Saturday, 6 November 2010

Film's first American Civil War film - 1910 - The House with Closed Shutters - D.W. Griffith

             One of the unique characteristics of the great directors of the early silent era is the sheer breadth of material that their earliest films covered. Both Griffith and Feuillade spent the first few years of the second decade of the twentieth century honing their craft in a variety of genres and topics in order to allow them to both deliver their seminal works half a decade later.

            Thus far, we have seen Griffith portray a parable on greed and the kidnapping of a young child. In Griffith’s third film on the Film: Ab Initio list, The House with Closed Shutters, Griffith now tackles the subject matter of his most famous film the Birth of a Nation: the Civil War.

            The film tells the story of a confederate soldier who abandons his fellow soldiers in the midst of battle and returns home, only to be replaced by his sister (in what is the first example of cross dressing that we have seen on the Film: Ab Initio list). When she is killed in battle and the soldiers assume that he has died a heroic death, his mother closes her son off from the world to ensure that his cowardice does not shame their family.

            Just from summarising the film’s brief plot, it is clear that film is gravitating towards the concept of a steam-lined linear narrative. Whereas in earlier films, the plot is often more dispersed and episodic (see early films like La Presa Di Roma, Alice in Wonderland and Ben Hur), whereas The House with Closed Shutters involves a more ‘straightforward’ story in the sense that we might expect from any mainstream Hollywood film of the last seventy years.  

Griffith’s eye for iconic imagery that heightens the emotive intensity of his film making is apparent in The House with Closed Shutters. The strongest example of this is the relationship between the confederate flag and the heroic sister. The film opens with the emblematic image of the confederate flag being sewed by the soldier’s sister (see image above). She is next seen with the flag when she has taken the place of her brother on the battlefield, where she recklessly carries it beyond the soldiers in front of her and is shot down by the opposing forces (see image below).

Griffith’s perceived racism is well documented, but in this instance Griffith must be commended for allowing his female protagonist possess the valour and bravery that the male protagonist lacks. Given that in the US, women would not be permitted to join the military in roles other than nurses until 1940 when the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) was formed and that they would have to wait until 1978 to serve alongside their fellow male troops; Griffith deserves credit for making this bold move.

The film’s most impressive scenes involve the complex choreography of the battle scenes. Griffith portrays a carnage filled battlefield with great success; although smoke covers up much of the immediate image as the Confederate forces fire at their enemy, the image of the Yankees emerging from the smoke to viciously overrun their opposing forces is one of early cinema’s most iconic images.

For not only does this scene herald the charge of the Yankee forces, it also symbolises the imminent dominance of American cinema that would go on to be unchallenged for close to a century. Film allows America to indulge in mythopoesis in the newest of artistic mediums, thus allowing American national events of significance, such as the American Civil War, to have a resounding effect on the rest of the globe.

The film’s least enjoyable moments occur in the protagonist’s house; they allow the actors to indulge in overacting and often seem overly long when they are compared to the relentless pace of the battle scenes.

Overall, the film is essential viewing for anyone who is interested in the genesis of American cinema. It is clear that Griffith revels in telling stories about the Civil War, and the high quality of the best parts of The House with the Closed Shutters make it unsurprising that Griffith returned to the same subject matter almost half a decade later.  


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