When we think about film and how it portrays war, we are often led to consider many of the epic films that were released after the advent of sound in cinema. We very often forget that prior to the first hesitant steps into making talking pictures there was a rich seam of silent work which also covered war and conflict too. Many people associate the silents with slapstick, goofball comedy and little else. However, they show time and time again that dealing with difficult subjects could be done very effectively. In many ways they set the precedent for the sweeping majesty of the war films in the decades that followed. Here are three of the best silent films depicting war and its associated issues.
A divisive and explosive film, DW Griffith’s three hour film, The Birth of a Nation from 1915 is still one of the most contentious films about the civil war that has ever been made. This purely stems from the accusations of racism that were levelled at Griffith in the immediate aftermath of the film’s release. Essentially, the story centers on two families during the civil war and the aftermath – the Stonemans, a pro-Union family and the Camerons, who are pro-Confederacy. It follows their lives over several years and also depicts the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
Although an incredible success at the box office, despite its length and subject matter, Griffith ran into a great deal of trouble over his stereotypical and brutal portrayal of African Americans as violent, misogynistic and sexually depraved. For the most part, in the film, they are played by white American actors with ‘blackface’ make up, which in itself proved inflammatory and highly risible.
Griffith denied that he was a racist, he denied any wrong doing in the film, but the following year he released a film called Intolerance, which was, in many people’s eyes produced to redress the balance and show how mankind had been persistently intolerant to other races throughout the centuries.
The Birth of a Nation might be a contentious and upsetting film, but in cinematography terms it was the most complex film of the era, showcasing complex camera techniques that are now commonplace, and the use of incredibly ornate intertitles using graphic language was also a first.
To watch the full film, click here.