding the bag, is overheard by Maisie’s sister Pamela (Joan Dowling), who lives adjacent to her and breaks off from smooching her boyfriend to listen in; presuming she now has a device to hold over her sister, Pamela makes a show of dressing up in one of Maisie’s dresses. But Maisie wallops her instead, starting a vicious sisterly brawl that attracts a bobby, who overhears Pamela bellowing out crucial information.
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Cameron will turn 101 this year if he makes it to August; he joins Leslie Phillips in this cast as an actor of startling longevity. Born in Pembroke, Jamaica, Cameron had almost died from pneumonia during the war, and found years later it had left one of his lungs useless without anyone noticing. He was making his film debut with Pool of London, although he would be a familiar face in British films for decades to come, appearing in Thunderball (1965) and alongside a pubescent David Hemmings in the tinny but likeable manhunt drama Flame In The Streets (1962), and much more recently in movies like The Interpreter (2005), The Queen (2006), and Inception (2010). He’s sometimes described now as Britain’s first black film star, which is a half-truth, as he never really had another leading role as good as Johnny Lambert, a part that was all but autobiographical for the actor, as he had also been a merchant seaman. Pool of London is also sometimes described as the first to portray a mixed-race relationship, although that’s also a half-truth, as Johnny and Pat’s obvious mutual attraction doesn’t go anywhere for a variety of reasons.
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Cameron’s newness to movies it a surprise considering how well he holds the screen and projects a mature air of melancholic confusion under the façade of Johnny’s good-natured stoicism, a façade that finally cracks under the pressure of liquor, disappointment, and treachery. His Johnny isn’t merely a straw man set up to make a few anti-racist points, but a figure who suffers from the same mix of alienation and anxious yearning as the people who surround him, only intensified by his obvious difference. Johnny’s disinclination to properly romance Pat is as much informed by the same problem as faces Dan and his other pals, his come-and-go life violently contrasting her status as a popular lady about town, and his own crisis is sparked when he tries to meet up with her after the Dunbar’s leaving is delayed, only to see her being swept up by a gang of friends whose breezy urban lives he knows he can’t negotiate. His and Shaw’s crucial moment comes when they converse outsider the Greenwich Observatory, on the Meridian, that crucial arbiter for invisible but consequential divides, an intellectual construct Pat and Johnny both admit to not understanding.
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Johnny gives a dreamy monologue about the notions that flick through his mind when at the wheel of the ship, questions about why it seems to matter, amongst other things, if a man is black or white. “It doesn’t matter,” Pat tells him with plain intent, to which Johnny replies with cool, factual assurance, to Pat’s stricken look: “It does matter what people think. Perhaps someday it won’t, but it does now.” Cameron might not have had more parts as good, but he was luckier in life than his costars Colleano and Shaw, who were married three years after appearing together in this film. New York-born Colleano, New York born out of a family of accomplished circus acrobats, had gained himself a niche in British film. He usually played token Americans or Canadians in war movies but becoming a well-known face with his trademark knobby features and honk of a voice, but he was killed in a car crash aged 34 in 1958, and Shaw’s resultant, profound depression gave way to alcoholism, a malady that killed her in 1978. Colleano was expert at playing slightly charming chancers like Dan: his best moment here is off-hand, giving a cool bob of his brows as he call his donation to Salvation Army girl, “The wages of sin,” to her sly retort, “Been working overtime?”
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The divergent storylines of Dan and Johnny only properly unify at the very end, and take place before that essentially in different movie genres. Dan’s tribulations are those of a straight-up crime film, whilst Johnny heads off into a romance that shades into a calmer but no less cruel drama of character and context: the forces that bear down upon Dan are legal and monetary, where Johnny keeps a clean nose but is worked upon by identity like a vice. Dan’s own romance with Sally is just as profound as Johnny’s and just as impossible. Dan finds himself cast as fugitive and singular villain by the police, and scooped up by his nominal cronies who plan to eliminate him rather than risk having him blab to the police. Dan is lucky as some policemen stationed to nab him near the Dunbar catch sight of his abduction, and give chase to the hoodlums’ car. Dan makes a break from his tormentors, but catches a bullet and plunges into the Thames: he manages to swim aboard a sailing boat heading down river. Meanwhile Vernon and the others are cornered and, in a sequence that again betrays a Hitchcockian influence, Vernon tries to flee the cops by ascending a tall structure and shimmying across a long pipe to freedom, but he fails to gain a proper grip and plunges to his death.
