Art of the Moving Picture, The



As far as the photoplay is concerned, religious emotion is a form of crowd-emotion. In the most conventional and rigid church sense this phase can be conveyed more adequately by the motion picture than by the stage. There is little, of course, for the anti-ritualist in the art-world anywhere. The thing that makes cathedrals real shrines in the eye of the reverent traveller makes them, with their religious processions and the like, impressive in splendor-films.

For instance, I have long remembered the essentials of the film, The Death of Thomas Becket. It may not compare in technique with some of our present moving picture achievements, but the idea must have been particularly adapted to the film medium. The story has stayed in my mind with great persistence, not only as a narrative, but as the first hint to me that orthodox religious feeling has here an undeveloped field.

Green tells the story in this way, in his History of the English People:—

"Four knights of the King's court, stirred to outrage by a passionate outburst of their master's wrath, crossed the sea and on the twenty-ninth of December forced their way into the Archbishop's palace. After a stormy parley with him in his chamber they withdrew to arm. Thomas was hurried by his clerks into the cathedral, but as he reached the steps leading from the transept into the choir his pursuers burst in from the cloisters. 'Where,' cried Reginald Fitzurse, 'is the traitor, Thomas Becket?' 'Here am I, no traitor, but a priest of God,' he replied. And again descending the steps he placed himself with his back against a pillar and fronted his foes.... The brutal murder was received with a thrill of horror throughout Christendom. Miracles were wrought at the martyr's tomb, etc...."

It is one of the few deaths in moving pictures that have given me the sense that I was watching a tragedy. Most of them affect one, if they have any effect, like exhibits in an art gallery, as does Josef Israels' oil painting, Alone in the World. We admire the technique, and as for emotion, we feel the picturesqueness only. But here the church procession, the robes, the candles, the vaulting overhead, the whole visualized cathedral mood has the power over the reverent eye it has in life, and a touch more.

It is not a private citizen who is struck down. Such a taking off would have been but nominally impressive, no matter how well acted. Private deaths in the films, to put it another way, are but narrative statements. It is not easy to convey their spiritual significance. Take, for instance, the death of John Goderic, in the film version of Gilbert Parker's The Seats of the Mighty. The major leaves this world in the first third of the story. The photoplay use of his death is, that he may whisper in the ear of Robert Moray to keep certain letters of La Pompadour well hidden. The fact that it is the desire of a dying man gives sharpness to his request. Later in the story Moray is hard-pressed by the villain for those same papers. Then the scene of the death is flashed for an instant on the screen, representing the hero's memory of the event. It is as though he should recollect and renew a solemn oath. The documents are more important than John Goderic. His departure is but one of their attributes. So it is in any film. There is no emotional stimulation in the final departure of a non-public character to bring tears, such tears as have been provoked by the novel or the stage over the death of Sidney Carton or Faust's Marguerite or the like.

All this, to make sharper the fact that the murder of Becket the archbishop is a climax. The great Church and hierarchy are profaned. The audience feels the same thrill of horror that went through Christendom. We understand why miracles were wrought at the martyr's tomb.

In the motion pictures the entrance of a child into the world is a mere family episode, not a climax, when it is the history of private people. For instance, several little strangers come into the story of Enoch Arden. They add beauty, and are links in the chain of events. Still they are only one of many elements of idyllic charm in the village of Annie. Something that in real life is less valuable than a child is the goal of each tiny tableau, some coming or departure or the like that affects the total plot. But let us imagine a production that would chronicle the promise to Abraham, and the vision that came with it. Let the film show the final gift of Isaac to the aged Sarah, even the boy who is the beginning of a race that shall be as the stars of heaven and the sands of the sea for multitude. This could be made a pageant of power and glory. The crowd-emotions, patriotic fires, and religious exaltations on which it turns could be given in noble procession and the tiny fellow on the pillow made the mystic centre of the whole. The story of the coming of Samuel, the dedicated little prophet, might be told on similar terms.

The real death in the photoplay is the ritualistic death, the real birth is the ritualistic birth, and the cathedral mood of the motion picture which goes with these and is close to these in many of its phases, is an inexhaustible resource.

The film corporations fear religious questions, lest offence be given to this sect or that. So let such denominations as are in the habit of cooperating, themselves take over this medium, not gingerly, but whole-heartedly, as in mediæval time the hierarchy strengthened its hold on the people with the marvels of Romanesque and Gothic architecture. This matter is further discussed in the seventeenth chapter, entitled "Progress and Endowment."

But there is a field wherein the commercial man will not be accused of heresy or sacrilege, which builds on ritualistic birth and death and elements akin thereto. This the established producer may enter without fear. Which brings us to The Battle Hymn of the Republic, issued by the American Vitagraph Company in 1911. This film should be studied in the High Schools and Universities till the canons of art for which it stands are established in America. The director was Larry Trimble. All honor to him.

