February 8, 2012
February 24 marks the release of Relativity Media’s Act of Valor, “a film like no other in Hollywood’s history,” as its publicity materials trumpet. The reality is Act of Valor is only the latest in a long line of movies that received help from the military, stretching back to the very beginnings of cinema.
As John Jurgensen noted in his Wall Street Journal article “Hollywood Tries a New Battle Plan,” the project started as a recruiting effort for the U.S. Navy, whose Navy Special Warfare division solicited proposals for a film that would “bolster recruiting efforts, honor fallen team members and offer a corrective to misleading fare such as Navy SEALs,” a pretty silly action movie starring Charlie Sheen.
Bandito Brothers, a Los Angeles production company run by former stuntmen Mike “Mouse” McCoy and Scott Waugh, won the bid, which gained them access to active duty SEALs as well as to military assets. They filmed what amounted to a SEAL training exercise simulating an assault on a yacht. (According to Jurgensen, the Navy ends up with “blanket footage of the exercise for use in future training.”) The Bandito Brothers team used this sequence to obtain funding for a feature which would feature active duty SEALs in seven of the lead roles. McCoy and Waugh hired screenwriter Kurt Johnstad (300) to come up with a story about a terrorist plot to smuggle suicide bombers into the U.S.
After filming ended in March, 2011, military officials screened the footage to remove potentially “sensitive tactics.” Two months later, SEALs led the strike that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden. About a month after that, Relativity Media purchased distribution rights for Act of Valor.
Act of Valor is being marketed on several keys points: the participation of real-life soldiers; the presence of military “assets” like helicopters and armored vehicles; and the depiction of approved operating procedures, like how to attack a terrorist compound in the jungle. In other words, the same key elements found in The Green Berets, a 1968 war movie directed by John Wayne. Most of The Green Berets was shot at Fort Benning, Georgia, where the Army provided helicopters, transports, and uniforms, as well as extras. (The Army would later use left-over sets for training exercises.)
An even better example is Top Gun, the Tom Cruise blockbuster that is scheduled for a 3-D upgrade sometime this year. The Navy gave filmmakers access to several F-14A Tomcats from the VF-51 Screaming Eagles fighter squadron, as well as to the aircraft carriers USS Enterprise and USS Ranger, and allowed filming during missile launch training exercises. According to this Duncan Campbell article, the Navy set up recruiting booths in the lobbies of theaters playing the movie. Paramount even offered to show an ad for the Navy before Top Gun screenings. David Robb, author of Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies, quotes an internal Pentagon memo as saying, “to add a recruiting commercial onto the head of what is already a two-hour recruiting commercial is redundant.”
To find the real roots of government cooperation with movies, we should go back to 1898, when the industry faced severe financial difficulties. After the USS Maine blew up in Havana that February, filmmakers rushed to capitalize on what soon became the Spanish-American War, faking battle footage and retitling old movies to draw in viewers.
Biograph sent cameramen to Cuba, where they were allowed to film divers working on the wreck of the Maine. They also shot in the navy yard at Newport News, Virginia, and filmed Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt outside the White House. These war films were extremely popular at theaters during a time when customers had seemed to lose patience with movies as a whole.
The cooperation between armed forces, and the government as a whole, and the film industry grew as movies matured. In 1903, Biograph made a series of 60 films for the Navy, according to film historian Charles Musser, “showing recruitment, training, the administration of first aid, and the auctioning of personal property left behind by deserters.” They were shown at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, among other venues.
During World War I, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels commissioned a feature-length documentary “to convince isolationists of the importance of building a strong American navy,” according to the National Film Preservation Foundation. Produced by Lyman H. Howe Company, the complete film is lost, but you can still see an intriguing fragment of the U.S. Navy of 1915.
William Wellman, a veteran of the previous war, directed Story of G.I. Joe, which was adapted from articles by war correspondent Ernie Pyle. (Wellman actually joined the project months after filming started, because producer Lester Cowan had halted production to revise the script.) Burgess Meredith was cast as Pyle; at that point a Captain in the Army, he was placed on inactive duty. Also in the cast: some 150 real-life soldiers, most of them veterans of the Italian campaign. They stayed at Camp Baldwin in Los Angeles for the six weeks of shooting before being deployed to the South Pacific. As Wellman wrote in his autobiography, “None of them came home.”
