No not that one, the other one


Animated gif - Napoleon, on the platform in the National Convention in 1795, still against the excited crowd behind him, from Abel Gance’s 1927 film Napoleon

I’m publishing the occasional post from my newsletter about the history of film here on the blog. This one concerns the biggest international release of 1927. Not the biggest Hollywood release – that was The Jazz Singer. I’m reviewing that one separately. I really didn’t think I should miss the Napoléon opportunity, though, what with the Ridley Scott version soaring up the charts as we speak and everything. And this one is a very special film.

To start with, what is this film? It’s a biopic, it’s a love story, it’s pure mythography. It’s not a history. It runs to five-and-a-half hours but stops before we get to fully Continental Napoléon. In fact, he’s 27 when the film ends and still a second-ranking General making a name for himself in Italy. Gance wanted to finish the story but the talkies killed the project (the biggest Hollywood film of the same year was The Jazz Singer). We also wonder how on earth he’d have captured the peaks and troughs of the Emperor’s mighty narrative arc when he’s already given us the most dazzling, 4:1 wide-screen finale yet seen in a cinema.

Still from the finale of Abel Gance's Napoleon, showing the split-screen format tinted in the colours of the tricolour flag

What else? Continental Napoléon is present – he’s foreshadowed in a kind of dream-sequence speech he makes to all the dead revolutionaries in the empty hall of the Convention. Dead Marat asks “what are your plans, Napoléon?” and he replies “…the liberation of oppressed peoples, the fusion of great European interests, the suppression of frontiers… THE UNIVERSAL REPUBLIC!” This is the Napoléon loved by Beethoven and Goethe – but, if we’re honest, we know already that when he says ‘republic’ he means something more like “you know, a kind of Empire with a single, unquestioned Alexander-the-Great-type leader…” We learn also of his dastardly totalising ambitions for a European super-state with the free movement of persons and presumably nice burgundy Napoleonic passports – “Europe will beome a single people, and anyone, wherever he travels, will always find himself in a common father-land.”

Animated gif - in Abel Gance’s 1927 film Napoleon, hastening to the Italian campaign by carriage, writes a note using a quill pen
On his way to the Italian campaign Napoléon writes orders for amunition and supplies – and love notes to Joséphine, all dispatched by fast horse to Paris.

Also, he’s lovelorn, passionate, more self-confident than the most self-confident person you’ve ever met. Generals hardened by revolution and women by the Terror crumble before him. Within minutes of his arrival at the chaotic HQ of the Italian campaign (“the Army of Italy, without food, without clothes and without discipline”), all the grizzled Generals who’d made it clear in advance that they wouldn’t let the Corsican wipe their boots are doffing their huge, dusty hats to the new boss. One of them puts it well: “with his piercing eyes, this little stump of a man frightens me.”

Albert Dieudonné, playing the stump of a man, concerns himself with Napoléon’s authority, with his staggering resilience, his imperious, outsider presence but also with his fragility (the child actor chosen for the school scenes, Vladimir Roudenko, somehow musters the same wobbly-lower-lip grandeur – bullied but never bowed – we are already sobbing in the first reel).

History v biopic

And now some historiography. At the time of this film’s release a group of young historians in France was getting ready to turn the whole discipline upside-down. Led by Fernand Braudel, they wanted to find the long-term patterns in the histories they were telling by pulling back (zooming out?) from the stream of events and the personalities to focus on what they called the ‘longue durée’. This approach aimed to put the actions of historic figures into the social, economic and technological context and inevitably reduced the importance of individual actors – essentially the opposite of the ‘great man’ model of history that had dominated until the 20th Century (and that still dominates in more parochial British history writing).

Animated gif - close-up of Napoleon with a blue tint from Abel Gance’s 1927 film Napoleon. As he speaks his halo intensifies
With each victory Napoléon’s halo intensifies

For these historians, mostly direct contemporaries of Gance, all the conditions for a Napoléon to emerge already existed in the late 18th Century and if the coarse kid from Corsica hadn’t come along to fill the role, somebody else would have done. It’s safe to assume that Gance (and Ridley Scott) would not tolerate this very dry understanding and would rather die than demote their lead characters to mere instruments of world history. To be honest, it’s not what we want from our biopics either. This Napoléon must bestride history, colossus-like, not obey its logic.

Get on with it Gance!

Gance’s canvas is vast – he gives himself almost three standard-length features to tell the story of Napoléon’s first 27 years. Consequently, from time to time, the action slows from magisterial to ponderous. The first major battle – the siege of Toulon – where Napoléon overcomes a lazy and decadent French command and a complacent English one to take back the impregnable port, takes almost an hour. We’re given half an hour of continuous moping and adoring from afar as Napoléon develops his bid for the love of Joséphine de Beauharnais, widowed tragically during the Terror but obviously enjoying the single life in revolutionary Paris where, by the look of it, anything goes. Our hero is even trained in the art of courtship by star of the Comédie-Française (and hair innovator) Talma. The party scenes in this section of the film are like something from the Great Gatsby – there’s nudity and drunkenness – a near-orgy. We fall through a flapper wormhole and spend 15 minutes in another Paris.

Animated gif - big close-up of Josephine de Beauharnais, in a deep purple tint, played by Gina Manes in 1927 film Napoleon. She looks out from behind a fan flirtatiously
Joséphine- “What weapons do you fear most, General?” Napoléon- “Fans, Madame.”

And the object of Napoléon’s desire is a complicated woman. We’re asked to admire Joséphine’s canny navigation of the post-revolutionary hierarchy, her careful use of the elite men who fall at her feet. She is very much in control of her destiny and in no way a sure thing, even for leading suitor and man-of-the-moment Napoléon Bonaparte. Where another woman of her status – a single mother in her thirties who had only narrowly avoided the guillotine – might have yielded to Napoléon’s advances when he saved Paris from the Royalists in 1795, she holds him off until the following Spring (cue moping and adoring from afar). Hers is a character I’d love to have seen Gance develop in the sequels (Anita Brookner puts it in terms we understand: “Josephine, flirting heavily with her fan, is a vamp.”).

