Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Cabiria (1914)

Cabiria

Director: Giovanni Pastrone

This could possibly have been the most immediately influential film of the year 1914. Often falsely credited as the “first feature film” or as the “first use of tracking shots,” it most probably introduced those concepts to many audiences and apparently also inspired Fritz Lang and D.W. Griffith at key points in their careers. Viewers familiar with Lang’s “Metropolis” will readily recognize the Temple of Moloch in this film, for example. It also introduced audiences to the Italian hero “Maciste,” who would star in literally dozens of “sword & sandal” films in the following century (many of them have been re-titled to the more familiar “Hercules” for English-speaking audiences). Here, he is cast as a slave, serving a Roman who has infiltrated Carthage during the Punic Wars. It’s also interesting in political/historical terms, for having been written by Gabriele D’Annunzio, the poet who would later inspire the early fascists with his symbolic occupation of Dalmatia. It would be a mistake to see this as a straight nationalist propaganda film, but the action and adventure is certainly steeped in the glory and romanticism of ancient Rome, and includes tropes, such as the salute and the fasces itself, that would later become important symbols. Be that as it may, the translated inter-titles, and especially the pagan prayers, are quite striking in their poetry.

Run Time: 120 minutes

You can watch it for free: here.

Some Reflections on Race

I’ve been writing this blog now for about a week, and I’m enjoying watching it grow into something interesting. I have big plans! But there are some things I haven’t yet addressed, which seem important. One of these is what century films tell us about the past in terms of racial history. Especially in American films of the period, one is sometimes brought up short by attitudes and images that would simply not be acceptable in polite society today. Seeing these movies reminds us that there was a time when the words and images we used to describe other people were rather more blunt than they are now.

In one sense, it can be good to be reminded how things have changed. Seeing a white man in blackface actually shocks us today; it didn’t then. It seems to me as if this is more true of race than, for example, gender relations, which often seem quaintly familiar to us in century films (but that’s a subject for a future blog post). We’re less likely to be shocked where less progress has happened. But, it isn’t enough to look down on our ancestors for having such primitive attitudes; part of the point of this blog is to remind us that these movies are a part of our common heritage, and the disturbing truth is that racism is a part of that heritage.

But, it isn’t the intention of this blog to simply ignore that, either. Earlier today I posted a review of Griffith’s “The Avenging Conscience,” which didn’t address the racialized character of “The Italian,” who was added to the story with no precedent from Poe. Every mention of Griffith alludes to his famous 1915 celebration of the Ku Klux Klan, “Birth of a Nation,” which, due to its release date, I get to wait a year before addressing. But we all know it’s there. What do we do with it?

I’m still looking for answers. I’ve found some of the historical reflections on DVDs about standards then and now to be informative, and I’ll try to include that as I write the reviews. It’s all too easy to let something like this become invisible, to let discussions of heritage be simplistic celebrations, devoid of analysis of the harder issues. For now, this post represents a humble attempt to open the discussion. You’re invited to comment, and I’ll see if I can think of more to say as I proceed.