Of course films receive cooperation from the military all of the time, many of them not specifically related to the armed services. Blockbusters like Armageddon and Transformers and also-rans like Battle: Los Angeles got help from the military with weapons, transportation, uniforms and extras. But the military can choose not to help as well. When Stanley Kubrick filmed an attack on an Army base in Dr. Strangelove, he had to rent weapons and armor for the scene. And for Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola turned to the Filipino army for help with helicopters and weaponry.
January 27, 2012
While writing Wednesday’s post, I got into an argument with my editor about The Artist. I wanted to write that moviegoers don’t like it very much, and he countered that the film has received 10 Oscar nominations as well as generally excellent reviews.
And yet average customers—the ones who may not read film reviews and who may know next to nothing about silent film—have shown little inclination to see The Artist. At the same time, they are showering hundreds of millions of dollars on films like Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol. The Weinstein Company must be feverishly arguing about what is holding people back from The Artist. Are moviegoers afraid of black-and-white movies? Are they afraid of silent movies? Or are they afraid that The Artist is the kind of “art” that tastes like medicine, something they are supposed to take because it’s good for them?
It’s difficult to reconcile the two approaches to cinema, roughly art vs. commerce. Is a film that makes a lot of money a success? Or should we judge a film by the awards it wins? If the former is the answer, then Avatar, Titanic, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows—Part 2 are the best films ever made. If it’s awards that count, put the 1959 Ben-Hur at the top of the list, along with Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.
The industry itself is confused, and you can trace that confusion back to the very first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929. Hollywood executives awarded Wings, a popular aviation epic, something called “Outstanding Picture, Production” and Sunrise, an F.W. Murnau drama that is considered a classic now but which did poorly at the box office, “Unique and Artistic Production.” A similar situation arose in 2009, when box-office champion Avatar competed for Best Picture against critical darling The Hurt Locker.
I had a blast at Avatar and Titanic, but I don’t think any critic would argue that they are the best that cinema can do. And Ben-Hur is probably my least favorite William Wyler film, one that damaged his career. (As his daughter Catherine Wyler told me in an earlier post, “There’s no question he was written off by the critical community with this film.”) For that matter, I am ambivalent about several other acknowledged classics like Shane, Gone With the Wind and The Birth of a Nation.
Viewers are too, and who can blame them? When they’re supposed to be watching The Hurt Locker, they are more likely to be found at Avatar. Like how I’ve managed to read every Elmore Leonard novel without yet cracking open my wife’s copy of Greek Tragedies.
Critics often aren’t much help, pushing films that regular viewers don’t like while ridiculing box-office hits. In effect, they are questioning the ability of moviegoers to distinguish between good and bad. Action films in particular face a critical bias. Back in the 1970s, long before he received Oscars for films like Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood used to receive the same drubbing critics would give to Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, and Jason Statham. (“God forbid!” Bosley Crowther wrote at the possibility that A Fistful of Dollars would have a sequel. Renata Adler said The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly “must be the most expensive, pious and repellent movie in the history of its peculiar genre.” And here’s Roger Greenspun on one of Eastwood’s signature roles: “Dirty Harry fails in simple credibility so often and on so many levels that it cannot even succeed (as I think it wants to succeed) as a study in perversely complimentary psychoses.”)
To be fair, even blockbusters can leave a sour taste. Although it earned over $800 million, director Michael Bay admitted that Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen wasn’t very good.
On the other hand, no matter how hard critics insist that one film or another is deserving, customers can still ignore them. The New York Times wrote several articles about The Social Network, promoting it early on as “the film to beat for best picture at the 2011 Academy Awards.” Voters felt differently, giving the Oscar that year to The King’s Speech instead. Is one film better than the other? Viewers didn’t care much either way. The King’s Speech came in at 18th on the box-office rankings for 2010, behind Megamind and Little Fockers; at $96 million, The Social Network did even worse, falling below Yogi Bear and The Expendables.