Split-screen destiny

Animated gif - wide, split-screen shot with Albert Dieudonne as Napoleon on a horse in the centre frame and advancing cavalry soldiers across all three outer frames

It’s not easy to decompose this movie into the standard three acts of the hero’s journey. And besides, the final act would surely belong to the next film in the sequence – part five – which was never made (and, spoiler alert, it wouldn’t have ended well). But this film’s final act is the most spectacular by far and for audiences at the end of the twenties, who didn’t want for spectacle after all, in the era of De Mille, Chaplin and Griffith, it must have been enormously exciting.

Animated gif - wide, split-screen shot with Albert Dieudonne as Napoleon in the centre frames and advancing cavalry soldiers in the outer frames - a red tint across the whole sequence

Gance and his cinematographer Jules Kruger lash together three cameras and produce something as grand as Cinemascope – twenty years before it becomes widespread – but also something that in its complexity makes ‘scope look like something primitive – a crude smearing of the image across the visual plane when set against Gance’s profound spectacle of relatedness and contrast.

Animated gif - wide, split-screen shot with Albert Dieudonne as Napoleon in the outer two frames and marching soldiers in the centre frame

And once they’ve invented the device (a critic named it Polyvision), they play with it and insert shots to create sliding and rotating tableaux as rich as a work by any contemporary IMAX artist. In one scene, Napoléon, on horseback, is flipped horizontally to provide left- and right-hand bookends to a central shot of dusty soldiers marching to their fate – it’s sophisticated storytelling but also emotionally complex – a tableau not just of events but also, somehow, of juxtaposed, contrasted and reinforcing affect. It’s a disorienting, almost delirious experience soaking up all this action – and on so many levels. In this final section, which is half an hour long, the narrative is set aside almost entirely, in favour of this unarguably new language – of spectacle but also of kaleidoscopic emotional drama – never still. I couldn’t tell you the order of events here, only that I was in awe throughout.

  • I’d love to know more about young Bonaparte Vladimir Roudenko. Looks like he never made another film and died in Paris in 1976 but there’s little else online.
  • One admiring British historian, of the more orthodox kind, has called Bonaparte ‘the enlightenment on horseback’. Hegel once saw him in person and wrote later “I saw the Emperor – this world-soul – riding out of the city on reconnaissance. It is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrated here at a single point, astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters it.”
  • The 335-minute restoration that’s on Amazon Prime and on Blu-Ray is essentially the 1981 Kevin Brownlow restoration, digitised in 2016. If you search the archives you’ll find plenty of reviews of the 1981 release in the smart papers. Brownlow’s extraordinary achievement in locating and then putting together coherently the film’s scattered fragments was recognised. It’s a masterpiece in itself. The best review I’ve read from that cycle is Anita Brookner’s in the LRB.
  • I really shouldn’t have left the music out of this review. The 1981 score is by Carl Davis and it’s a work of art in itself – linking Beethoven’s Eroica in multiple variations and a dozen other mostly French composers of the period with specially-composed material. Davis conducted the score live in the cinema for the restoration’s all-day premiere. I cannot think of a more stressful and exhausting task.
  • Jules Kruger, who photographed this extraordinary film, made dozens more and worked for over twenty years in the sound era too, all around the world.
  • Sign up for GROSS, my email newsletter journey through the history of cinema. There’s a free option for you cheapskates.
  • Here’s a list of all the top-grossing films since 1913 and here’s my Letterboxd list.
  • And here’s another top-grossing list.

Chaps in trouble

We’ve got to 1919. The officer class over-reaches itself and gets stuck on the ice. It’s a disaster but it all works out in the end.

Every year’s top-grossing movie, since 1913, reviewed. Part seven.


It’s not an adventure, most of the really dramatic events are missing, there’s far too much penguin footage and we never get to know any of the main characters – but it’s an astonishing document of Ernest Shackleton’s catastrophic 1914 expedition to the South Pole anyway.

The record we have of this wildly unsuccessful mission and the truly heroic recovery orchestrated by its leader only exists because of the photographer sent along on the boat. Frank Hurley was already an Antarctic veteran when he signed on for the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, so he knew something of what to expect.

He took with him a huge amount of absolutely state-of-the-art kit – in the present day he’d have taken crates of drones and GoPros and some kind of virtual reality rig. Everything would have been 8K for the IMAX release (there’d have been a partnership with Apple or the BBC). Hurley’s kit included his bulky ‘cinematograph machine’, a chunky 6-3/4 x 8-1/2″ plate camera and some smaller Kodak cameras, along with various lenses, tripods, and chemicals to process the film.

When Endurance finally sank, Hurley found himself wading into the icy slush that was filling the ship to rescue his exposed plates. And it gets worse: later he had to leave most of his work behind – smashing hundreds of precious glass negatives on the ice so he couldn’t change his mind about which ones to keep. That anything at all survived the arduous journey home and that we have this film to watch is another tribute to Hurley – he seeled his exposed motion picture film and all those glass plates into a tin can and soldered it shut for the journey across the ice and the Southern Ocean.

Four sepia-toned stills from 1he 1914 Shackleton film South. From top left to bottom right: Ernest Shackleton, leader of the expedition; Captain of the Endurance Captain F. Worsley, Lieutenant J. Stenhhouse, Captain of the Ross Sea vessel Aurora; Captain L. Hussey, mateorologist and banjo player

Right at the beginning of this film we meet these four sepia-toned gents. Shackleton himself, the already-famous polar explorer and leader of the expedition to cross the Antarctic (at top left) and three of his senior crew. These gorgeous, fine-grained portraits (made nearly 110 years ago) promise an encounter with the upper-class adventurers aboard Endurance. We’re set up to meet the insouciant officer class tested in the cold. But it never happens.

