Although a very dull film overall, the only redeeming feature about it is the duel between Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone. Once they both explode into the action, the film starts to take off, but a bit too late to maintain audience interest. However, the duel itself is worth noting because it comes a year after 'The Prisoner of Zenda'. Flynn and Rathbone feel each other out first before they aim for the kill. In 'Zenda' they combine their fighting with a combination of repartee and parrying. In this film it is omitted. That may be why it was a dull film overall because there wasn't sufficient dialogue to pull the whole thing together.
Throughout this film you see a constrained Bruce Lee. Lo Wei is deliberately holding him back in order to introduce him to audiences and to save the best of his fighting for the second film. What we see here is a humane Bruce Lee who has feelings, a sense of humour, enjoys sex and is in control of his temper. He strikes up a good friendship with Shu Sheng who life is eventually claimed by the antagonists. When Bruce witnesses the mistreatment of his family in the workplace, he still holds back. Until...they break his necklace. At that moment, he explodes into action with centrifugal force, picking off each opponent with pin-point accurate kicks. It is a work of art that is akin to 'Samson and Delilah'.
The 34 year old Victor Mature as Samson metes out death with energetic beauty both at his wedding feast (poor lad) and whilst bound on the road. It is an inspired moment where he unleashes an explosion of power, picking off soldier by soldier one by one. He draws them in to his own style of fighting rather than engaging in Philistine tactics, and manages to get the better of them. I love the way he hurls the sword and the spear into the backs and front of the Philistines, cutting through armour, flesh and bone. The centrifugal force that he uses to smash the skulls of the Philistines on the road is probably akin to Bruce Lee's 'The Big Boss' where he fights his way out of the ice factory. Fantastic piece of action.
Ji-Tu Cumbunka brings something to this role that would not traditionally have been there. He makes you care for a slave, and empowers him with a humanity that contemporary audiences can relate to. I like the way that as an American with a Brooklyn accent he has maintained his ancestral name. I like his voice as well. It makes you want to listen to him and follow his character right the way through to the end of the story. I read the novel and wasn't particularly impressed, but I think Ji-Tu makes all the difference. You have to choose the right actors, and those actors have to bring a lot of love to the role. Not only does Ji-Tu bring a lot of love, he's a good actor as well.
Although I'm not a fan of the Waltons, I was blown away by Ralph Waite's acting. He captures the role so perfectly that you believe his character. He brings a textured layer to the part that engages you in a way that you would not necessarily engage with the themes of the programme. I don't even listen to what the characters are saying because I'm so busy watching his delivery and the nuances that he gives his character. This series is an amazing study in acting rather than family values and a former time. Without Ralph Waite in this series it would be a dead loss. It just shows you that dialogue does not necessarily carry a series, but good acting that reaches down into the soul of the character certainly does.
After Kunta Kinte was stripped of his name and sold his soul by confessing that he was now Toby Reynolds, Fiddler now became his soul mate for life. There was a very touching moment at the end of episode 2 of 'Roots' where the Fiddler unties Kunta and offers him some comfort. Kunta's defiance of Mr. Ames displayed who the Fiddler (and the rest of the slaves on the plantation) really was. When the tears came to his eyes it also came to our eyes, and it was then that we really cared about this special relationship amongst two slaves. What other film is there where the audience cares about slaves? 'Roots: The Gift' explores their relationship in greater detail before Kunta grew up to be the John Amos portrayal in episode 3. A beautiful relationship if I may say so myself.
At last there is an adaptation of the life of Harriet Tubman, the female Moses of the mid 19th century in America. I have read all the biographies on the autobiography of Harriet Tubman and thought to myself this is very much like Cecil B. DeMille's 'Union Pacific' and the expansion of the railroad from east to west. Tubman's underground passage is from south to north, leading into Niagara Falls in Canada. There is a 'Negro Burial Ground' near Niagara Falls to this day to commemorate those who made it across the border. Now that I think about it there isn't anyone else that could play Harriet Tubman but Cicely Tyson. Apart from her accent which I can't get a hold of, I think she brings the right emotions to the part.
Without a doubt, this family saga eclipses John Galsworthy's 'The Forsythe Saga' as well as 'The Thorn Birds' and 'North and South'. All of them are dwarfed by Alex Haley's work. This offering features the last three generations after the American Civil War leading up to Alex Haley in the 20th century. He is the benchmark for 'Black Writing', family sagas and period dramas. Even the period dramas that Sidney Poitier and Hattie McDaniels appeared pales into insignificance compared with this work. More than that, this piece of entertainment delivers high quality acting, good dialogue, solid characters and engaging story lines. I had to watch this again and again to absorb it because it was so good.