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Dearden’s use of his locations is great throughout but especially here, in the dashes for survival through the cavernous spaces of urban edifices, dwarfing and corralling the humans scurrying up and down them, the blank institutional tiles and whitewash of the buildings that allow no purchase or hiding spot and the black waters of the river that swallow up Dan. Meanwhile Johnny gets hammered in a bar, trying to wash Pat out of his system, and he finds himself taken in hand by a self-appointed drinking buddy who encourages him to get so drunk he doesn’t notice when his pocket is picked: the thief ignores the can brilliantine the robber loot is hidden in. Johnny, blind with drink and anger, causes a scene and is hurled out bodily: “They’re all the same,” the barman mutters as they retreat within, leaving Johnny a sodden mess on the pavement, having conspired in his own Calvary. Dearden gives away his neorealist inspirations as he works in a Paisan (1946), as Johnny wakes up in the bombed-out ruins of a church, broke, demeaned, and lovelorn, but still intact and hardy, unaware the police think he was in cahoots with Dan.
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Dan meanwhile seems home free as he’s borne off towards the ocean, but as he lingers in pain and guilt unnoticed by the sailing boat’s crew, in a sequence that betrays a lingering influence of the ‘30s poetic realists on Dearden as shadows play over Colleano’s face in rhythm with the water lapping over the boat’s gunwales, he elects to slide overboard, swim to shore, and try to make it back to the Dunbar and warn Johnny. Dearden extracts maximum, agonising tension out of Dan’s shambling, wounded efforts to catch up with his pal, and must compound the pain by destroying Johnny’s reflexive loyalty by brushing him off. But Johnny still realises what his friend has done for him as he sees him on the dock from the sailing ship, surrendering to the police. Perhaps an over-neat ending to a drama that accurately diagnoses the fatalism of working class lives that expects everything to go wrong sooner or later, as well as their determination to keep chasing joy by any means. The film’s real subject is the threads that connect ordinary people, the process of learning and growing as a society a drama that’s enacted on the streets and not in neat abstractions, using its generic modes to communicate the diversity of experience that can subsist cheek by jowl, and life is never just one story.

Standard
1910s, Epic, Silent

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

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Director/Coscreenwriter: D.W. Griffith

By Roderick Heath

One hundred years have passed since the release of the film long beheld as the very moment cinema came of age, and few films can speak so eloquently as to just how long that century has been. The faiths, ideals, and biases inscribed in the form of The Birth of a Nation, both separate from that form and wound into it with pernicious intricacy, tell us things we don’t necessarily want to remember or countenance, things that appall and beggar as well as things that still stir and fascinate. David Wark Griffith’s achievement with The Birth of a Nation was immediately hailed as a great event in the history of a young art form, but also the spur to furious debate, even murder and terrorism. The frightening power, redolent of some alchemist’s dream of mesmeric influence over a mass populace, of that new art form was confirmed at the same time as its enormous expressive promise. The Birth of a Nation became perhaps the pivotal work of moviemaking’s first quarter-century, overshadowing even Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), which it influenced, because it was a colossal hit as well as a successful aesthetic experiment. Griffith’s film would remain the highest-grossing film of all time until at least Gone with the Wind (1939), and perhaps still reigns supreme adjusting for inflation: as costar Lillian Gish put it, it made so much money they lost count. At the time The Birth of a Nation struck many viewers as like a historical document given the vitality and narrative power of legend. Woodrow Wilson reportedly described it as “history written in lightning,” though those words were probably placed in his mouth by his former schoolmate, Thomas Dixon, Jr, who proselytised tirelessly on the behalf of the work taken from his novel. The film premiered 50 years after the end of the Civil War, but everyone in the average American movie theatre of the time knew very well that the forces that had caused and ended that hideous conflagration were not yet quelled. Hell, they’re not past even now.
