And now we come to the big award, the one that describes what the most “important” movie was of the year. In my not-terribly-humble opinion, of course. Here we see what movie really stands out 100 years after its release as the one to see by future generations. As with all these awards, I’m not necessarily saying “this is what would have won if there had been an Academy Awards ceremony in 1916,” I’m saying what it looks like from the current context. In that sense, these awards are more for the future than the past. In my first year, I chose “Cabiria,” the epic spectacle of Giovanni Pastrone (who also won Best Director). Last year, it was “The Cheat,” a story of betrayal and sexual dominance contrasted with racial intolerance, directed by this year’s Best Director, Cecil B. DeMille.
This year, the nominations range from the well-known to the obscure. Probably the best known movie of 1916 (and a likely winner then, despite its lack of box office profitability), is D.W. Griffith’s immense spectacle “Intolerance.” This movie has a lot in common with “Cabiria,” particularly in the massive sets used to re-create ancient Babylon. Also well known in its day was “Hell’s Hinges,” the apocalyptic Western starring this year’s Best Actor, William S. Hart. Hart & co. burned down an entire Western town to make this grand story of revenge come to life. Far more obscure, and even unreleased in its own day, we also have “The Curse of Quon Gwon,” by Marion E. Wong, who took home an award for Best Supporting Actress. While it has some technical flaws, this independent movie gives a unique look at Asian American immigrant life from the perspective of the immigrants themselves. The first British production on the list is “East Is East,” a consideration of the class system and the importance of knowing yourself which garnered several nominations, but no actual awards in other categories. Perhaps the whole could be better than its parts, as the movie is entertaining and enjoyable. “A Life for a Life,” directed by past Best Director Evgeni Bauer, won its star, Vera Kholodnaia, the Best Actress award. It depicts a tragedy on a grand scale as a woman marries for convenience, despite being in love with another man. Cecil B. DeMille took home this year’s Best Director award for his work on “Joan the Woman” as well as having directed the Best Picture of 1915. Can he secure both slots with this depiction of the life of the French saint and nationalist? The one contribution from Germany is the serial “Homunculus” which comes to us in incomplete form today, but is still viewable as a reasonably complete narrative. This was one of the first movies of the period that I ever saw, and its story of a man created by science who discovers he cannot love or be loved has stayed with more for more than a decade. Actor William Gillette brought “Sherlock Holmes” to the screen for the first time, with the authorization of Arthur Conan Doyle, after a successful stage run in the role. This movie was lost for many years, but its influence on later portrayals of the great detective cannot be denied. One of the runaway hits of the UK this year was the documentary “The Battle of the Somme,” which won an easy category as Best Documentary since that was the only one I saw this year. But, it is such a powerful and influential depiction of such an important historical event that I had to include it for consideration as Best Picture as well. One more William S. Hart movie made the list, even though “Return of Draw Egan” didn’t win in any other categories, and had few nominations. Still, it is another example of how this early film star pioneered the tropes that would become familiar in Westerns for a century, as the bad man turns good for the love of a woman and cleans up a town of desperados.
The nominees for Best Picture of 1916 are:
- “Hell’s Hinges”
- “The Curse of Quon Gwon”
- “East Is East”
- “A Life for a Life”
- “Joan the Woman”
- “Sherlock Holmes”
- “The Battle of the Somme”
- “The Return of Draw Egan”
And the winner is…”The Battle of the Somme!”
I’m breaking Academy rules by even considering a documentary in this category, but to me the best picture is the best picture, regardless of its genre or methods. Admitting that there are other movies on the list that could be argued for, in terms of scale, directing, box office success, or critical acclaim, I really felt that for a modern audience the chance to witness World War I as it happened is too significant to be ignored. All of the movies on the above list have stayed with me since I viewed them, but “Battle of the Somme” had the strongest impact. So, for this year at least, a British documentary trumps all of Hollywood’s finest product.
Thanks to everyone for reading and liking!