American Political Movies – James Combs (1990)

  • American political movies : an annotated filmography of feature films
  • AMERICAN POLITICAL MOVIES
  • An Annotated Filmography of Feature Films
  • James Combs (1990)
  • GARLAND PUBLISHING, INC. NEW YORK & LONDON – 1990

Historians of the motion picture are fond of telling stories of the reactions of the earliest audiences to the new medium as it emerged at the turn of the twentieth century. We are still amused by the uncomprehending awe with which they greeted this spectacular experience. People ran from the theater in terror from trains approaching on the screen. Others ducked and screamed when a gun was fired at the audience. But most appear to have simply been transfixed, sitting and gazing in silent wonder at this visual marvel that brought worlds of sights, and very quickly stories, beyond their everyday existence. Some observers of these brave new “moving pictures” were exultant. “The universal language has been found!” exclaimed a spectator at an early Lumiére film.

Lillian in the hands of a German … (Hearts of The World)

The propaganda films made pacifists either cowards or naive fools, and associated the willingness to fight and die as the test of a “manly” patriotism that not only won battles but also women’s hearts and men’s admiration. The crucible of war not only would purge us of selfish or weak impulses, it also served a democratizing and moralizing purpose by bringing men together in egalitarian military camaraderie and offered an opportunity for moral regeneration of slackers, effete lounge lizards, and the sons of the idle rich. In other words, these films offered a vision of war that served domestic Progressive purposes of “moral democracy” making not only the world, but also America, safe for Wilson’s grand vision.

Hearts of the World

Perhaps the most ambitious of these war films, Griffith’s Hearts of the World (1918) is still representative enough. Shot at the behest of the British government and with Wilson’s blessing, even though he began work on it before American entry, Griffith’s story (some of it actually shot at the front) includes murderous German troops, a rape-minded German officer with designs on Lillian Gish, the mistreatment of French civilians, a French girl flogged by a boorish German sergeant, and rescue from the Hun by brave French troops. (Griffith may have overdone it: when the movie was viewed at the White House, apparently neither President nor Mrs. Wilson cared much for it.) The overall impact of these propaganda films was such that it solidified a tradition of military cooperation that would only begin to break down in the 60s.

Griffith’s famous Birth of A Nation (1915) is of interest to us here on two counts: first, because of the immediate political furor that arose over the movie, and second, because of the reactionary populism inherent in his interpretation of “progressive” history that would shape the reform program of Wilson, literally “re-forming” the State around a conception of the major political crisis of the recent past as it gave “birth” to a new society. In this view (shared in more sophisticated form by Wilson himself), the industrial North defeated the plantation South, but unleashed an uncivilized force in the freed slaves and their carpetbagger masters bent on revenge and greed. In order to restore a civilized and virtuous community, they were stopped by the vigilante action of the Ku Klux Klan, restoring the peace and virtue of community and family. The two families, one Northern and the other Southern, who reconcile and intermarry at the end stand as metaphors for the reunion of the nation founded on the natural sentiments of home and family, defeating the evils of cold-hearted-industrialism (exemplified by the Radical Republican Senator Stoneman) and alien forces (exemplified by miscegenation: villains are either mulattoes or black).

The film was an immediate sensation, and inspired protests by black and liberal groups incensed by the blatant racism of the story. With Birth, observers began to sense that the movies’ power to make a political statement and shape political consciousness was greater than anyone anticipated. Birth gave imaginative shape to not only a Progressive interpretation of the past, but also as a parable of the politics of the present. Not only did it justify the “Jim Crow” laws of the time, it also warned of the dangers of a manipulative industrial elite using power to destroy traditional bourgeois life so dear to the hearts of mythologists such as Griffith. Wilson was a spokesman for that tradition who sought, like the powerless but respectable white men of Birth, to restore a sane and understandable political order that reflected the values, and power, of the large middle class that saw itself as the backbone of the country. Birth was not only, as Wilson was supposed to have remarked, “History written in lightning”; it was also Progressive politics written in lightning, offering a parable of the righteous power of Wilson’s middle-class voting base standing for the virtue of the family-based middle against the plutocracy on the one hand and a degenerate proletariat on the other, and the possibility of a conspiratorial coalition of the two. Progressive order would now be restored, as it was in the movie, not only by concerted political action by the “good people” of the community, but by moral regeneration symbolized by the triumph of familial rectitude and the vision of pristine peace and order governed by the principles of Christ (this, recall, after bloody racial war and vigilante murder). But in the political visions of Griffith and Wilson, violence, like reform legislation, could be used both ruthlessly and morally for the Progressive cause. Birth represents something of the nostalgic and “reactionary” element in Progressivism, uniting on screen both the cinematic and political imagination of a restored and regenerate moral order.