Hurley wasn’t a storyteller. He had no script and only a reluctant cast. Locations were provided for him by the unfolding disaster of the expedition. He was there to make a high-tech document of the triumphant high-tech crossing of the Antarctic and he plugged on, as the mission collapsed, as the beautiful ultra-modern vessel they relied on was trapped in the ice and gradually destroyed. He created some of the most memorable images of the most forbidding landscape on earth and, incidentally, a record – although a frustratingly incomplete one – of the epic human ingenuity and bloody-mindedness that brought all 28 members of Shackleton’s mission out of the wilderness two years later.

Photographer Frank Hurley shooting under the bow of the trapped Endurance
Frank Hurley shooting under the bow of the trapped Endurance

But there’s no story here. The laughing, officer-class chaps in the picture (with their fabulous upper-class teeth) are never this close to the camera again. Nor are the other ranks below them for that matter. Shackleton is seen occasionally, usually shouting instructions from an ice hummock (we learn what an ice hummock is) or through a megaphone from the top of the main-mast. Early on, before the catastrophe, we see lots of charming footage of the crew caring for the 70 sled dogs kept on-board (I’ll leave you to figure out what happened to the dogs after everything had gone wrong) and there’s evidence of a tough work regime on the ship and on the ice.

Early in the film there’s an intertitle that basically gives the game away, though, telling us what we need to know about the recklessness of the upper-class adventurers who brought all this about. It accompanies some amazing footage of a huge pod of seals sailing, let’s face it, in the opposite direction. It says:

Intertitle reads: A phenomenal sight - migration of Crab-eater seals. They knew by instincer that an abnormal season was coming and flocked North to warmer waters before the sea froze over.

So we learn that, on the way in to the ice chaos of the Weddell Sea, these pig-headed Englishmen were actually warned by the locals and yet they carried on, on into the inescapable bay.

Later it’s mostly hard yakka on the ice as the crew try first to rescue their ship and then, as it breaks up and sinks, to rescue themselves. There’s footage of the crew’s increasingly desperate efforts to rescue what they need from the listing and sinking Endurance and they try out a kind of high-tech prototype skidoo but, an intertitle explains, ‘it proved entirely unsatisfactory’. The dogs tumble down to the ice on a tight-stretched sail like passengers escaping an airliner down one of those emergency slides.

So, in narrative terms, it’s kind of a mess, but the film is never less than absolutely engaging. It’s so beautifully filmed – Hurley was an instinctive image-maker and was using an up-to-date camera and the best lenses money could buy. He processed his 35mm film using the Paget process, which applies the various lovely tints we see throughout. God knows how he managed all this on board the Endurance (amazing shots exist of Hurley – on another Antarctic mission – washing his film during processing by trailing a frame in the freezing ocean!).

And he was brave – watch this clip showing the Endurance’s solid Norwegian-made bow cutting through the ice and think about how that shot was obtained, then wait for the end of the clip and you’ll see how. Lionel Greenstreet, First Officer of the Endurance, said: “Hurley is a warrior with his camera. He would go anywhere or do anything to get a picture.” Others called him ‘the mad photographer’ (he went on to be a famous war photographer and is known today for assembling composite images from multiple negatives to achieve the drama he was seeking).

The wildlife footage is good (and it must have been startling for audiences five or six decades before the first Attenborough epic) and would have made a delightful secondary storyline if the expedition had succeeded. As it is, the long sequence of penguins and sea lions at the end is a confusing distraction from the action we know had gone on but see nothing of.

The expedition’s escape from the ice is one of the great 20th Century adventure stories and it involved an 800-mile voyage across the Southern Ocean in a hastily adapted open lifeboat (these guys named everything – huts, piles of snow, desolate camps – so this boat was called the James Caird after one of the mission’s sponsors). Hurley had to stay behind with the main part of the crew on the wildy inhospitable Elephant Island (they named their hideout under a glacier Camp Wild), so we see nothing of what must have been one of the most remarkable journeys ever undertaken. As a result the film ends in anticlimax and we have to imagine the excitement and the privations of that voyage. Likewise the four separate attempts to rescue the men left behind and Shackleton’s canny begging and deal-making with the Chilean authorities to secure the ships to do it. But there’s something profound about this giant gulf in the story, something essentially emotionally correct – properly tragic – about missing out the trauma – frostbite, hunger, anger and fear – that must really be the heart of this story.

I wanted class-war on the ice, a story about the collision of the modern and the implacable wilderness, a parable of officer-class hubris and bloody-minded courage. I got none of this but the film is glorious anyway – and gives us a preview of a whole new genre of wildlife and habitat storytelling, of filmmakers and adventurers working together to make entertainment, that these days seems to eat up most of our Sunday evenings in front of the box.

  • South is not, you won’t be surprised to learn, the actual top-grossing film of 1919. That was a Lon Chaney organised crime drama called The Miracle Man, which looks like a blast but is now considered lost. South’s listed gross of  $46,865 would have made it a pretty big deal in Britain, though.
  • The astonishing 1999 restoration of South is on the BFI Player (so you can get it on Amazon Prime if you subscribe to the BFI Channel).
  • Ernest Shackleton was nothing if not an officer and a bit of a prig. After their extraordinary escape from the wilderness he withheld medals from four crew-members he labelled as insubordinate or workshy during the expedition, including one heroic figure who was central to the whole effort and accompanied Shackleton on the epic voyage to South Georgia, Harry McNish.
  • Here’s a list of all the top-grossing films since 1913 and here’s my Letterboxd list.
  • This is the top-grossing list from which I get South’s gross income.

A fairytale, a comedy, a fantasy – and a Disney princess 20 years before Snow White

Mary Pickford was famed for playing childlike parts, flighty young women with spirit. In 1917’s The Poor Little Rich Girl, she broke new ground by playing an actual child.

I’m watching every year’s top-grossing movie, since 1913. You can get these chronological reviews in your inbox over here.


An animated GIF of silent movie actor Mary Pickford covering her mouth as she giggles in the 1917 film The Poor Little Rich Girl

Pickford turned 24 a month after the film was released but in The Poor Little Rich Girl she plays a child – to the perfect satisfaction of the rapturous audiences who made this one of the top-grossing movies of 1917.

