In the latest installment of our Film Diary series, Sophie makes a case for the value of silent films in modern times & gives a few recommendations along the way.
I know what you might be thinking. Who in their right mind would choose to watch a movie without sound, in the 21st century? The answer is me. Now, I may not be in my right mind, but I am almost positive this is the 21st century. Even so, I believe I can make a solid case in favor of silent films. To preface, I’m not some pretentious film purist, or a person with a more-than-slightly problematic obsession with the past. And I can admit that I probably wouldn’t touch a silent film if I didn’t spend my gap year watching movies. However, after sitting through six silent films, and thoroughly enjoying five of them, I would recommend the genre to almost everyone.
This is a bold claim, I know, but I’m confident that the main reason people are scared of silent films is the very reason silent films are so compelling, multifaceted, and entertaining. In this article, I’ll detail a few big misconceptions about the genre, and offer my rebuttals using a silent film I particularly enjoyed. Even if you aren’t compelled to watch these movies anytime soon, I hope, at the very least, I can convince you of the value silent films bring to the art of cinema.
Misconception: Silent Films are Mind-Numbingly Boring & Rebuttal: The General (1926)
For those wondering how my personal tastes generally run, I’ve seen all of the films in the Marvel, Star Wars, and—my personal favorite—John Wick franchises. As an action movie lover I’ll say The General (1926) was, no lie, one of the most exciting movies I’ve ever seen. The plot is simple: A train conductor during the Civil War is on the run from the Union Army. Our protagonist, played by silver screen legend Buster Keaton, gets himself involved in some wild shenanigans that glue your eyes to the screen for every second of the 75 minute run time.
The lack of dialogue forces the film to focus entirely on the action, which just so happens to be extremely impressive. Throughout the movie, Buster Keaton performs extreme stunts on moving trains going full speed, from running atop them and jumping from one train to another—on the side of a cliff, no less—to sitting on the moving train and redirecting it from the rails. The most iconic stunt, which set production back by $42,000–around $650,000 in that time—holds the record for most expensive single shot in silent film history. Now that you’ve had a taste, I won’t tell you what happens. Going in blind was an incredible experience.
Sure, production teams today can orchestrate a scene which appears more impressive on the surface. Computer generated imagery has come a long way. We have the technology available to semi-accurately depict anything the mind can imagine. Green screens provide near perfect replication of any setting in the world. However, there is a degree of dissonance one feels when watching newer action films. Even though the shot looks perfect, it isn’t wholly authentic. Though surprised or impressed at times, the audience feels comfortable with the fact that they are watching a movie that was fabricated in a studio; thus, nothing dangerous is truly happening. You never get that feeling while watching The General (1926).
All of the stunts were shot in real time—no cuts, special effects, or stunt doubles—and you can tell; you can feel the danger, the shock, and the awe of every scene. Additionally, there are no expositional conversations or interpersonal discussions, as there is no sound. This translates to constant danger, constant shock, and constant awe. The viewer never catches a break. This makes the narrative overwhelmingly entertaining, and Buster Keaton’s performance is consistently hilarious. There is not a boring thing about this movie, and I would challenge anyone to say otherwise. If you are a fan of stunts, cinematography, and non stop action, The General (1926) does not disappoint.
Misconception: Silent Films Lack Interesting Concepts or Visuals. & Rebuttal: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)
Sunrise (1927) is a truly magical marvel of cinema. That sounds dramatic, but it’s true. The plot is fantastical, constructed from nameless archetypes and unknown settings. The story follows our protagonist as he battles with his internal sense of good and evil. There’s the “city”girl and his “country” wife, who act as the two opposing sides of the main character’s conscience. Because no words are spoken, the film must approach its broad themes of morality, love, and humanity without the typical, and at times rote, form of character development through vocalized conflict. As a result, the film strips human behavior to its essence, giving Sunrise (1927) a sense of raw and visceral emotion that draws the viewer closer to the story.
And yet, I must say the film’s crowning achievement is its cinematography. Joint cinematographers Karl Struss and Charles Rosher forged one of the best looking films I have ever seen, and probably ever will see. The two were even recognized at the 1929 Academy Awards. This innovative spectacle makes sense—for the film to be effective, it had to tell the story with every shot, instead of every line. Because of this, Sunrise is enchantingly beautiful throughout.
The overlays in particular gave the film a surreal, dream-like quality that could not be achieved in color. Every shot looks like a painting: meticulously planned, lighted, and choreographed. In the shadows and contrasts captured by the camera even the absence of full color adds a level of detail and beauty. With its cinematic complexity and stunning visuals, Sunrise (1927) withstands the test of time and challenges even the most well regarded films in terms of storytelling and cinematography. If you love film, you’ve gotta see this movie!
Misconception: Silent films Are Outdated and Lack Relatable Themes, Rebuttal: Charlie Chaplin’s Filmography
All Charlie Chaplin films are hilarious, beautifully shot, and despite their outlandish nature, full of heart. Modern Times, made in 1936, belies its rather dated origin by artfully critiquing the harmful nature of capitalism. Though almost 90 years old, Modern Times (1936) seems like it was made today, with its powerful female lead, insightful commentary on the police state, and uniquely bittersweet conclusion. This progressive streak is by no means a fluke: City Lights (1931), addresses poverty through the lens of a heartfelt romance between a blind flower girl and Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp.
Often regarded as the best silent film of all time, City Lights (1931) tells a beautiful story in a beautiful way. Many scenes follow the Tramp’s failed, but sincere, attempts to help the blind girl, which are often both humorous and endearing. For several characters these scenes are intercut with moments of sadness—tears shed after witnessing one’s home foreclosed, for instance, or the witches brew of dread and relief felt during a thankfully interrupted suicide attempt. The dichotomy between both emotions, of joy and despair, adds an emotional depth that plays out perfectly. There is no need for dialogue. In fact, dialogue would bog down the story, adding unnecessary layers to a piece already complete.
Chaplin’s films are a different kind of special, each manages to universally embody the saying “pulling on heartstrings”. The underlying themes of his works are all-encompassing and consistently relevant, whether said themes are political, emotional, or, in most cases, both. All in all he weaves together threads that everyone can identify with, threads that make it clear why Charlie Chaplin is a household name.
No doubt, silent films are intimidating, but giving them a shot can be a truly rewarding experience. These films not only give insight into the beginnings of cinema, but they’re genuinely entertaining in their own right. With most running around 90 minutes, there’s the added bonus of a very low time commitment. When you’re free, you can check out The General and Sunrise (1927) for free on Prime Video and YouTube. Modern Times (1936) and City Lights (1931) are both on HBO Max. I’m sure you’ll enjoy the watch—and of course, the bragging rights.