The history of cinema is littered with films that should have been hits but weren’t. In 1944, producer Darryl F. Zanuck released Wilson, a close to three-hour biopic about President Woodrow Wilson, and spent a ton of money on publicity. Wilson received ten Oscar nominations, and won five awards, including Best Original Screenplay, but it was a resounding flop at the box office.
Or take Dodsworth (1936), one of the most mature and compelling portraits of a marriage ever to come out of Hollywood. Based on a Sinclair Lewis novel, produced by Samuel Goldwyn, and directed by William Wyler, the film received seven Oscar nominations. And yet Goldwyn complained later, “I lost my goddam shirt. I’m not saying it wasn’t a fine picture. It was a great picture, but nobody wanted to see it. In droves.”
Even D.W. Griffith struggled with his titles. He had so much trouble with 1916 epic Intolerance that he extracted an entire movie from it, which he released as The Mother and the Law.
How studios get you to spend money on their movies is too broad a topic to cover here. But it’s worth pointing out that producers use several strategies to try to gauge a film’s success, like focus groups who discuss their likes and dislikes after preview screenings. Exit polls told executives that The Social Network was not clicking with viewers (who recently gave bad grades to Steve Soderbergh’s Haywire). Exit polls come too late in the process to salvage films, but they are a good indication of whether to continue pouring advertising money after them. Many directors disdain focus groups, some insisting on contracts that give them “final cut” no matter what the polls say. But the practice extends back to the silent era, when comics like Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton would test their films before audiences in order to refine jokes and gags.
Each polling methodology has its flaws. One of the most notorious sneak previews in Hollywood history took place in March, 1942, when RKO executives showed a 131-minute version of The Magnificent Ambersons to viewers in Pomona, California. The reaction was overwhelmingly negative. As RKO chief George Schaefer wrote, “It was like getting one sock in the jaw after another for over two hours.” While director Orson Welles was off working in Brazil, RKO took an ax to the film, whittling it down to 88 minutes and releasing it as the second-half of a double bill with Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost. The lost “director’s cut” of The Magnificent Ambersons ranks with the nine-hour version of Greed as prime examples of lost masterpieces.
The choices for this year’s Best Picture Oscar may not be as stark as in earlier years, but it will be interesting to see if the winners reflect the tastes of Academy members or of the larger moviegoing public.
January 20, 2012
Watching Gina Carano work her way through the cast of Haywire is unexpectedly “satisfying,” as director Steven Soderbergh put it. In the course of the film, which opens nationwide on January 20, mixed martial arts champ Carano punches, kicks, flips, twists, and otherwise disables opponents like Channing Tatum, Ewan McGregor and Michael Fassbender.
Haywire was a chance for Soderbergh to make his own version of a 1960s action and espionage film like From Russia With Love, “probably my favorite Bond film,” as he told a audience after a preview screening last month. “I really felt there was a dearth of female action stars,” he went on. “Or at least I guess my attitude is, ‘Can’t there be more than one?’”
Soderbergh may have been singling out Angelina Jolie, one of the most bankable stars in the world on the strength of films like Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but Haywire makes a more interesting point: in the best action films, actors tend to perform their own stunts. For Soderbergh, handheld cameras, fast cutting, and heavy scoring have been “crutches,” ways of “disguising the fact that people can’t really do what’s required.”
There are plenty of female protagonists in action films: Kate Beckinsale in the Underworld series, Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, Lucy Liu in Kill Bill, Charlie’s Angels and other films. But there are very few contemporary actresses (or actors for that matter) who routinely perform their own stunts. And when they do, it’s often with the protection of special effects and CGI. As Liu said in one interview, she knows “movie kung fu,” not “real” martial arts. In her Resident Evil series, Mila Jovavich has made an effort to master the sword- and gunplay her zombie killer role requires, but still was prevented performing stunts deemed too dangerous by her producers.