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For a long time, no one argued with Griffith’s achievement. Certainly the most hyperbolic descriptions of The Birth of a Nation’s originality were incorrect. The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906) pushed into the realm of the modern definition of narrative feature film when Griffith was still an actor. A wave of contemporaneous Italian historical films, including Enrico Guazzoni’s Quo Vadis? (1913) and Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria (1914), drove Griffith to compete with their scale and dramatic heft. Most of the editing and filming techniques packed into his work already existed, awaiting the kind of show-off who could synthesise them, and Griffith had laid claim to inventing many in his acts of self-promotion. The famous ride of the Ku Klux Klan at the end of The Birth of a Nation with its cross-cutting structure was actually just a reprise of his earlier work, The Battle of Elderbush Gulch (1913). But the record still tells us that Griffith constructed something his audience felt it had not seen before and immediately responded to as something new and amazing. He had helped define the cinema at last as its own continent, for all Griffith’s debts to Victorian-era literature and his conversion of some well-established author’s tricks into visual style.
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The Birth of a Nation perturbs now for less abstract reasons: it’s appallingly racist, and not just for modern eyes. In its own time, the film was the subject of bilious protest. Many saw it then as a legitimate account of the era it portrayed; others recognised it as blatant, partisan propaganda and racial libel passing itself off as a common folk-memory. Perhaps the controversy helped its success. The fledgling NAACP gained stature and clout objecting to it. Some blame it for sparking the new Ku Klux Klan campaigns of the 1920s. Violence certainly broke out in some screening locations. Today, the success of Ken Burns’ television documentary series The Civil War (1987) and Edward Zwick’s film Glory (1989) helped restore the Civil War to the centre of modern American mythology in a way that pop culture had rarely seemed comfortable with before, partly by confronting aspects of the war that had long been repressed. For a very long time, the tacit narrative of the postwar period was one of reconciliation between former antagonists, burying the causes for schism whilst inferring that the citizens whose fates were crucial to the war, African-American slaves, were best excised from the conversation, if not in some way to blame for it all. The Birth of a Nation, to put it mildly, records and exemplifies that convention.
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Griffith’s film was based on Dixon’s novel, The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan. Dixon was a South Carolina minister, politician, and pro-South ideologue who had been convinced by the anecdotes he heard as a kid that the Klan had saved the South from rapacious carpetbaggers and lawless freedmen. The Birth of a Nation was initially to be a straightforward adaptation of the novel, and first screened under its title. The contradictions here are many: Kentucky-born with Confederate roots, Griffith had just a few years earlier made a film where the Klan were villains. During production, Griffith’s adaptation of Dixon inflated into something far larger than intended, as Griffith worked without a scenario or screenplay, but simply kept the book in mind whilst conjuring his visions, creating a grandiose pageant begging for a more sweeping appellation. Griffith by this time already had a reputation as one of cinema’s most innovative and distinctive talents: as cornball as a lot of his plots were, in works like The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), The Avenging Conscience, and Judith of Bethulia (both 1914), he had impressed viewers with works of a defined aesthetic density far above the run of mostly mercenary amusements. Griffith developed himself as a brand, and when he premiered his new film, he showcased it with a costly roadshow presentation and charged the then-exorbitant amount of $2 a ticket. Perhaps The Birth of a Nation is more a landmark in the annals of hype.
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Still, what about the actual film, the relic shining out from under all the rhetorical dust? Does it still shout out its storied power above the din of its controversy? Yes and no. Even without taking on the sorry race portrayals, The Birth of a Nation is a mixture of the crude and the fine. Portions are undoubted displays of great cinematic effect and art, whilst others drag and slouch. The plotting is naïve and occasionally confused, the acting uneven. At times it’s a stock-standard melodrama of the kind readily found in turn-of-the-century novelettes and stage plays, complete with rosy-cheeked damsels in distress, lascivious villains, good-hearted patriarchs, and bellicose mammies. The characters it describes aren’t really people, but are mostly archetypes of a bygone society’s best self-image and basest anxieties.