The patriotism of The Battle Hymn of the Republic, if taken literally, deals with certain aspects of the Civil War. But the picture is transfigured by so marked a devotion, that it is the main illustration in this work of the religious photoplay.

The beginning shows President Lincoln in the White House brooding over the lack of response to his last call for troops. (He is impersonated by Ralph Ince.) He and Julia Ward Howe are looking out of the window on a recruiting headquarters that is not busy. (Mrs. Howe is impersonated by Julia S. Gordon.) Another scene shows an old mother in the West refusing to let her son enlist. (This woman is impersonated by Mrs. Maurice.) The father has died in the war. The sword hangs on the wall. Later Julia Ward Howe is shown in her room asleep at midnight, then rising in a trance and writing the Battle Hymn at a table by the bed.

The pictures that might possibly have passed before her mind during the trance are thrown upon the screen. The phrases they illustrate are not in the final order of the poem, but in the possible sequence in which they went on the paper in the first sketch. The dream panorama is not a literal discussion of abolitionism or states' rights. It illustrates rather the Hebraic exultation applied to all lands and times. "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord"; a gracious picture of the nativity. (Edith Storey impersonates Mary the Virgin.) "I have seen him in the watchfires of a hundred circling camps" and "They have builded him an altar in the evening dews and damps"—for these are given symbolic pageants of the Holy Sepulchre crusaders.

Then there is a visible parable, showing a marketplace in some wicked capital, neither Babylon, Tyre, nor Nineveh, but all of them in essential character. First come spectacles of rejoicing, cruelty, and waste. Then from Heaven descend flood and fire, brimstone and lightning. It is like the judgment of the Cities of the Plain. Just before the overthrow, the line is projected upon the screen: "He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword." Then the heavenly host becomes gradually visible upon the air, marching toward the audience, almost crossing the footlights, and blowing their solemn trumpets. With this picture the line is given us to read: "Our God is marching on." This host appears in the photoplay as often as the refrain sweeps into the poem. The celestial company, its imperceptible emergence, its spiritual power when in the ascendant, is a thing never to be forgotten, a tableau that proves the motion picture a great religious instrument.

Then comes a procession indeed. It is as though the audience were standing at the side of the throne at Doomsday looking down the hill of Zion toward the little earth. There is a line of those who are to be judged, leaders from the beginning of history, barbarians with their crude weapons, classic characters, Cæsar and his rivals for fame; mediæval figures including Dante meditating; later figures, Richelieu, Napoleon. Many people march toward the strange glorifying eye of the camera, growing larger than men, filling the entire field of vision, disappearing when they are almost upon us. The audience weighs the worth of their work to the world as the men themselves with downcast eyes seem to be doing also. The most thrilling figure is Tolstoi in his peasant smock, coming after the bitter egotists and conquerors. (The impersonation is by Edward Thomas.) I shall never forget that presence marching up to the throne invisible with bowed head. This procession is to illustrate the line: "He is sifting out the hearts of men before his Judgment Seat." Later Lincoln is pictured on the steps of the White House. It is a quaint tableau, in the spirit of the old-fashioned Rogers group. Yet it is masterful for all that. Lincoln is taking the chains from a cowering slave. This tableau is to illustrate the line: "Let the hero born of woman crush the serpent with his heel." Now it is the end of the series of visions. It is morning in Mrs. Howe's room. She rises. She is filled with wonder to find the poem on her table.

Written to the rousing glory-tune of John Brown's Body the song goes over the North like wildfire. The far-off home of the widow is shown. She and the boy read the famous chant in the morning news column. She takes the old sword from the wall. She gives it to her son and sends him to enlist with her blessing. In the next picture Lincoln and Mrs. Howe are looking out of the window where was once the idle recruiting tent. A new army is pouring by, singing the words that have rallied the nation. Ritualistic birth and death have been discussed. This film might be said to illustrate ritualistic birth, death, and resurrection.

The writer has seen hundreds of productions since this one. He has described it from memory. It came out in a time when the American people paid no attention to the producer or the cast. It may have many technical crudities by present-day standards. But the root of the matter is there. And Springfield knew it. It was brought back to our town many times. It was popular in both the fashionable picture show houses and the cheapest, dirtiest hole in the town. It will soon be reissued by the Vitagraph Company. Every student of American Art should see this film.

The same exultation that went into it, the faculty for commanding the great spirits of history and making visible the unseen powers of the air, should be applied to Crowd Pictures which interpret the non-sectarian prayers of the broad human race.

The pageant of Religious Splendor is the final photoplay form in the classification which this work seeks to establish. Much of what follows will be to reënforce the heads of these first discourses. Further comment on the Religious Photoplay may be found in the eleventh chapter, entitled "Architecture-in-Motion."

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