The actual top movie of the year was Cleopatra, a huge Theda Bara historical romance that apparently cost half a million dollars to make (about the same as 1916 blockbuster 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) but it’s apparently lost, which is kind of heartbreaking.

Here, we’ve already encountered the on-screen energy and the off-screen business mind of the amazing Mary Pickford – in 1914’s Tess of the Storm Country. We know that by the time of this movie she’d already been a big star for years – since before actors were even named in the credits, in fact – and was essentially an exec on everything she was in, with huge influence over every decision. She’d weary of playing these childlike roles but she was a very pragmatic businesswoman and played essentially the same plucky adolescent until well into her thirties, by which time she was a very rich movie executive.

As in Tess of the Storm Country, Pickford dominates every scene she’s in (other actors must have had mixed feelings about joining any Pickford production – knowing they’d be definitively overshadowed but with a decent chance of a hit). In this film, directed by Frenchman Maurice Tourneur, the overshadowed roles are terrific. They have a real fairytale charm – carefully-crafted storybook archetypes: funny, sinister, cruel, playful, stern.

There are some lovely street urchins, a charming organ grinder, various prickly and supercilious servants, some authentically remote and aristocratic grown-ups. There’s no wooden line-reading here, no static theatricality. In one scene, a dozen servants, in all the costumes of a great house – chef, maid, gardener, butler, chauffeur – enter a scene in a kind of pantomine procession, snaking around the furniture in a way that’ll make you giggle. In another, those urchins party riotously in the house’s fancy garden – a place of shadows and narrow pathways and low-hanging trees – street kids but also nymphs at play.

Still from 1917 fairy tale film The Poor Little Rich Girl. May Pickford, playing a child, a tall man in a top hat, a crystal ball, a person dressed as a donkey
From the dream sequence

Pickford’s Gwendolyn spends essentially the whole of the second act in a kind of coma (for she has been drugged). The resulting dream sequence is delightful – full of proper childhood dread plus also angels and wooded glades and staircases and top hats and crystal balls and other lovely things – double-exposures and back projections are convincingly magical. She’s accompanied by a friendly plumber from real life (he keeps a length of pipe over his shoulder as a reminder) and they encounter a group of hilarious bears, a splendid pantomime donkey, two of the nasty servants who’ve been punished, one with huge ears and one with an extra scary face on the back of her head. You’ll want to watch it all again.

The movie’s visual style is spookily like a Disney film from twenty years later. Walt was 16 when this movie was released. Presumably at this point he was busy soaking up the surreal, fairytale aesthetic of this and other (mostly French?) films. Alice in Wonderland, Beauty and the Beast, Dumbo – they’re all brought to mind in the magical interiors, the light and dark of the big house and garden, the (multiple) dream scenes and in the innocence and waywardness of our ‘princess’. The director’s artful play with shadow – and with bizarre imagery – must have run in the family – Jacques Tourneur, his son, was also a brilliant stylist of light – he made the 1942 Cat People and I Walk With a Zombie.

When Gwendolyn regains consciousness and is finally released from her confinement in her family’s fancy home in the city (it’s another archetype so we don’t know where it is but it’s basically a Park Avenue mansion styled as a fairytale castle) to the countryside, audiences must have breathed a big sigh – the atmosphere lightens, the light floods in. It’s a joy (and there’s lots of fun in the mud, tree climbing and so on).

Mary Pickford was in hundreds of films – sometimes shooting two or three per week. I’m no expert but I haven’t seen a weak one yet. They must exist but there’s obviously something about this actress that makes it almost impossible to make a bad film with her in it – and her contribution is always essentially the same: generosity, vivacity, charm. Pickford was screen gold of the kind any studio would treasure.

This review turned into a disquisition on underwater storytelling

This adaptation of Jules Verne’s great submarine romance was the top-grossing film of 1916and it wasn’t even the first movie version

A poster for 1916 film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A huge octopus wraps its tentacles around a circular image of captain Nemo and crew members. Two divers, one on each side of the poster, wear old-fashioned diving helmets

UPDATE, 11 October 2023. I found an absolutely gorgeous restoration of 20,000 Leagues, also on YouTube. Watch that one instead of the horrible one linked below!

The project continues. I’m watching the top-grossing movies of every year since 1913. I’m up to 1916 and it’s a vastly ambitious (and ruinously expensive) Jules Verne adaptation.

Look, it’s not a great film – in many ways it’s horrible – but it’s a landmark in all sorts of ways, not least because of these two lads.

The Williamson brothers – what a pair of sorts

The Williamson Brothers, George and Ernest – “who alone have solved the secret of under-the-ocean photography” it says in a card at the beginning of the film – had invented a way to shoot under water (it was based on a patented invention of their father’s). It took them years to perfect it – by the time this project came around they’d shot tens of thousands of feet of film under water and released two or three one-reelers of their own using the kit in 1914 and 1915, to the amazement of audiences everywhere. This film, an early Universal production, was directed by Brit Stuart Paton, but this is really the Williamsons’ movie.

These guys are the Douglas Trumbull or George Lucas of their era – geeks who love film. The little video at the top is from the opening credits of the movie, which tells you something about their status in the project – not mere technicians. There’s a real commitment to the new tech here. The Williamsons knew that audiences were eager for new sensations and ownership of a whole new category – stories set beneath the waves – might make them some serious money. They developed a slightly unhinged, multi-year obsession with making it work. I’d like to know more about the Williamsons and suspect there’s a pretty good film in their inventiveness and their lunatic drive – perhaps made by the Coen Brothers.