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The first third of The Birth of a Nation is still a vivid creation for all the qualifications, tethering the microcosmic, presented via the families of congressional leader Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis) of the North and Dr. Cameron (Spottiswoode Aitken) of the South, with the macrocosmic drama of erupting civil conflict. Stoneman upholds radical abolitionist policies, partly under the influence of his black housekeeper and mistress Lydia Brown (Mary Alden). In spite of brewing war clouds at the time of Lincoln’s election, Stoneman’s sons Phil (Elmer Clifton) and Tod (Robert Harron) visit their friends the Camerons, whose ranks include sons Ben (Henry B. Walthall), Wade (George Beranger), and Duke (Maxfield Stanley), and daughters Margaret (Miriam Cooper) and Flora (Violet Wilkey), in their South Carolina town of Piedmont. Ben falls in love with a photo of Stoneman’s daughter Elsie (Gish) given to him by Phil. The settled life of the Camerons, the bustle of household work, the roughhousing of the sons and the scampering of the kids, the quiet reclining of Dr. Cameron, is quickly and skilfully sketched by Griffith in the midst of the decorous, homey beauties of picket fences and rose bushes. The Stonemans also get a tour of cotton plantations, where slaves labour and readily dance gleefully for the visitors. Just after the Stonemans depart, Lincoln (Joseph Henabery) signs his call for volunteers, “using the Presidential office for the first time in history…to enforce the rule of the coming nation over the individual states.” War breaks out, and the Cameron sons join the Confederate cause.
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Griffith builds these sequences, shifting from the bucolic to the ecstatic, with gathering force, capturing the mood of being swept up in what its characters see as a great, romantic, classical quest. Bonfires and dancing greet the news of war. “While youth dances the night away, childhood and old age slumber,” a title card notes, as the camera studies the snoozing Dr. Cameron and Flora, establishing a quality of dialogue, the existence of separate modes of life even within the frame of a single story. Griffith’s framings are often studied and still resemble the static state of much early filmmaking: his sequences often tend to comprise a few basic compositions, alternating between them. Two crucial aspects, however, imbue them with an uncommon life: the frames are packed with detail, often with Griffith pushing his actors to be in constant movement and expression in relation to each other, usually with elements arranged along diagonal axes to give the square frame depth and a definite dramatic quality. Griffith’s characters often look as if they’re perching on the edge of something, as in early scenes where they hover amidst the columns of the Cameron house, whose design splits the difference between Antebellum manse per Confederate mythology and normal suburban villa to which more of the audience could relate. Most vitally, Griffith cuts constantly, giving his moving pictures the same sense of velocity and a fluidic, implicit sense of relationship, rather than a flatly grammatical one. The depiction of Piedmont’s soldiers heading off to war thrums with a sense of motion and pictorial eloquence–the gyrating crowds in the town square and columns of parading soldiers, the lasses bedecked with flowers and the horses similarly garlanded, the young gallants stealing kisses before riding off, Ben teasing “pet sister” Flora by dangling the Confederate flag over her face as she naps, and the familial pietas of soon-to-be-bereft loved ones waving farewell. Billy Bitzer’s photography, justly celebrated as a grand technical achievement, is constantly striking, particularly the night sequences of bonfire celebrations. Griffith foreshadows with witty asides. A young kitten and pup, pets of the Camerons, tumble into each other and commence what is described as “hostilities” by the title cards.
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The wartime sequences are even more impressive for the sense of rolling, panoramic drama. Freed from having to relate the audience to actors at the centre of focus and understanding, Griffith pulls off coups of pure visual power, covering fields of battle and scenes of history purely according to the needs of his camera rather than the call of an imagined stage, letting his images flow in a manner reminiscent conceptually of book plates and theatrical pageants, and sometimes based outright on artworks, but imbued with the illustrative force of cinema. One of the Cameron sons catches a bullet during an infantry charge. Tod Stoneman dashes in, ready to bayonet him, only to recognise his friend and stay his hand, moments before a Confederate bullet cuts him down in turn: Tod collapses, pulling his friend close and dying, leaving them entwined in a brotherly embrace. This vignette is trite on one level, and yet also a concise, visually powerful encapsulation of Griffith’s message regarding war, as direct and intelligible as anything in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). Another Cameron boy dies during the retreat of the army. The burning of Atlanta is depicted in a crude but startling proto-matte shot, in which extras amidst life-size sets swathed in smoke reel underneath a burning model of the town. A long shot of Sherman’s army on the march through the countryside filmed from a hilltop sees the camera pivot to note a mother and her children looking on, an iris effect zeroing in on them before Griffith cuts to show us their faces beholding the annihilation of their world: the victims of war are privileged by the perspective Griffith takes on them over the distant, anonymous mass of men.
