I’ll admit that I’m not as into silent films as I should be. Since I started tracking films, only around 2% of the films I’ve seen have been silent. However much it damages my cinephile credentials, I will admit that I find the majority of silent films boring and a bit of a struggle, so for years I put off watching D.W. Griffith’s Orphans of the Storm (1921). This was a mistake. With the possible exception of King Vidor’s The Crowd (1928), this is the best silent film I’ve seen, one of the most relevant to the present day, and yet also one that seems to be relatively unknown (having around a fifth of the votes on IMDb that Birth of a Nation has at the time of this writing).
To begin with, Orphans of the Storm is exciting. Griffith’s earlier Broken Blossoms (1919), despite its tantalizing view of the old London Chinatown (in Limehouse, before it was bombed out in WW2 and subsequently moved to Soho) and the fact that it’s only 90 minutes long, still had me checking my watch. Not so Orphans. Its 2.5 hour runtime never lets up, and its epic vision of the stages of the French Revolution contains as much excitement and drama as one could ask from a film from any era. I won’t try to catalogue the great scenes, nor its other achievements in acting, direction, and cinematography. This is because, despite its many strengths, the most striking thing about this ninety-two year old silent film is not how amazingly well-made it was in film history terms, but how relevant it is thematically and politically to today. It is a film about the extent to which a society can bear injustice and inequality before reaching its breaking point. In it, unbelievable opulence coexists with the direst poverty, in a way that is becoming depressingly familiar in the current state of affairs in America. The scene in which Lillian Gish, frantic and begging for help, stumbles weeping into a debauched party full of drunk aristocrats who laugh at her, thinking she must be joking or exaggerating, is as unconscionably accurate an allegory for 2013 American society as it was for that of 1921. Despite its strong sense of social justice, the film remains nuanced: the rich are not universally condemned, nor the poor universally acquitted. Rather, the film shows how difficult it is for even the best-intentioned rich to resist the status quo or to genuinely help the poor, as well as how much easier it is for the impoverished to take advantage of one another than it is to unite for real change. It also shows how quickly revolutionary ideals and the desire for justice can turn to despotism and new forces of evil as power corrupts them, and the difficulty of achieving justice by any means in the modern era.
And here I sit so patiently Waiting to find out what price You have to pay to get out of Going through all these things twice
—Bob Dylan, “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”
New documentaries like Inside Job (2010) or The House I Live In (2012) are fantastic for their recognition of the growing inequality in America, though regrettably short on solutions. But as the income gap widens in the United States and elsewhere, as we enter an era deplorably similar to the robber baron era that D.W. Griffith was born into, we would do well to remember that this has all happened before. In both its setting in the French revolution, and its production in the early 20th Century, Orphans of the Storm is a hopeful reminder that societies have faced and overcome these problems before. Let’s hope we can do it again without a Reign of Terror.