A page from a 1913 Scientific American explaining the operation of the Williamson brothers' underwater filming aparatus in a series of eight photographs

The Williamson method involved a patented 30-foot long, collapsible tube (“a portable hole in the ocean“, they called it) with an iron chamber at the bottom end of it. The chamber was cranked down into the water with a camera operator crouching inside it, presumably praying the studio’s insurance was up to date (some accounts of the tech suggest it was all done with mirrors – which seems to be untrue. The detail here is pretty convincing). Specially developed film stock meant the Williamsons could achieve an exposure of 1/50th of a second, making shooting moving pictures perfectly feasible at 16 frames per second. The operator used a conventional camera and shot the undersea world through a thick glass window. No one had to get wet and no special cameras were needed. Scenes were shot in shallow, sunlit water so lighting wasn’t needed – The effect is impressive – and must have been mindblowing in a darkened cinema in 1916. Huge sharks, schools of smaller fish, a reef and a ship wreck are all seen with amazing clarity.

Look! Sharks!

The way the great sharks in particular circulate in the dappled light of the shallows and then loom menacingly out of the haze is beautiful and chilling. The intertitles use the language of the unmotivated shark attack, man-eaters, killing machines, suggesting that the irrational fear of these beasts long pre-dates Jaws – a whole new genre of fiction is proposed right here.

Later in the film, scenes are shot on the sandy bottom as if on a studio soundstage. Actors (stunt performers?) in big diving suits are directed in an awkward analogue of the dry-land process. Shooting began almost 40 years before the invention of scuba diving so these are not the diving scenes we’re all familiar with now in which actors move naturally, oriented parallel to the surface, kicking to achieve smooth motion and exploring with the freedom of a baracuda or an eel.

So the undersea action doesn’t take place in the magical unanchored world of the water column, with free movement in all directions. It all takes place in the two-dimensional setting of the sea bottom. Motion is achieved by literally walking from mark to mark (in weighted boots). Everything’s basically shifted sideways (and down a bit) to the bottom of the ocean.

Meanwhile, Paton’s artful adaptation of the Jules Verne – he blends the storylines from the original book and its sequel ‘The Mysterious Island’ and develops Nemo’s Indian Prince back-story. Also, balloonists from the Union Army, escaping a civil war ambush, crash on the island (I kid you not). There’s a strange and unsettling sequence where a ‘child of nature’, played by Jane Gail, who was already a big star (and was in 1913’s top-grossing Traffic in Souls, which I reviewed here) is bothered by various boorish and/or murderous blokes until we learn that she is actually Nemo’s daughter and the story begins to resolve itself in the standard melodramatic way. In one bizarre scene, Gail, blacked-up and wearing an inexplicable leopardskin shift, is shown how to wear trousers and a nice white shirt. She quickly takes to the new duds.

A man tries to explain clothing to a woman dressed in a leopard skin shift
Your arm goes in here

There’s much in Verne’s stories about Imperialism, liberty and self-determination. Nemo flees India after an unsuccessful uprising against British rule, he sacrifices all for the liberty of the undersea world. I can imagine a viable, low-budget remake – a festival hit with a post-colonial technofuturist vibe. Nemo was transposed, between the first book and the second, from Polish to Indian. Might he be further transposed to the role of undersea warrior for the Global South? A deep-sea superhero with an agenda?

In this film, which simplifies the geopolitics, let’s face it, the freedom idealised is not the ideal of the book’s French Republican author or even the dippy 20th Century freedom of the nature-worshipping scuba diver but the purposeful freedom of the 19th Century adventurer-explorer – conquering an unknown terrain by just walking off into it with a gun (the divers carry weapons that look like Winchester rifles from a cowboy film – we learn they’re powered by compressed air). There’s a hunting scene in which Nemo and his amazed guests stalk sharks in the manner of big game hunters on safari.

The unconstrained motion, the fish-like propulsion and the elegant forward movement of a scuba diver would have seemed weird, alienating, to audiences in 1916, as these straight-backed hunters walking the underwater range seem odd to us. If you studied the way the undersea imaginary in the movies has evolved since this film you’d presumably locate some kind of pivot – from ungainly and upright to elegant and unconstrained – in the motion of cinematic divers. But when did it occur? 1930s? WW2? Jacques Cousteau’s 1960s’? And was there a resistance to the idea that divers ought to set aside humanity’s pretty well-established bipedal mode for the swishing to-and-fro of a lower species? We’re used to it now but is there something fishy and inhuman about the movement of a scuba diver?

Pioneer scuba diver and documentary-maker Jacques Cousteau under water in a scuba diving suit
Cousteau doing his thing

20,000 Leagues wasn’t the first film set on a submarine. Interest in undersea adventures and submarine warfare was heightened by the first world war, in which both allied and German forces had used terrifying, high-tech submarines. Only a year before this film was released, 1,200 people had died when a German U-boat sank the ocean liner Lusitania off the coast of Ireland.

An illustration showing the sinking ot the ocean liner RMS Lusitania - the ship has just been struck by a torpedo and is listing dramatically to starboard. Passengers on deck are clinging to rails.

Shipping was under constant attack from the huge German submarine fleet which treated all trans-Atlantic shipping as a legitimate target. These events must have been present to cinemagoers everywhere. A submarine was a source of wonder and of dread – the autonomous drone of its day. A marauding agent of hypermodern maritime destruction (30% of the world’s merchant fleet was sunk by German U-boats during the war).

Appropriately Nemo’s submarine is run on naval lines, uniformed sailors salute and parade on the top deck (they wear a natty oversized floppy beret). The elements of the submarine narrative are all already here: hatches and airlocks, bulkheads, valves and dials. Ratings rush hither and thither with messages. There’s a periscope and a realistic torpedo room and a shiny steel torpedo (carefully polished by the crew before launch).

Illustration of the submarine Nautilus from the 1954 film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
The 1954 Nautilus was a pretty grand vessel

But this Nautilus is not really Verne’s fabulous, exotic vessel and definitely not the buttressed undersea gothic cathedral of the 1954 Disney film (this is the adaptation that’s meaningful to people of my generation – it was a fixture at Saturday morning pictures throughout my childhood). For the 1916 film a working (but non-submersible) submarine was built. It’s impressive but it’s basically a cigar-shaped boat.

The submarine Nautilus, a life-sized vessel built for the film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in 1916, on a calm sea. On the top deck a group of five me stand around.