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The most spectacular war sequence is set in the waning days of the conflict, where Ben Cameron, now beloved by his men as “The Little Colonel,” leads them in an attempt to break out of siege for supplies, only to be held off by Union soldiers commanded by Phil Stoneman. Ben stirs the admiration and then the cheers of his enemies by first helping a wounded Union soldier and then by defiantly dashing across no-man’s-land and jamming the pike of the Confederate battle flag into a Union cannon. Here Griffith wields but also varies a clear sense of geography, via the battlefield framed like a football field with the opponents on either side, studied first in high vistas and then long group shots, and then close studies of individual actions. At one point, the camera charges with Ben and his men, and the sequence builds to the shot of Ben at the cannon filmed from behind the cannon, capturing the pain and heroism of the gesture. This is all utterly familiar filming and editing method today, but represented the cutting edge of sophistication at the time, and moreover still shines with the peculiar intensity of real creativity. One can still almost share the effect that shot of the cannon spiking must have had in 1915, the animate drama and sensatory power of watching an actor, some sets, crew, and a strip of celluloid interact and be manipulated until it seemed as if the essence of life and death have been depicted. Whilst such oversized vignettes dominate the impression The Birth of a Nation leaves, the film is replete with testaments to the value of small gestures and fleeting, but vital, observations as part of the overall texture. There’s the droll humour of Stoneman letting Elsie fit the wig that conceals his bald pate and a guard in the military hospital sighing over Elsie’s untouchable beauty, and a purposeful linkage of images adding up to ideas, as when Ulysses Grant (Donald Crisp) and Robert E. Lee (Howard Gaye) shake hands at Appomattox, followed immediately by Ben and Elsie doing the same.
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Griffith synthesised all of this for his own satisfaction, his own family’s part in the war perhaps lingering in the vividness with which he describes the struggle as well as a sense of discovery, the first poet of a new form to describe such a vista. Tellingly, most of what comes later in adapting Dixon more directly is lacking from this part, though early scenes are interpolated depicting Lydia Brown’s Uriah Heep-like patronisation of Stoneman’s Senate opposite Charles Sumner (Sam De Grasse), alternating with her fire-eyed tantrums motivated by her evident desire to be loftier, a desire she later realises as her hold on Stoneman becomes unshakeable and she begins contemptuously ushering Sumner away. Lydia is described as using her power over Stoneman to ends that will have dire consequences, though how and why, beyond pure wilful egotism, isn’t quite described; in any event, Stoneman uses Lincoln’s assassination to begin a forced social revolution in the reconstructing states after the war. Stoneman and Lydia were clearly based on Thaddeus Stevens, leader of radical Republicans, and Lydia Smith, his housekeeper who was probably also his mistress; The Birth of a Nation implies that this fatal act of miscegenation set the stage for civil war. One revealing aspect of Dixon’s paranoid racism captured in the film is how one could easily tweak this to make it seem heroic (as Steven Spielberg would when depicting Stevens and Smith in Lincoln, 2012), in the theme of the oppressed and disadvantaged released from their shackles and using new-found power to redress the moral books, an idea which The Birth of a Nation cannot countenance, and instead hides behind mendacious suggestions that it was rather the quintessence of duplicity and anarchy.