Although I watched this in the early 80s I was blown away when I watched it again on DVD. Alex Haley has to be the benchmark on 'Black Writing'. He has created the genre, and any bookshop that has a 'Black Writing' section without Alex Haley's 'Roots' does not have a black writing section. 'Roots' is a period drama, historical faction, a family saga and a tome all in one. It's unfair to call it a novel because it is more than that. It stretches across seven generations from different perspectives, and therefore should be seven novels rather than one. In fact, I'd go as far to say that it was even better than the 'Star Wars' trilogy.
What you have to understand about these short films that the 34 year old D.W. Griffith was churning out twice-weekly is that his emphasis was on scenery rather than story. Let's face it, scripts before 1940 were basically stage plays, and before the talking period, scenarios were robbed of dialogue which meant that actors had to improvise under the guidance of the director. You cannot judge this short piece by the script or story, but by what the camera frames. Let's not forget that cinema at this stage was just a moving painting. Griffith was a cinematic Hogarth at this stage and used his short films as a painting. Therefore, you need to watch this offering as a painting that moves.
I didn't get this the first time round when I watched it as a teenager. Back then, I thought it was just boring viewing. Now that I have revisited it as an adult I can see what the 34 year old D.W. Griffith was trying to do. His main character is the camera rather than the actors, and it's what the camera frames that motivates him as opposed to his creative team. He's a bit like Hitchcock believing actors are merely cattle. Cecil B. DeMille also placed a heavy emphasis on scenery and what the camera can shoot. From this perspective, I enjoyed this piece of work because I understood the scenery that he was trying to embrace. Forget the fact that there was no story, the main thing was the scenery.
This nicely drawn piece presented a character that was easy to understand and identify with. It was quite realistic, and even though there was no dialogue, the story was well told in the characters. It was realistically handled for both contemporary and future audiences, mainly children rather than adults, and has a quality about it that transcends time. Although Harold Lloyd wasn't really popular as Lonesome Luke, there is something about LL that transfers itself into the glasses character (i.e. the loneliness). This is what audiences connect with because there is a loneliness in every human being that can relate to what LL has to say.
The 29 year old Basil Rathbone made his screen debut in this silent film that robbed him of his South African voice. His face is very animated, which means that you can read his emotions and inner life quite easily. His youth made him far more flexible in his range of emotions rather than the stiff he ended up in his talking pictures of the 30s and 40s. He certainly learned his trade in this film even if he didn't have presence. Without a doubt he is a professional actor with enough experience to bring to the later Sherlock Holmes films, but his projects do rely on dialogue which is why he wasn't noted in this film. Without dialogue, Rathbone is just a rank and file actor.
This four minute piece deteriorated after a promising start. It struggled to maintain audience attention because it lacked fluidity and a good narrative line. I think a re-writing of the script would have helped to improve the fluency of the story. There isn't much that you can cram into a four minute short film, but it does lend itself to the anecdotal genre. This is where the the 34 year old D.W. Griffith went wrong. He wasn't telling a story as such, he was using the time to tell an Edgar Allen Poe tale which just didn't work. The net result was a superficial effort that had strained credulity. Overall, this short piece was neither entertaining nor important enough to be entered into the Griffith canon.
Most of the 34 year old D.W. Griffith's short films look like a Victorian pageant. It is robbed of dialogue, portraying lesser personnel as sub-human. I think what was needed in this four minute piece was for the characters to be humanized in order to be more believable. There was little for me to embrace in this film because it had nothing to hold my attention. The protagonist was not a reflection of me, and basically dragged me (rather than carry me) through the plot. It was quite an alienating experience as there was nothing personal in it for me. There was no light relief, and the four minutes just plodded along. It lacked sympathy and emotional tug that would enable me to take this film to heart.
One of the great things about the short Harold Lloyd comedies is that he makes you want to get up out of your chair and jump into the action. You feel his emotions. You share his pain. He is an extension of the audience, and you immediately connect with his humanity. It's to his advantage that he is a universal character because he transcends time and culture. He provides light relief, whether he is Lonesome Luke or the glasses character. His portrayals are personal to each member of the audience that watches him, and there is something about the delivery of his performance that speaks into your own situation. He is most definitely an endearing character.