And it’s not grand – the only concession to Nemo’s flamboyance is a saloon draped with fabrics and hung with artefacts from his past as an Indian prince (Allen Holubar, who plays Nemo, is, uncomfortably, blacked up for the role and brings a kind of Santa Claus meets Jack Sparrow energy). Nemo’s saloon is also the location of the big, round observation window at which his guests gather to watch the action outside.

And speaking of action outside, the other dramatic centrepiece of Verne’s book – the battle with the terrifying giant octopus that threatens to envelope Nautilus and swallow it whole – is here rendered as a – frankly pathetic – man-sized flapping rubber toy, something from Spongebob Squarepants – apparently controlled from the inside by an operator (and also patented by the Williamsons – these guys were the Jobs and Wozniak of silent cinema).

The movie may have cost $500,000 – enough to make a pretty professional narrative film even in the present day (almost five times the budget for D.W. Griffiths’ 12-reel epic The Birth of a Nation, released in the previous year) – but it lacks the intoxicating strangeness of the original. It’s a technological testbed for production methods that would one day become routine but it’s also a clumsily-told story and a cheesy orientalist fantasy. Performances are never better than routine and mis-en-scène is awkward and flat (although I reckon this might be more to do with the essentially impossible challenge of matching the interior narrative sequences with the sensational stuff going on through the big window out on the sea bottom). Poor Stuart Paton.

A cheesy romance, a seaside class-war, a vehicle for the biggest female star of the time

The actual top film of 1914 was an epic 23-part serial called The Million Dollar Mystery, which it turns out is lost (how do you lose 46 reels of smash hit movie history, I find myself wondering?). So, I watched the second-highest-grossing film of that year instead.

Black and white photo of actor Mary Pickford, sad and barefoot, sitting on the floor of her shanty home in the 1914 film Tess of the Storm Country

You’ll definitely like Tess of the Storm Country, but only because of absolutely magnetic Mary Pickford – in feisty waif mode, right at the centre of it – owning the whole thing really. She’s surrounded in this cheesy melodrama by many big slabs of men, implausible blocks of motion picture timber – all tragically rendered exactly identical (apart from their hats) by Pickford’s brilliance.

Three male characters from 1914 film Tess of the Storm Country, including, at right, the film's villain, a miserable capitalist called Deacon Elias Graves, who is joyfully reading the text of a law he's just had passed that will make life harder for the landless squatters on his beach-front land

They are either utterly unconvincing landless fishermen or slightly-more-convincing heartless landowners. The miserable, small-town capitalists involved live in the big house above the beach and resent the presence of the squatters below. The film was shot in Santa Monica and Del Mar, so this could literally be the house that Robert De Niro seemed so unattached to in Heat.

Robert De Niro, in silhouette, looks out of over the ocean from his modernist apartment in Michael Mann's film Heat

Of course, this big house is really a classic bourgeois pile, with a columned entrance and a carriage drive, indicating prosperity and respectability (surely demolished and replaced a dozen times since). It menacingly overlooks the strand where the fisherfolk’s makeshift camp cowers.

Two hefty gamekeepers holding a gun menace a fisherman they've detained on a rocky beach

Doing the actual menacing, down there in the lower, realm close to the sea, are various thugs in heavy suits – they are gamekeepers – circulating authentically, armed and dangerous, on the beach and in the squatters’ camp. In the exalted upper section of the narrative swooning ladies in hats and some callow students are also present. The intermixing of these two realms becomes a plot point.

The Great Train Robbery’s famous final shot

Tess of the Storm Country was directed by Edwin S Porter, a veteran who’d made his name with the extraordinary The Great Train Robbery. Pickford, who by this time was already essentially co-directing the films she was in, was unhappy with his old-fashioned ways. The Great Train Robbery was the absolute state of the art when it came out. But that was over ten years earlier and the haphazard, static, flat scene-making we see here was already very out-of-date.

The story is flat too, based on a best-selling news-stand romance by Grace Miller White. Pickford apparently disliked the crudity of this standard-issue morality tale – featuring the staples of the era’s melodramas: dignity in poverty, illegitimacy and extra-marital sex, love between classes, murder and a wrongly-convicted man. Hypocricy in authority also makes an appearance. She recognised a hit when she saw one, though, and signed on without further objection.

TV mobster Tony Soprano smokes a cigar in his swimming pool. He looks menacingly at the camera
Conflicted plutocrat

In movies of this period the wealthy could still be depicted as unproblematically wicked. These are not the ‘complicated’ villains of later eras, nor the conflicted plutocrats or tormented mobsters of post-depression or neoliberal America. These are simply capitalist thieves, exploiters of the vulnerable. In this film (as in others of the period) our principle villain, the head of the wealthy family at the top of cliffs, literally whips Pickford’s character Tessibel.

Tessibel Skinner (Mary Pickford) collapses, whipped by wicked businessman Elias Graves (William Walters). A distressed woman enters from the rear to try to stop him

It’s wooden but sometimes it’s actually clumsy too. There’s an arresting scene where Pickford sics a (very old and gentle-looking) dog on one of her gentleman harassers. She sends the dog off out of the left-side of the frame and, bewilderingly, it arrives, barely slathering, at its victim’s location also out of the left-side of the frame. Pickford then sets off by the same filmically impossible route, arriving in time to steal her pursuer’s gun and depart, with the dog, out of the right-side of the frame.

Inter-title from 1914 film Tess of the Storm Country reads, in dialect: "I know we ain't married, Ben, but yer ain't never kissed our baby since he cum."

The film was a massive hit, yielding many times its $10,000 budget. Pickford told a biographer it was “the beginning of my career.” She’d been making films for five or six years, including 75 for D.W. Griffith, so this is meaningful. It was one of the first movies to be made in the emerging Hollywood creative complex and the beaches are all Californian. The community described, though, is somewhere on the New England coast or perhaps even in the old country – the hokey dialect in the intertitles is something between West Country English and Newfoundland Irish. Or something.