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At the same time Griffith dissembles, referring to certain villainous black characters as “traitors to their own race” as well as to the larger nation, though the film infers that because of the bad actions of these specific wrongdoers, all must be subjugated. A clue as to how confused The Birth of a Nation is, politically speaking, is found in its treatment of Lincoln, who is described early on as trampling on states’ rights, as per Dixon’s outright Confederate propaganda, whilst his determined attempts to force the abolition of slavery are avoided altogether. (One scene purportedly cut from the remaining print after early screenings depicted a gang rape of a white woman by black soldiers with the title card “Lincoln’s solution.”) But the film also plays up the more familiar, positive image of the leader when it suits. When Mrs. Cameron (Josephine Crowell) goes to visit her son Ben in a Union military hospital, she learns he’s going to be shot, so she goes to see the President to beg for his life, and he grants her request.
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When Lincoln is killed, Dr. Cameron laments that “our best friend is gone.” The depiction of Lincoln’s assassination is a masterly set-piece from Griffith, perhaps indeed the strongest sequence in the film. Rather than merely present the famous moment as tableaux vivant, Griffith instead depicts events with a flow of documentarylike detail, generating suspense with analysis of the mechanics of the act. He notes Lincoln’s bodyguard setting himself up in the hallway outside his theatre box, but then being drawn into another booth to take a look at the play. This gives John Wilkes Booth (played by future director Raoul Walsh, who was also the husband of Miriam Cooper at the time) the chance to storm the box, his act of violence and flying leap onto the stage and infamous cry of “Sic Semper Tyrannis!” delivered at concussive speed, capturing the deliberately theatrical power of the assassin’s deed. Booth’s showmanship suits Griffith’s, whilst history weaves in with fiction: Elsie and Phil Stoneman are in the crowd, and see the whole thing, whilst the President’s murder gives Austin Stoneman his chance to push his agenda unfettered.
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One rarely contemplated aspect of The Birth of a Nation is one it shares with much of Griffith’s cinema: women were at the centre of his movies, and in many ways he helped codify the “women’s picture” with his tales of oppressed waifs, degraded mothers, and plucky gamines who soldier through trials. Whilst in hospital, Ben meets the object of his abstract obsession in the flesh, as Elsie Stoneman is working there as a nurse: Elsie forms a bond with Ben and his mother and helps her make the plea to Lincoln. The framework of Dixon’s story demands the ladies chiefly be used as threatened victims, and Griffith was always happy to serve up images of decorously beautiful young women audiences of the time loved. But Griffith emphasises the moral force of motherhood and the determined energy of the young women. Elsie, Margaret, and Flora are all as active in their way as the menfolk, absent from the battlefield, but guarding the gates of civilisation and dodging the predations of the age, as when the Cameron girls and their parents have to hide in their household cellar to avoid marauding Union soldiers in Piedmont.
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One early shot captures young Gish’s mischievous screen quality and Griffith’s feel for actors, as she sets her brother racing off and then skips and jumps her way back toward the Stoneman manse, all distracted and tomboyish energy even as she clutches a kitten and looks entirely winsome. Both Elsie and Margaret hold off the men who romance them because of their ethical dimensions: Elsie holds loyal to her father’s creed when she realises Ben has become involved with the Ku Klux Klan, and Margaret refuses Phil’s overtures in memory of her slain brothers. By comparison, the male characters, apart from Ben, are blank slates, operating robotically according to assigned identities, from the young men signing up for state-sponsored carnage to the black and half-caste characters for whom the sexual conquest of a white woman is both their most verboten and most desired object.
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As The Birth of a Nation moves into its second half, the focus shifts from war to fractious peace. It’s here the film becomes truly difficult, to say the least, both in terms of art and meaning. Griffith’s freeform exploration of the Civil War gives way to a more settled, straightforward adaptation of Dixon’s novel. Austin Stoneman relocates to Piedmont with his remaining children to oversee the Reconstruction programme being carried out by a horde of soldiers, carpetbaggers, and freedmen. Stoneman’s protégé is the biracial Silas Lynch (George Siegmann). The congressman gets him installed as lieutenant-governor with the aid of a rigged election where local citizens are refused participation whilst manipulated ex-slaves vote. All of this, the title cards inform, creates a state of lawless anarchy in the district, though little of this anarchy is actually depicted. What we do see is Ben Cameron taking inspiration from seeing a couple of white kids scare some black kids by hiding under a sheet and having the brilliant idea of applying the same principle to his brainchild. He creates a militialike force to strike back at the corrupt and chaotic regime and newly free black citizens seeking their rights without exposing themselves to reprisals: the Ku Klux Klan is born. Meanwhile, Lynch becomes increasingly megalomaniacal, believing he can use the black soldiers under his command not just to bully and oppress the Southerners but to carve out a kingdom that he will rule. He wants Elsie to be his queen, and looks for a chance to corner her, though she clearly prefers Ben. The situation comes to a head when one of the black soldiers, Gus (Walter Long), stalks Flora (played as a grown-up by Mae Marsh) with rape on his mind through the forest outside of Piedmont. Rather than submit, she jumps of a cliff. The Klan avenges her death by tracking down and lynching Gus. Lynch responds by threatening anyone proven to be participating in Klan acts with hanging. When Ben’s Klan costume is found in his house, what’s left of the Cameron family is arrested.
