Friday, 12 June 2015

Griffith’s Gate… America (1924), BFI with Costas Fotopoulos

"You say you want a revolution…?” This film had its genesis in a letter from the Daughters of the American Revolution to Will Hays asking why there hadn’t been any major films about their revolution. This sounded wholesome enough for Mr Hays and strings were duly pulled resulting in this, what surely has to be the politest film about the war of independence.

America portrays the oppressors as a mix of mercenary Native Americans and home grown renegades led by a malevolent officer with a lust for power: Captain Butler (a quite superb performance from Lionel Barrymore). The version that was projected at the BFI seems to be the “British cut” which was toned down for domestic audiences and re-titled Love and Sacrifice. We do get the “no taxation without representation” part but the worst aspects of the war, civilian massacres and scorched earth, are attributed to rogue elements.

Neil Hamilton and Carol Dempster share a lobby card
But… let’s not go all historical or I’ll be on this for days. Needless to say, George Washington’s acceptance and return of the – surrendering – General Cornwallis's sword did not actually happen as the Brit refused to meet formally with Washington, or to attend the ceremony of surrender… Sore losers as it turned out.

The film cost United Artists around a million dollars and, whilst it didn’t do for them what Michael Cimino managed with Heaven’s Gate, it curtailed Griffith’s ability to undertake projects of similar scale in future. As with that later film, there are passages that don’t always fit the pace, as if something is still missing but the version projected was some 175 minutes long and is as close to the full-Monty we’re likely to see. I wouldn’t say it’s as good as Heaven’s Gate, but it has some stunning sequences.

Billy Bitzer is on camera to help record some full-scale battle scenes adding his own flourishes as riders are silhouetted against a dusky sky, troops advance under a dawning sun and Bunker Hill is viewed through the rigging of a British man of war. There are also a number of moments when the camera rides amongst the charging soldiers – Abel Gance was almost certainly watching – and over rough terrain when the cavalry attacks – mounted on another horse perhaps?

Bitzer's camera tracks the men and horses over battlefields
The war scenes are worth the price of entry alone and Griffith went to great pains in representing the battles of Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill. He may have had a cast of thousands rather than the tens of thousands for Birth  and Intolerance but he makes good use of them building genuine tension using his individual heroes in his usual contrapuntal way. The closing sequence sees the rebels riding hard to rescue a beleaguered fort housing their women and children. They are distracted by a skirmish with British troops before they can ride onto the fort, Griffith cuts to individual struggles and reactions, slowly people are killed and the forts begins to give way; there’s no way the rescuers can make it is there?

Carol Dempster: not Lillian but not bad either
Those individuals have often been criticised and none more so than Carol Dempster who, whilst not being Lillian Gish (a many dozens have pointed out), is Miss Nancy Montague the daughter of the loyalist Justice Montague (Erville Alderson). On this evidence I thought Carol did a swell job and it is not her acting that gets in the way of on-screen chemistry with the dashing Nathan Holden (Neil Hamilton: how good looking was Commissioner Gordon in his youth?!), it’s the story-sprawl. Then again: I believed it and realistically, it’s hard to play the American Revolution as a romance.

Brilliant Lionel Barrymore
Charles Emmett Mack is interesting as Nancy’s brother Charles a sword-wielding playboy who won’t shirk from the fight when he sees injustice for himself; he joins the rebel fight and bravely gives his life as, mortally wounded, he crawls across the battle field to hand his comrades some desperately needed gunpowder: the kind of vignette Griffith excelled at and it is well-acted.

The aforementioned Barrymore is the undoubted star performer and his centered theatrical expertise blasts most of the rest of the screen as some over-emote and generally gurn either as over-enthused baddies or misplaced comic relief.

Louis Wolheim gets mean as Capt. Peter Hare
There is some truth to his character - a native New Yorker who trained and practiced as a lawyer and became an Indian agent for the King.  This legal training did not seem to instil adherence to the concept of justice and he was indeed amongst the most hated loyalist of the region especially after his role in the 1778 Cherry Valley massacre in which a mixed force of Loyalists, British soldiers, Seneca and Mohawks under his command killed some 30 settlers, mostly women and children.

The Rebels battle through snow and flame
In the film, he is the focus for revolutionary sentiment – the taxation thing is all well and good but here’s the cutting edge of colonial brutality - leading his cartoon band of baddies into action and fuel-injecting the rebel cause as the film builds to a climax.

The scenes of the “loyalist” mercenaries attacking women and children still shock and, when they break down the fort’s outer wall, the ensuing assault on these innocents is uncomfortable to watch… maybe not so “polite” after all…

Massive set piece conflagrations abound!
America is nearly three hours long and it is tribute enough to DW that it doesn’t feel that long. Yes there were a lot of lengthy title cards and some uneven pacing but there were dramatic sweeps the equal of any contemporary in the rapidly-changing cinema of the early twenties. Some reviews of the time complained the Griffith was getting dated but isn’t that always the way when someone has been so ground-breaking – so vital… Innovation is subject to diminishing returns as others pick up, learn and refine and even the most brilliant of artists cannot maintain the same momentum. You get the feeling that DW needed time and more sympathetic collaborators – off screen – to really move on…

A tip of the hat too goes to Costas Fotopoulos who played along with remarkable energy and invention: he played a major part in helping us re-connect with the spirit of Griffith’s enterprise: bold, ambitious and with hands of steel!

The Red Man's View (1909)
Before the main film, we saw a very interesting short The Red Man's View from 1909, which showed a different side to Griffith the patriot and southern gentleman. Here he deals with the impact of the white man’s expansion on native cultures. The Indians are cruelly pushed off their land even though their chief looks close to death. The white men aim to keep young Minnewanna (Mary’s sister Lottie Pickford) but finally relent after the chief’s death and the pleading of her sweetheart Silver Eagle and (Owen Moore - Mary’s future husband).

It’s a poignant study and underplayed enough to let the audience draw their own conclusions about the film maker’s sympathies…

Lottie second left... Owen Moore in the middle, I think?
The BFI’s Griffith season continues throughout June culminating in those massive blockbusters the paved the way for tonight’s main film, Griffith’s last really big moment...

Promotional poster showing America's spectacular sequences

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