A visionary work of art, a hateful apologia for slavery and Jim Crow… and a really bad film

The Birth of a Nation was the top-grossing film of 1915…

Actress Lillian Gish is at the head of a huge group of hooded KKK men in D.W. Griffith's 1915 epic film The Birth of a Nation


So I did it, I watched the whole thing. I felt obliged to, as part of my project to watch every top-grossing film since 1913 – 110 years of Summer blockbusters.

This one’s obviously different from the other films on the list. A cause célèbre, a landmark in the emergence of a new, assertive, 20th Century racism, perhaps the most famous revisionist text in history. Everything I’d ever read about The Birth of a Nation led me to believe that it was a brilliant work of art that happened to be ugly and immoral, but that’s not quite it – the film’s certainly an appalling document but, I’m now persuaded, it’s a second-rate film too.

The Birth of a Nation is obviously and in many ways a groundbreaking work – it’s the first 12-reeler (over three hours in length), it’s a complex multi-threaded narrative that sets a family drama against the epic of a country’s self-creation, it’s ambitious, self-confident and totalising.

The back-and-forth between claustrophobic living room and battlefield, rural shack and columned state capitol, tense close-up and chaotic crowd scene – is expansive and grandiloquent. The canvas is the whole history of the United States, the whole of the post-emancipation era. Griffith obviously saw himself as a Tolstoy or a Victor Hugo for the civil war and the reconstruction.

An example of the vignette technique used by D.W. Griffith in his 1915 film The Birth of a Nation - a close-up of man is seen inside an oval vignette against a black background

And the film is certainly packed with new storytelling techniques. Griffith obviously had a kind of technical intuition that’s hardly been matched since. The list of techniques we see for the first time here is long: deep-focus shots where action takes place at different depths; huge scenes in which an enormous cast is choreographed with precision; close-ups that expose character and explain motive. Montages that alternate intimate and overwhelming scale. Sets and locations are used cleverly and there’s an extraordinary sensitivity to mise-en-scène – scenes that are constructed with elaborate care at every scale.

There are breakneck moving cameras, multi-camera shots, aerial shots, mind-bending vignettes that isolate action and emotion, superimpositions and double-exposures (the bewildering final sequence that features the devil and Jesus in quick succession depends on several techniques that I feel certain are brand new).

But other aspects of the film – before we even get to its irredeemable nastiness – are odd, old-fashioned, clumsy, maddening even. Acting is uneven, stagey, 19th-Century. Performers sometimes look like they’re barely directed (especially in the big scenes). And before you argue that this is 1915, before the conventions of screen performance had solidified, contrast this film with the sophistication and subtlety of Traffic in Souls, a six-reeler that was 1913’s top grossing movie.

Still from D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation - a scene recreating the assassination of Abraham Lincoln

Interleaved with the narrative, there are some fascinating and awkward tableaux, in which scenes from the history of the period – including Lincoln’s assassination – are carefully re-staged, with actors holding static poses for an achingly long time, before the action proceeds, absurdly. These odd, static scenes – reminiscent of tuppenny fairground dioramas – are introduced with portentous intertitles (and every card bears the prominent brand of the Griffith Studio and a big logotype, just in case we forget the source of this brilliance).

And then there’s the nastiness. Beyond the grotesque and unrelieved racism that seems almost impossible to account for even from over 100 years later, we encounter an incoherent and parochial morality, a grim misanthropy masquerading as love of people and nation. The nearest thing to politics here is a kind of domestic-scale feudalism – desperate, scrabbling, landowner revanchism. Some have tried to characterise the Ku Klux Klan idealised in the Birth of a Nation as embodying some kind of benign collectivism; community volunteers turned bad – but this theory is weak and excuses the self-conscious brutality of the group and its programmatic suppression of black people. Their Christianity – which is prominent – is a deformed, dehumanised settler creed.

And, necessarily perhaps, there’s not a single sympathetic character – no one you could think of as the film’s hero or heroine. The hundreds of black actors and extras never escape caricature – they are universally monsters or idiots. The dozens of black-face actors – some made-up in paler tones to represent ‘mulattos’, most required to produce debased or retarded or violent – form a kind of shameful battalion. Lillian Gish, one of Hollywood’s first huge stars, never less than 100% committed to the drama, is asked to yell and howl and make terrifying gestures of fear and hysteria – to embody hatred.

Silent actress Lillian Gish screams at a window in D.W. Griffith's 1915 film The Birth of the Nation. In the background an actor in black-face grimaces

Griffith gives us multiple close-ups in this new style, bringing the camera as close as the optics of the period would permit – and uses vignettes to take us even closer – but the faces he asks us to contemplate are in almost every case bizarrely twisted and tormented – gurning, hysterical, weirdly sexualised, hate-filled, terrified. It’s a bizarre detail, and one I initially doubted (am I over-reading this?). Silent movies obviously require some degree of mugging, emoting, swooning, declaiming – but actors’ faces in this film are either mild and expressionless or wildly over-producing, often animalistic.

Actors are asked to make faces from a mediaeval tableau of hell. It’s one of the most striking aspects of the film, an unavoidable difficulty. The characters we come so close to and spend so much time with repel us. We leave the film indifferent to or hating Griffith’s many principle characters – even the children, even the luminous Gish.

The Birth of a Nation has spawned a whole industry of film analysis, hundreds of books and dissertations and a never-ending stream of newspaper op-eds and features, right up to the present day. When you hear a ‘debate’ about whether slavery was really that bad you’re hearing the continued influence of Griffith’s inversion of antebellum reality.

Worse, its remarkable, out-of-proportion contribution to the culture of Jim Crow reinforced segregation and probably lengthened the battle for black civil rights. At the fringes, the film continues, preposterously, to provide cover for the KKK and its culture of permanent terror. And, as a film, I want to confirm, it does not come close to redeeming itself or its creator and, in fact, is never less than horrifying and infuriating.