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The Birth of a Nation’s pretences to creating a Homeric epic of America hinge unavoidably on a slanted portrayal of events that are still somewhat ill-served by film: there is a void in cinematic depictions of the Reconstruction era, and many that do exist take a similarly Southern point of view. Perhaps, as Buster Keaton said a few years later, when he made a Confederate his hero in The General (1926), that’s because it felt unfair to many to kick the losers much more. Gone with the Wind, the film’s immediate successor both in subject and success (and another work almost certainly influenced by it), bent over backwards to avoid Griffith’s mistakes, but created some thorny issues of its own. If there’s a salutary value to the way The Birth of a Nation depicts the dankest, sleaziest, most perverse fixations of a certain brand of American bigot, it is that it properly recorded them for posterity. This allows anyone with an ounce of intellectual honesty to see the way the ideas propagated here still define many of its precepts before various masking tactics were adopted–that black men are essentially lascivious, violent apes waiting for a chance to sexually assault white women and brutalise their menfolk, that attempts to reapportion social justice for African-Americans after the war and even today only facilitate the first point, that vigilante justice by gun-toting “ordinary” people is the only force that can stop it, and so forth. In spite of the film’s controversy at the time, there was nothing particularly uncommon about the historical thesis proposed: even President Wilson, a high-minded idealist in many regards, was also a deeply racist thinker whose writings on the topic of the Klan influenced Griffith’s presentation of it. “The former enemies of North and South are united again in defense of their Aryan birthright,” a title card says late in the film when two former Union soldiers aid the Camerons in fending off the black soldiers stalking them, a line that’s deeply depressing but also perfectly revelatory.
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One of Griffith’s most brilliant flourishes, a highlight of inspiration in the second half, is woven in inescapably with racist pseudo-history: a shot of the state legislature, empty at first, transitions to a later time when the house has been filled with rowdy freedmen serving Stoneman’s political program. This is another moment one can well imagine stunning an audience in 1915. Dissolves, superimpositions, and double-exposure effects had been used before, but Griffith uses them here to create an active, purely filmic device of satirical insight, albeit a vicious, wrong one. The installed black legislators make a mockery of the solemn institution by drinking whiskey, kicking their shoes off, and generally look like they’re having a good time in a way that’s actually not so far from the Marx Brothers’ similarly anarchic treatment of such settings–except by the 1930s anarchy, at least that plied by impish white guys, was cool. One real crux of the quandary The Birth of a Nation presents is that such sensitivity as Griffith often displays can coexist with such unregenerate contempt, in the process of watching art foiled by prejudice. Perhaps the lowest point of this fantasia comes in the concluding scenes when the Klan, having restored justice and order, keep black voters from going out to vote, presenting the beginning of the century of marginalisation and depression codified under the Jim Crow regime as a heroic, even funny vignette in the film, evident in the way the black would-be voters reel out of the bars, see the hooded, armed Klansmen outside, then promptly swivel and retreat. This moment is as despicable as anything I’ve ever seen in a film.
