Sunday, April 11, 2021

America (1924)

Director: D.W. Griffith                                        Writer: Robert W. Chambers
Film Score: Joseph Carl Breil                           Cinematography: G.W. Bitzer
Starring: Neil Hamilton, Lionel Barrymore, Carol Dempster and Erville Alderson

In a self-serving interview shortly after the release of the execrable Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith gushed that with the advent of cinema, public schools now could do away with history books as students need only watch films, letting them actually be there to experience history rather than simply read about it. In his words, “you will merely seat yourself at a properly adjusted window, in a scientifically prepared room, press the button, and actually see what happened. There will be no opinions expressed. You will merely be present at the making of history.” Unfortunately, we’ve nearly come to that today, where people who refuse to read get everything they know from television and YouTube videos. And since film is one of the most subjective, and least objective art forms, Griffith’s unknowing dystopian nightmare has nearly come true. America was no doubt one of Griffith’s attempts at contributing to anti-intellectual education through absorption rather than doing the work of true intellectual thought, and contrary to his contention that no opinions are expressed, proceeded to mythologize the founding of the United States as if to atone for the evil he had wrought in his white supremacist Civil War fiction of a decade earlier.

The story begins with postal rider Neil Hamilton near Boston on the eve of the battle of Lexington and Concord. He is in love with Carol Dempster from Virginia, whom he met by chance on one of his long distance deliveries. Even though she is a socialite and has little use for him beyond his occupation, he is determined to win her love. The scene then shifts to the wealthy estate of Dempster’s loyalist family, near Williamsburg, Virginia, and their guest that night, Arthur Dewey as George Washington. Then the scene shifts again, this time to England and the court of George III, played by Arthur Donaldson, whom the audience is told is plagued by evil counselors who have turned him against the colonies. Charles Bennett as William Pitt is introduced in Parliament as a friend to the colonists. Hamilton, who is also a Minute Man, is then shown at a meeting of the Sons of Liberty, and he is sent back to Virginia with word about British oppression, which stirs up an angry split in the House of Burgesses, though it’s unclear why as neither the battle at Lexington nor the occupation of Boston have happened yet. The great divide is between the loyalists in the south, and those who want rebellion in the north, and the lovers, naturally, find themselves on different sides in what is essentially Romeo and Juliet in the New World, complete with feuding families, a balcony scene, and an accidental shooting. Dempster’s family is even named Montegue.

Lionel Barrymore assumes his specialty in playing the villain, a hard-bitten Tory captain who has no love for his fellow Americans. He rounds up the Indians to help him destroy both them and the British so he can set himself up as a petty dictator. And to cap things off he also has designs on Dempster as a sexual conquest, which sets up a predictable conflict in the finale. Neil Hamilton is solid in his role as the hero, but Carol Dempster’s acting is right out of a melodrama from the previous decade. And Lionel Barrymore practically chews the scenery just in case the audience happens to forget that he’s the bad guy. The one really interesting actor in the picture, however, is Erville Alderson. At first he comes off like a French dandy from across the Atlantic, but eventually he settles into a really fascinating role and has the acting skill to pull it off. Unfortunately, he has very little screen time in the film. There is the occasional scene of genuine pathos, and even a couple of times when I laughed out loud, but those moments are few and far between and are never a result of the director’s attempts to directly manipulate those emotions. Nevertheless, the exterior scenes do create a vivid sense of the time period, but overall it’s not enough. It’s a frustrating experience because the combination of a tepid scenario and Griffith’s lack of creativity, together constitute a deficiency that can’t be overcome.

The major flaw in the film is D.W Griffith himself. He’s still in the thrall of techniques that had been pioneered decades earlier. He’s in love with long shots—most maddeningly in the interiors—to the point where some scenes have no close ups at all. The only time he ever moves the camera is when it’s strapped to a car and riding alongside horses or marching soldiers. And he seems perfectly happy with all the stationary camera shots, while ping-ponging back and forth between locations to compensate for it—a technique that was designed initially to bring some action to all of those static shots. Reading about the fact that the great director’s career declined precipitously in the twenties makes a lot of sense when this film amply demonstrates how he failed to advance with the times. In 1924 John Ford directed The Iron Horse, Buster Keaton shot Sherlock Jr. and Erich Von Stroheim created Greed. And yet Griffith was still making films the way he had in 1914 and the industry passed him by like he was standing still. The great irony in Griffith’s obsession with history is that he winds up making this film about as dull as a high school history book. Rather than finding a story within the story that has some kind of interest, he instead merely grafted the familiar Shakespearian love story onto the familiar old narrative of the Revolution. As a result, the best that can be said about the film is that it’s interesting rather than entertaining.

One of the odd things about Kino’s presentation of the film is the brief amount of time given the title cards. Most silent films on DVD tend to err on the side of staying on the cards a bit too long, but in this print huge swaths of text rush by and require repeated rewinding in order to get all of the information. Then there’s the matter of what seem to be occasional missing title cards, as well as some that don’t appear to go with the action at all or are in direct conflict with information given in others or the action on the screen. Kino silent films are usually excellent, but this one seems to have been assembled badly and is therefore full of nagging inconsistencies. There are also numerous jump cuts in the middle of scenes, which suggest that a lot of titles were removed in order to speed up a film that is already overlong at nearly two and a half hours. Because of that a lot of dialogue is left unnecessarily vague. The original score by Joseph Carl Breil and Adolph Fink is played by Eric Beheim on what sounds like a synthesized version of a Wurlitzer organ, and borders on the unlistenable. There’s a version of the same print online, using stock music from a small orchestra that, while wildly mismatched much of the time, is still infinitely better. The film also has the usual tinting, blue for night, and various other colors for exteriors and interiors, and like most tinting it’s way too saturated and could use some lightening up so that the intensity of the color layer doesn’t wind up washing out the visuals. America, Griffith’s attempt at filming a history book, is ultimately a missed opportunity, and therefore can easily be skipped without missing anything.

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