An organised crime drama with a dramatic police raid and an ultra-modern remote surveillance storyline

It’s called Traffic in Souls and it’s an extraordinarily modern movie a prototype for a whole new category

Still from 1913 film Traffic in Souls, showing criminals and victims gathered at the police station after the raid
Bang to rights – the pimps and crims face their accusers down at the precinct

Here’s my latest Quixotic project. I’m going to watch the top-grossing film from every year since 1913, which is when they started recording that sort of thing. I say Quixotic because this is the kind of thing I do all the time and my grand plans don’t usually come to much… I’ve got a list on Letterboxd.

Anyway, the first film is essentially a pre-code exploitation flick: kidnapping, pimps and prostitutes, corruption and hypocrisy in high places. The theme capitalises on the popular dread in this period of ‘white slavery’, what we would now call human trafficking.

This film’s got everything: almost thirty years before the first recognised film noir, fifty years before all those gritty 1970s studio explorations of urban crime and degradation. There’s cross-border organised crime, the kidnapping and trafficking of vulnerable immigrants (Ellis Island is an early location), prostitution, money-laundering, high-level corruption, the hypocrisy of the urban elite, the tense meeting of old and new money (and a fancy sweetshop that turns out to be a front for the crime gang).

Advertising poster for 1913 film Traffic in Souls. Stylised, brightly coloured, comic-book illustration shows a man in a suit wielding a long whip which snakes around the frame, terrorising a group of four young women: "A powerful photo-drama of today! 6 reels, 700 scenes, 600 players. White slave trade of New York!"
6 reels, 700 scenes, 600 players

The film has a terrific remote surveillance storyline (surely the first?) that features an audio relay between offices, a not-very-well-concealed mic, wax cylinders, a kind of recording tablet that looks a lot like an iPad. Our boyfriend-girlfriend heroes work as a team, set up their kit – laying cable, hiding bugs, swapping recording cylinders – like they’re from CSI – it’s kind of disorienting to see this ease with modern tech in a film from years before the electronic mic and the tape recorder. A wireless ship-to-shore telegram also makes an important appearance (I can imagine the producers demanding more cool tech for the younger crowd). We really are at the birth of the communication revolution – the critical evidence in the case against our villain is a wax cylinder (although there’s no evidence of a warrant so I’m worried the case might not have held up at appeal).

There’s an ‘invalid inventor’ (the heroine’s father) who is essentially a sketch for Harry Caul from The Conversation and a dramatic police raid that’s close in scale and execution to the SWAT raids of contemporary police drama. Dozens of coppers, armed with night-sticks and axes, crowd into a room at the precinct where they’re briefed by their captain about the infamy they’re about to uncover (if he actually says “be safe out there” it doesn’t make it into the intertitles). They then stream down the steps out of the station purposefully and pile into a convoy of cars. Watches are synchronised, the operation is triggered by a rooftop lookout (although he just blows his whistle, really). The raid’s denouement is dramatic (no spoilers here).

A big cast includes every possible archetype of disreputable America – the procurer, the blowsy madame, the shifty pimp, the enforcer, the hard-working immigrant, the fallen innocent, the unscrupulous middle-man, the courageous cop working on a hunch. The procurers wear nice suits and straw boaters, the enforcers trilbys or, in one case, a splendid squashed pork-pie hat. Respectable ladies and whorehouse Madames wear the same, high-Edwardian corsetry and big feather hats. Men and women alike count big wads of ill-gotten cash ostentatiously, like Scarface, and move between street corners, brothels and fancy offices with the confidence of generations of movie hoodlums.

The villain here is a wealthy man, William Trubus, a morally-bankrupt confectionery mogul whose candy business is a front for prostitution on a grand scale. If his administrative workforce is anything to go by it’s a huge enterprise. We visit a bustling office and two brothels and assume the existence of more. Nothing backstreet about this operation.

In America this is the era of the plutocrat, the robber baron and the money trust. The year of release is right at the peak of the antitrust era, the year of AT&T’s first run-in with government. In the following year the Clayton Act came into force. President Taft , who had just left office when the film came out, was an antitrust President and action against the monopolists was central to Wilson’s post-war platform too. The popular press is alive with stories about their malfeasance and their comeuppance. Trubus may be a self-made entrepreneur (there’s a storyline about the family’s introduction to society via the daughter’s marriage to “the greatest society catch of the season” – a monocled gent with no personality) but he’s uncomplicatedly wicked. Are there any sympathetic movie portrayals of businessmen from this period?

Mary and Larry, the central couple, are sweethearts – shopgirl and cop – the kind of civilian-police pairing that went on to be central to dozens of movie narratives, although this is more of a loving collaboration than the kind of messed-up marriages of more recent cop movies, where plots turn on the damage done by the pressures of being a police, by the single-minded, round-the-clock pursuit of evil, by late-night stake-outs and compulsory bourbon (see Die Hard, Heat, Mall Cop, Thunder Road, a thousand TV cop dramas). The lesson from Traffic in Souls is that the couple that polices together stays together.

There’s a very visible absence in the film, though. The figure we don’t meet is the punter. Not a single John appears. The seedy rooms and bleak hallways of the various brothels are busy with maids, pimps and prostitutes but not a customer is to be seen. Was it too much for even a pre-code feature to include the actual purchaser of sex? Would it have spoilt the neat two-sided narrative to introduce a complicating third?

Traffic in Souls is a splendid, complex, big-hearted action movie, an essentially perfect 88 minutes of entertainment from a director who, if we’re honest, didn’t really break through in his other work. When I mentioned the film on Twitter, film composer and historian Neil Brand called it “a bona fide one-off masterpiece” and used the hashtag #BetterThanDWGriffith, which is intriguing, because 1915’s biggest-grossing movie was Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, so I’ll be watching it soon.

It’s on Amazon Prime and you’ll find it on DVD here and there.

  • I don’t have a good reason for this but I like the fact that there are two Irish immigrants in the cast: William H. Turner (the invalid inventor) who was from Cork and appeared in 46 motion pictures between 1913 and 1938, and Matt Moore (the cop) from Mayo, 221 pictures, between 1912 and 1958.