Viewers can usually tell the difference between a star and a stunt double. That’s really Carano in Haywire leaping from one Dublin rooftop to another or sprinting through the streets of Barcelona, and Soderbergh stages the scenes so that she’s unmistakable. “Professional athletes carry themselves in a way that’s very difficult to imitate,” as he put it.
Another athlete broke into film in a similar manner. Five-time World Karate Champion Cynthia Rothrock signed a contract with the Hong Kong-based Golden Harvest in 1983. She made her screen debut in 1985′s Yes, Madam (also known as In the Line of Duty Part 2). Rothrock, who holds six black belts, including a sixth degree black belt in Tang Soo Moo Duk Kwan, was a star in Asia before appearing in several B-movies in the United States.
Rothrock’s costar in Yes, Madam was Michelle Yeoh, better known to moviegoers here from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (which also featured the wonderful Pei-Pei Cheng) and the James Bond entry Tomorrow Never Dies. In the 1990s, Yeoh held her own against Hong Kong’s biggest action stars, appearing with Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Donnie Yen, and others. For sheer thrills, catch the last half-hour of Supercop, in which she clings to the side of a speeding bus, falls onto the windshield of a moving car, flips over a gun-wielding villain, and then drives a motorcycle onto the top of a freight train boxcar.
Yeoh was performing in an industry that valued female action stars like Angela Mao, Pei-Pei Cheng, Kara Hui, Joyce Godenzi, and Yuen Qui. Like Jackie Chan, Yeoh took pride in performing her own stunts live, and the difference is apparent on screen. (I’ll be writing more about Yeoh’s latest film, The Lady, next month.) With the rise of wirework and computer generated imagery, however, it’s easier to stage stunts that look dangerous but are actually fairly safe.
Filmmakers in the United States once placed a premium on female action stars. Generally acknowledged as the first serial, The Adventures of Kathlyn, released in December 1913, quickly led to The Perils of Pauline, starring Pearl White. Pauline presented a new kind of screen heroine, one who could drive cars, race horses, and put up a fight when attacked. White eventually starred in nine Pathé serials, consistently ranked in the top five in motion picture popularity polls, and wrote one of the first movie star autobiographies, Just Me. Ruth Roland and Helen Holmes also starred in serials; like Mary Pickford, they portrayed women who rebelled against conventions and took control of their lives.
World War I helped end the era of serials about women. In the 1920s, screen actresses could be spunky, even tomboyish, like Pickford in Sparrows, but it took many years before they would get the chance to be action stars again.
I know it’s not fair to leave a 50- or 60-year gap in this posting, and I promise someday to write more about action in movies.
January 17, 2012
It was the highest-grossing film of the year, and helped inspire an entire genre of movies about aviation. And for several years it was one of the most difficult Best Picture Oscar winners for fans to see. Now, as part of the studio’s centennial celebration, Paramount Pictures is presenting a restored version of its World War I blockbuster Wings. The film is screening tonight at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and comes out on Blu-ray and DVD on January 24—the missing link, as it were, since it is the last of the Best Picture Oscar winners to appear on those formats in this country.
Wings helped launch several careers when it was released in 1927, including John Monk Saunders, who went on to write The Dawn Patrol, and director William Wellman, director of such classics as The Public Enemy and A Star Is Born. Nicknamed “Wild Bill,” Wellman was an ambulance driver in the French Foreign Legion before joining the Lafayette Flying Corps as a pilot after the United States entered the war. Barnstorming after the war, he met and befriended Douglas Fairbanks, who helped him get established in Hollywood.
Wings was Wellman’s first big project, and he responded by securing some of the most thrilling aviation scenes ever filmed. Seventeen cameramen received credit along with cinematographer Harry Perry, and Wellman even had cameras installed in cockpits that actors could operate. Location footage was shot mostly in Texas, where the production received the cooperation of the Army’s Second Division, garrisoned in San Antonio. As a result, a single shot in Wings might include machine gunners, a tank spinning left, planes flying overhead, a tree exploding, and a full complement of fighting troops.