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Ironically, most of the black roles are played by white men in blackface. Roger Ebert proposed this was because staging some of these images with real African-American actors would have been too incendiary, but perhaps it was to avoid production conflicts. In any event, the ridiculous look of these performers gives much of the film the quality of grotesque pantomime, accidentally highlighting the artificiality. The Reconstruction chapter has often been celebrated in spite of all this for exemplifying one of Griffith’s great innovations, as he cross-cuts between sectors and streams of action: the Camerons, who escape their military escort and face siege in a remote shack, Lynch in Piedmont taking Elsie captive for a forced marriage, and the Klansmen gathering and charging to the rescue. The second half, however, often feebly executed by comparison with the first, moving stolidly through its relatively few substantial plot points, with many elements left vague, like Lydia Brown’s fate. Amidst shoot-outs and rescues, the true climactic moment comes when Lynch tells Stoneman that he wants to marry a white woman. Stoneman congratulates and encourages him, but then when Lynch tells him that he specifically wants to marry Elsie, Stoneman erupts in outrage. This could easily be tweaked as a moment of satirical insight, making fun of a shallow form of white liberalism that’s perfectly okay with anything in abstract, and indeed it is after a fashion. But it’s also intended as both revelation and comeuppance for Stoneman, who is forcibly shown the logical end point of his politics, and reacts with the same natural repulsion, the storyline implies, any father would in the face of such depravity.
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Much of the plotting here is, again, standard melodrama, with Dixon’s bullshit pasted over already very familiar roles and rituals of penny dreadful villainy. What’s new, however, is that stuff is matched here to a show of filmic technique that thrilled the audience of the day and gave unto later filmmakers a blueprint of how to achieve the same result again and again. Yet it also laid the seed of warning for followers, too, in seeing just how easy it could be to follow a programme of storytelling in the new medium that could manipulate them into siding with monstrosities. The famous ride of the Klan proves rather slow and arthritic for a contemporary eye, however. Radical as such technique was, there was still a long way to go in giving this gimmick the kind of rhythmic intensity it could wield. There are some eye-catching compositions, like the Klansmen riding silhouetted against the sky on a ridgeline, but the interpersonal scenes of Stoneman and Lynch arguing and the Camerons and their comrades in the shack returns to flat, two-dimensional framings. Lynch, if he wasn’t so set on marrying Elsie and arguing with her father, could have ravaged her a dozen times by the time the Klan actually reach Piedmont. Griffith would push his new technique much farther in his follow-up Intolerance (1916), where he cross-cuts not merely related but separate scenes, but whole storylines and timeframes.
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Near the film’s very end, Griffith recaptures his visual invention as he shifts into symbolism and surrealism through visuals that evoke medieval artistic styles and literary pictorial plates: a diptych of War on horseback waving its sword over a pile of corpses, and another of Jesus reigning over a court of the faithful. Here, the feeling of cinema as art form as well as populist political sentiment are both revealed as perched on a wickedly sharp edge. Film is gaining its method and its voice at the same time as it is emerging from the influence of other art forms, and an accumulated system of meaning depending on assumptions that cinema perhaps served in part as a stronger beam of sunlight than had ever been seen before. The profound contradiction between the film’s ardent statements of pacifism and brotherhood and its equally ardent preaching of fascist, racialist hegemony is strange as well as appalling to me, as if in that disparity, if only one can grasp it, lies the seed of so much that would transpire in the 20th century. The past had been neatly reconfigured into a myth, but already new realities were pressing, begging their own mythologising.
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The Great War was raging across the Atlantic when the film was released, and surely on Griffith’s mind as he questioned “Dare we dream of a golden dawn when the bestial War shall rule no more?” in one of the film’s last title cards. So, naturally, soon the Hun would be serving the same purpose black men had in warmongering movies. At the same time, black Americans could see what many thought of them all too clearly, and found that could be a weapon that cut two ways. Griffith himself would be elevated to the stature of god-king of an art form for a short reign, but at the same time was hurt and bewildered by the forced realisation he had created something deeply troubling. He would take up the themes of prejudice, abuse, and other pressing social problems often thereafter, struggling with films like Intolerance, Broken Blossoms (1919), perhaps his best film after all, and The Struggle (1931) to come to grips with such issues. He would fail politically and commercially, but grow poetically. The conflict between this sense of achievement and the urge for atonement would define the rest of Griffith’s career.

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