It’s so numbing and breathtaking to really think about how old some films are. It’s one thing to understand a given film is really old, but entirely another to start thinking of it in terms of actual age. To give just a few examples, The Birth of a Nation turned 100 in 2015; Le Voyage Dans la Lune is now 113; The Great Train Robbery is 112; The Big Parade is 90; and A Night at the Opera is 80. For me, one of the reasons I adore vintage films so much is because it’s like looking back in time, at a long-vanished world, with people who (overwhelmingly) have long since left this world, seeing this beautifully-preserved time capsule.
You cannot divorce something from its historical context, be it a film, book, piece of music, architectural style, religious movement, method of teaching, you name it. Sure, you can have your own reaction as a modern person, and even feel uncomfortable at certain things, but you can’t take it out of its time period and apply modern sensibilities.
With that in mind, a lot of people dismiss films past a certain age (esp. silents) as clunky products of their time, archaic dinosaurs which only weirdos would voluntarily watch when we have color and sound. First, those folks don’t understand what it was like to watch those films during their original run. Second, many of these people are judging these films without even having watched them, only having watched silent films with preconceived prejudices, or not having seen the best print, at the correct speed, with a good soundtrack. Third, it arrogantly assumes those films were only good in their time, and aren’t just as gripping and enjoyable in the modern era.
Imagine yourself watching this film in 1915:
1. Most people had never seen a film nearly so long (over 3 hours), and were used to much shorter films. While BOAN gets a lot of attention as “the first feature-length film,” that’s actually a myth. There were long films (including coverage of news events, not just fictional stories) almost from the start. As time went on and technology improved, films slowly got longer. By the 1910s, a number of countries had begun making feature-length films. However, BOAN was the first one to really get attention, just as The Jazz Singer was far from the first talkie (and in fact is about 75% silent) but the first one from a major company, with a major star, and garnering major attention.
It should also be noted that films didn’t just suddenly jump from about 10 minutes long, with some features sprinkled in, to suddenly everything being feature-length. That’s as simplistic and misinformed as believing The Jazz Singer came out and suddenly everything was immediately in sound. It was a slow transition.
2. It uses cutting-edge cinematography. Again, many other directors had used some of these innovations (such as Thomas Ince and Lois Weber), but their films hadn’t gotten that same kind of attention. Many moviegoers also weren’t familiar with those other films or directors, and so were taking note of this for the very first time.
3. Epic, gripping scenes not often seen before. We’re talking stuff like the recreation of a Civil War battle and the Klan riding to the rescue. (I cannot excuse the depiction of the Klan as knights in shining armor, but I can’t deny those are some gripping scenes masterfully choreographed.)
4. Again, a full-length, epic story. Many people were more used to short subjects with easily-resolved plots. Many early shorts are great in and of themselves, but they’re not epic tales which justify over 3 hours, with lots of subplots and ensemble casts.
5. The development of modern acting. There’s this myth that silent films are “overacted,” often parroted by folks who’ve either never seen a silent or have only seen the worst, most unrepresentative examples. Yes, it took time for film acting to come into its own and stop aping stage acting so much, but it was always developing into its own artform. In BOAN, Lillian Gish and Henry B. Walthall in particular are fantastic, with a very modern, naturalistic style.