Paramount was responding in part to The Big Parade, a similarly massive WWI film made by MGM the previous year. Wings starred Clara Bow, soon to be the nation’s “It” girl, as well as Charles “Buddy” Rogers (who later married Mary Pickford) and Richard Arlen, who flew with the Royal Canadian Flying Corps during the war. Arlen’s career stretched into the 1960s. Featured prominently in a key scene is Gary Cooper, on the verge of stardom after supporting roles in several movies.
Wings would be a “road show” movie for Paramount, one that would screen in big cities like New York and Chicago with a full orchestra, sound effects, and something called “Magnovision,” basically a lens attachment that enlarged the image. When Andrea Kalas, Vice President of Archives at Paramount since 2009, began overseeing the restoration of Wings, she and her staff researched periodicals and other materials to pin down exhibition details.
Kalas also spent months looking for the best possible picture elements before lab work began. “The actual process of restoring the picture and rerecording the original score took about four months,” said Kalas.
The materials presented several problems. “There was printed-in nitrate deterioration that I really didn’t think we could get past,” Kalas said. “We managed to actually fill the spaces of what the nitrate deterioration had eaten away at the image.” Special effects software enabled the team to duplicate the Handshiegl stencil process used for the original film’s bursts of color for gunfire and flames during air battles. A vintage continuity script gave the team cues for the tints used in other scenes.
Paramount not only hired a full orchestra to rerecord the original score by J.S. Zamecnik, but had Academy Award-winning sound designer Ben Burtt and the engineers at Skywalker Sound record an effects track that used authentic sounds from period library collections.
Paramount Home Entertainment is releasing a special edition of Wings on Blu-ray and DVD on January 24, but some lucky viewers will be able to see the film in theaters. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences will be screening Wings on January 18 in conjunction with “Paramount’s Movie Milestones: A Centennial Celebration,” an exhibition of photographs, posters, design sketches and personal correspondence highlighting some of Paramount’s most celebrated films and filmmakers over the past 100 years. Wings will also be showing on February 13 at the Northwest Film Forum in Seattle.
The first manned flight had occurred only about 20 years before Wings was released. For many viewers of the time, this was the closest they would ever come to experiencing what flying was like. “It was an amazing time for aviation,” Kalas said. “People were really fascinated with World War I aviation.” Wings would be Paramount’s way to cash in on that curiosity. “I think they really wanted to do The Big Parade with planes,” was how Kalas put it.
Kalas also enthused about seeing the film in a theatrical setting. “It’s a highly reactive film—there are thrills and gasps, and you really do feel the movie in a much different way when you’re seeing it with an audience.”
Interestingly, Kalas recommends viewing a Digital Cinema Print (DCP) over film. “With 35mm film, you basically have to cut off a part of the silent film frame in order to fit a soundtrack on it. With a digital cinema print, you can actually see the entire full frame silent image and hear what I think is a really incredible rerecorded soundtrack.”
Wings is one of several box-office hits Paramount released in the silent era, but only a handful are available for home viewing. “It’s hard out there for silent films,” Kalas acknowledged. “There’s preservation and restoration in archives, and then there’s the actual release of the films, and those are two different steps. We will keep preserving and restoring and hoping that people will distribute.”
December 23, 2011
By now the Yuletide studio releases have been screened for critics, and most have opened for the public, although not without some histrionics. In early December New Yorker critic David Denby ran a review of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo too early, causing producer Scott Rudin to ban Denby from future press screenings. Rudin also delayed press screenings of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close until it missed several awards deadlines. This may have been intentional: last year he was touting The Social Network, which many writers feel peaked too soon in the awards race. By holding Extremely Loud back from just about everyone, Rudin could reap publicity without having to worry about bad reviews. Now that the film’s opened, he can’t stop critics like Manohla Dargis from referring to its “stunning imbecility” and “kitsch” qualities.
My title is only somewhat is jest. If learning that a film like Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol contains a lot of action will ruin the movie for you, then stop right now. On the other hand, it’s easy to draw some generalizations about the current crop of Hollywood releases—and a little dismaying to find that the same generalizations apply almost every year.