Monte Blue – Riding to rescue Henriette Girard (Lillian Gish) – Orphans of the Storm

There is an odd sense in which the Twenties thought things foreign both a threat and a promise. For all of the audience interest in foreign aristocratic elegance, the recent bitter experience of World War I and the rise of alien doctrines such as communism in the new Soviet Union inspired moviemakers to provide negative treatment of both. The most sustained cautionary tale about the dangers of the Russian Revolution is Griffith’s parable, Orphans of the Storm (1922). Set in the French Revolution, the Revolutionaries are shown to be self-serving, vengeful, cruel, lust-crazed and murderous. The movie was shown at the Harding White House, and Griffith compared the “tyranny of small but aggressive parties” (presumably the Jacobins) who parallels a “similar condition (that) exists in Russia today.” The capitalist American fear of communism was not only economic, it was also moral, contrasting the “mobocracy” of the French Revolution as antithetical to the moderate bourgeois democracy of the United States. Russian Bolshevism, like Jacobinism before it, was characterized as an aberrant and twisted grab for power without true popular roots or legitimate purpose, a theme that would persist in political movies down to the present, justifying hostility to Soviet power and interests.

Orphans of the Storm – Filming team on the set

Both Wilson and Griffith were essentially imbued with the romantic sentimentality at the core of popular Victorianism, so dealing with the onslaught of modern urban and industrial change was difficult but compelling for them. Much of Griffith’s work deals with the tensions wrought by modernity, always coming to a resolution in which traditional morality is upheld even in the roughest of circumstances. Griffith’s subsequent work represents some of the periodic political tensions that emerged with the fear, shared by rural folk and urban reformers, that modernity would bring chaotic consequences. Many of his films, from the early Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) to “The Mother and the Law” section of his masterpiece Intolerance (1916) and subsequent films such as Way Down East (1920), deal with the “postlapsarian” world of modernity and how the moral order of “prelapsarian” tradition can be saved from ruin.

Mae Marsh – Modern Story

What is fascinating to the political observer of the times is that both Wilson and Griffith were eclipsed by events, Wilson by World War I and the impulse toward modern life that the war speeded up, and Griffith as an anachronism in the Twenties making movies about the very pastoral life and morality that the Progressive Era and the war had done so much to destroy. Intolerance is of interest not only because it is one of the greatest of all films, but also because of its immediate political eclipse and subsequent political influence. Griffith’s theme is injustice through the ages, in which innocent ordinary folk are subjected to the abuses of the powerful and haughty. His populist roots show in his depiction of the social tension between wealthy industrialists and their “society” wives against the innocent pursuits and urban travails of the new working class. But his Wilsonian ties also are clear, in that both ancient and modern rulers can be just if they are on the side of popular morality, including familial autonomy from a meddlesome, elite-sponsored welfare state and protection from the predatory powers of both industrial magnates and vice lords.

INTOLERANCE MODERN STORY

Griffith, like Wilson, still retained a kind of sentimental idealism that suggested a political coalition between benevolent authority and the virtuous individual could produce social harmony without disturbing the actual concentration of power in industrial and social elites. Still, one reason given for the box office failure of Intolerance was that the new urban middle classes just discovering movie going didn’t like the theme of industrial strife which placed culpability clearing on the shoulders of greedy and hypocritical industrialists. Too, Intolerance not only included some of the more explosive Progressive criticisms of the arrogance of power, it also proceeded on pacifist sentiment and concluded with a moving Utopian vision of a world without war. When Griffith began making the film in 1915, much of the public agreed with this sentiment, and Wilson ran for re-election in 1916 with the claim of moral superiority over the warring nations of Europe, declaring that we were “too proud to fight.” But by the time the film was released late in 1916, the public mood and political realities had changed to a bellicose and interventionist stance, and Griffith’s views seemed curiously and outdated.

INTOLERANCE MODERN STORY

Lillian Gish in Griffith movies – Photo Gallery

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