Orphans of the Storm (1921)

D.W. Griffith was nothing if not forthright about his view of political revolution, as expressed in this film’s opening titles: that sort of thing was all fine and well for the French, but heaven forfend such a thing should ever happen in the US. (There’s a certain mild irony in the way a nation founded in a revolution should then be so afraid of another one happening there—or anywhere else unless it suits their purposes for it to happen—but I suppose that’s always been the problem with revolutionary politics: no one stays a revolutionary once they’re actually in power…) The badness of pre-revolutionary government is something constantly underlined throughout this tale of two young girls with tragically piss-poor timing. Henriette and Louise are adoptive sisters, who travel to Paris to find a cure for the latter’s blindness; they make the mistake of doing so, however, just before revolution breaks out there, and, funnily enough, complications ensue when the two become separated. 150 minutes of this is an awful lot; it’s unquestionably well-staged (especially the eventual outbreak of the revolution, and the ending is hugely thrilling stuff), but the hammer-handed lack of subtlety (and the floridity of some of the melodrama) is too often an obstruction. Indeed, Griffith’s sneering at the aristocracy struck me as being not far removed from the propaganda of the Bolsheviks he so feared (and whose propagandists learned so much about film from Griffith himself), although in fairness he also recognises the failure of the revolutionaries to avoid becoming worse tyrants than the ones they overthrew (which was a bit more than the Soviets were permitted to do, of course). I can see why this was a hit 90 years ago, but I wonder how many of the film’s original audience found the ending as sour as me, ignoring as it does the way in which Danton ended up a victim of the same revolutionary violence the film shows him quelling, and how the “democracy” that followed was wiped out soon after by the dictatorship of Napoleon, who the film never shows at all…

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