1. Anything can explode.
I know of one talk-show host who differentiates between independent and Hollywood movies simply by explosions. In this year’s crop of big-budget productions, you can say goodbye to stately Scandinavian mansions, the Strasbourg cathedral, a Paris train station, half of the Kremlin, the World Trade Center (again), most of a Moroccan port, and a wide swath of Europe. Even J. Edgar starts off with a terrorist bombing.
Early filmmakers tried to draw viewers away from competitors by throwing money at the screen. It became a mark of prestige (and profit) to construct expensive sets, drape costly costumes on extras, flaunt excess by paying too much for actors and properties.
Filmmakers like Cecil B. DeMille helped develop a corollary to this lure: it’s even more impressive to take that expensive world you created and destroy it. To build massive sets and demolish them on screen is the fullest expression of conspicuous consumption. The history of cinema is marked by disaster epics: Intolerance, The Ten Commandments, Noah’s Ark in the silent era (although the latter had sound sequences); King Kong and San Francisco in the thirties. David O. Selznick essentially torched the RKO backlot for Gone With the Wind. Monsters tore apart entire cities in the fifties: It Came From Beneath the Sea, Godzilla, etc. In Star Wars, George Lucas could destroy an entire planet. James Cameron made a fortune flooding his Titanic sets.
CGI and digital effects have changed the equation a bit. Nowadays sets aren’t always ruined. Instead, post-production houses use computers to simulate explosions, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis. Special effects carry their own prestige, at least until they filter down to Citibank ads.
2. Longer is longer.
Size matters to filmmakers. I have to admit, 132 minutes of Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol fly by pretty quickly (until the soggy ending), but did Steven Spielberg really need 146 minutes to tell War Horse? Or David Fincher an excruciating 158 minutes for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo?
Movies used to be a minute long. But in order to tell a story more complicated than squirting a gardener with a hose, directors had to resort to longer movies. A Trip to the Moon (1902) and The Great Train Robbery (1903) both dragged on for 12 minutes. Theater owners began complaining about excessively long movies. After feature films took hold in the marketplace, directors used length as proof of how important their work was. D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) clocked in at almost 200 minutes. Next spring film historian Kevin Brownlow will be screening a 330-minute restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927).
Most films were and are much shorter, of course. Val Lewton could produce a richly textured masterpiece like Cat People (1942) in 73 minutes. But bloated films command attention: Giant (1956), 201 minutes; Ben-Hur (1959), 203 minutes; Dances With Wolves (1990), 181 minutes—before director Kevin Costner added additional footage. Even a mainstream comedy like My Cousin Vinnie took two hours to unreel.
In 2003, Hong Kong director Andrew Lau released the taut, complex police thriller Infernal Affairs at 100 minutes. By the time director Martin Scorsese remade it in 2006 as The Departed, it had swollen to 151 minutes. (Scorsese’s current Hugo lasts 126 minutes.) Terrence Malick needed only 94 minutes for Badlands, his remarkable 1973 serial killer drama. This year his The Tree of Life took 139 minutes.
3. The past is better than the present.
Of course no film can take place in the absolute present because the medium is by necessity recorded. But it’s surprising how many current releases reach back to a fairly distant past: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows; A Dangerous Method; Hugo; War Horse; The Artist; The Adventures of Tintin; My Week With Marilyn; J. Edgar; The Iron Lady.
The past is generally more expensive too (see comments above on “prestige”). The past in movies can be seen as a setting, like outer space or inner city or wilderness—a setting that has to be dressed with period props, costumes, special effects. For writers the past is a way to streamline narratives. Placing a story in Victorian England or World War II Britain is a sort of shortcut because viewers already know how the story ends. In fact, dealing with the past is easier on many counts: we can understand the past, explain it, investigate it, mold it, make it relevant to the present, turn it exotic as needed.
Last year half of the nominees for Best Picture were set in the past. But before I drag out this “past is better” argument too long, half the nominees back in 1943 were about the past as well. Forecast for future films: a lot of very long period pieces in which many things blow up.
September 21, 2011
Westerns were ubiquitous when I was growing up. On television and radio, in movie theaters, even at birthday parties, cowboys and their ilk ruled over everyone else. We couldn’t tell at the time, but it was the beginning of the end of Westerns’ cultural dominance.