Although I am a John Wayne fan, this film was painful to watch. Which begs the question, did John Ford bring something to John Wayne's career that he didn't possess before they worked together? I would say that they both needed each other. The John Ford films without John Wayne weren't that good, and the westerns that John Wayne appeared in like this one (which were not directed by John Ford) were just as bad. So what exactly did John Wayne lack in this film? I think the non-John Ford directed John Wayne westerns lacked a story, emotional depth, colour, scenery and a bit of spectacle. Before the John Ford/Wayne collaboration, westerns were just some B picture, but what John Ford did was to give it spectacle like the Cecil B. DeMille films.
Even in his film debut at the age of 20, Cedric Hardwicke (who went on to be knighted) was as ugly as he was in later films. He was better playing the villain rather than a leading protagonist. I didn't believe the romantic interest in him because he wasn't pleasant to look at for any amount of time. There's no doubt that he is a good actor, but playing romantic parts is suspending belief too far. His good voice did not come through this film because sound was not discovered as yet. This put him at a disadvantage because all you would notice is an ugly mug. He can play a protagonist as well as an antagonist, but no kissing please. I'm sure actresses didn't find it appealing at all.
The 30 year old middle class John Wayne does not always get the scripts that endear him to universal audiences. Although he can demonstrate range in his acting abilities, when he tells a black maid that she better get out of the room before he ships her back to Africa, this immediately demonises Wayne even to his hard core fans. Bearing in mind that he married a Mexican, we do not have to be lulled into thinking that he was averse to diversity, but the scripting of this film had a lot to be desired. Both the writer and director take pride in insulting the quintessential mammy whose bustle turns out to be the rest of her body. Her eyes roll like a caricature, and the lines that she is given is unpalatable.
This six minute offering was virtually begging to be remade into a feature length during the after-life of Griffith's work. It's not a particularly entertaining piece of self-contained footage, but it does create a vocabulary for subsequent productions. It's more of a template or blueprint for how films should be made in the future rather than a presentation of entertainment. I would say that this was a skeleton whereby successive writers and directors could add the flesh and muscle to enhance the piece. These short films that the 34 year old D.W. Griffith was making in 1909 were seeds that were being scattered to generate new work rather than being the finished article.
In all of these short films that the 34 year old D.W. Griffith made in 1909, he created a vocabulary for film-making like Daniel Defoe did for novel writing. I don't particularly like this offering in the same that I didn't like 'Robinson Crusoe', but I did feel that I could do it better in the same way that I felt that I could rewrite 'Crusoe' in an improved way. What this film needed was a trans-valuation of viewpoint so that it could be digested more easily for contemporary audiences. As it stands, it is unpalatable, not because of the period or the subject matter, but just the point of view. Opinions will always shift from generation to generation, but what may have been acceptable to Griffith's generation is not so now.
This short film lends itself to be refashioned in later projects by successive writers and directors. The 34 year old D.W. Griffith provides the bare bones of a model for film-making to be fully realized in subsequent projects. I would regard Griffith as a filmic Daniel Defoe because he creates a vocabulary rather than a story for future filmmakers to aspire to. I personally would remake this film from the viewpoint of Mack Sennett's character rather than John Cumpson's character in order to add diversity to the piece. This will enable the viewer to see the plot from the inside rather than the outside.
One of the things that struck audiences about the fresh faced Henry Fonda in the first years of his acting career was the fact that his persona, rather than his acting, represented the spirit of America. In films like this one, you don't go away thinking what a great actor Henry Fonda was, but you do feel that he embodied how Americans saw themselves at that time. It's almost as though nature had imposed itself upon him and made Henry Fonda the victim of hero worship. I personally don't think that he brought anything to this film except a fresh face. He was noticed by John Ford who also saw in him the face of America, and exploited it in subsequent productions.
Richard Thorpe wrote and directed this silent film in order to learn the visual language of subjective camera. He paints a portrait like an artist in this film, applying careful brush strokes to narrate the story. His silent films do not belong in his canon of films except to note that he did make some silent projects where he learned his trade. He did bring a sense of adventure to this offering which was his unique selling proposition. I'm not too sure how much of a good writer he was as he only co-wrote this film. My personal opinion is that he was a better director than writer in the long run as he has an eye for period pieces..
This eleven minute offering presents too many cardboard characters from the East Coast. It places a heavy emphasis on stage animation rather than focusing on narrative. The love interest between Frank Powell and Mary Pickford is contrived and unconvincing. Powell is not only an unlikeable character, he comes across as quite arrogant and unengaging. He didn't endear himself to me, although I still think that Pickford delivered a good performance. The 34 year old D.W. Griffith still cannot get out of the habit of presenting ethnic stereotype characters are simple, inferior and laughable. The film keeps changing viewpoint, making you uncertain of whose perspective this is being told from. Obviously the director's.