You can trace that dominance back to the 17th century, when for young colonials the frontier signified everything from an evil unknown to a chance for a fresh start. Into the 19th century, James Fenimore Cooper, the Hudson River School and Manifest Destiny all pointed to what would become the defining characteristics of Westerns. We went West to find ourselves, to erase our past, to escape the law. We discovered a world of mountains and deserts, mysterious cultures, and stark moral choices. The genre became so popular in part because it was so adaptable, because it could address the central issues facing the nation. In Westerns, right and wrong could be cut-and-dried or ambiguous; Native Americans, enemies or victims; law, a matter of principle or an untenable burden.
From its earliest days, cinema turned to the West. In the 1800s, the Edison Studio filmed Annie Oakley and other stars of Wild West shows. The country’s first bona fide blockbuster, The Great Train Robbery (1903), was a Western, albeit one filmed in New Jersey. Some of the industry’s best directors started out making low-budget Westerns. John Ford for one, but also Victor Fleming, William Wellman, and even William Wyler. By the 1920s, every major Hollywood concern relied on the income from Westerns, and the genre later helped studios like Universal survive the Great Depression.
We tend to forget that for early filmmakers, the West was still real and not yet a nostalgic fantasy. An exciting new DVD set from the National Film Preservation Foundation makes this vividly clear. With over 10 hours of material on 3 discs, Treasures 5: The West 1898–1938 provides an unparalleled look at how filmed helped shape our concepts of the frontier.
The forty films in the set range from newsreels to features, with travelogues, sponsored films, documentaries, and promotional movies all providing unexpected insights into Western life. You’ll see the first cowboy stars, like the winning Tom Mix, famous for performing his own stunts; as well the expert comedienne Mabel Normand and the “It” girl herself, Clara Bow. Directors include slapstick pioneer Mack Sennett, W.S. Van Dyke (The Thin Man), and Victor Fleming (Gone With the Wind).
Equally as intriguing are the set’s lesser known titles, like Romance of Water (1931), a government-sponsored short that in 10 minutes encapsulates the political background to the great 1970s film noir Chinatown. Or Last of the Line (1914), which finds Asian star Sessue Hayakawa battling Native-Americans. Personally, I loved travelogues promoting sightseeing spots like Yosemite National Park. The women and children in Beauty Spots in America: Castle Hot Springs, Arizona (1916) are unexpectedly and appealingly giddy at the prospect of riding ponies and diving into pools. Lake Tahoe, Land of the Sky (1916) still conveys the excitement travelers must have felt at encountering the area’s incredible vistas.
Annette Melville, director of the NFPF, singled out The Better Man, a 1914 film recently repatriated from the New Zealand Film Archive. “The Better Man is fascinating because of its treatment of ethnic themes,” she said in an interview. The story contrasts a Mexican-American horse thief with an Anglo father and husband, with unexpected conclusions. “When it premiered at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival it was greeted with cheering,” Melville recalled. “It was kind of wonderful, really, no one expected that such a modest film could pack such a wallop.”
The Better Man was produced by Vitagraph, a studio considered the equal of any in the industry during the early twentieth century. Comparatively few Vitagraph titles survive, however, which is one of the reasons why The Better Man was included in the set. “We want to introduce audiences to films that there is no way on Earth they’d be able to get a hold of otherwise,” Melville said.
As Melville points out, Treasures 5: The West 1989–1938 presents a different version of the West than the one found in the classic Westerns of the 1950s. “It was more of a melting pot and had more variety,” she said. “In our set, the West was still being used as a backdrop in industrial films and travelogues to incite business and tourism. Like Sunshine Gatherers, a film about the canned fruit industry that likens the beginnings of the orchard industry to the Father Junípero Serra’s founding of missions. In the story, the fruit becomes an embodiment of California sunshine that can be put in a can and shared with people all over the world. Of course with an understated Del Monte logo because it was put out by the Del Monte company to make every girl and boy want to have their canned fruit.”