Silent film produced some of the greatest religious art of modern times.
In the late 1920s, the coming of talking pictures suddenly made obsolete a gloriously flourishing tradition of silent cinema. Many classic silent films were utterly forgotten, and even the best are known today only to academic specialists and dedicated film buffs. In consequence, our culture has lost some astonishing artistic triumphs, including some stunning works of Christian thought and speculation.
Anyone familiar with the silent era can recite the overtly religious classics based on Biblical themes – Intolerance (1916), The Ten Commandments (1923), Ben-Hur (1925), or The King of Kings (1927). Less often counted in this roster are the megahits of mainstream popular culture, which nevertheless grounded themselves absolutely in Biblical texts, and Christian mystical traditions.
We can debate which film exactly was the greatest and most spectacular production of this era, but a strong candidate has to be the 1921 epic The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the Star Wars of its day. Four Horsemen was based on the 1916 Spanish novel of that name by Vicente Blasco Ibañez, who used a family saga to recount the events of the Battle of Marne in 1914. But for Blasco Ibañez, apocalypse was far more than merely a colorful synonym for mass destruction, and his characters directly and lengthily quote the Book of Revelation. For the author, prophecies of the Beast were fulfilled by German militarism during the First World War.
The book of Four Horsemen was a global best-seller, and in the United States alone, the book sold half a million copies in its first year of publication. Even so, the book’s wildly ambitious descriptions made it seem unfilmable. The film would not have been made if not for the enthusiasm of screenwriter June Mathis, a devout believer in the occult, who was enthralled by its apocalyptic and uncanny themes. It was directed by the legendary Rex Ingram, now the subject of a fine biographical study by Ruth Barton. Like the much later Star Wars, Four Horsemen revolutionized ideas of what special effects could achieve in a film. In cinema history, it is best remembered for making a star of Rudolph Valentino.
Watching the film today, though, we are most struck by its faithful and explicit use of Christian and apocalyptic symbolism. We recall that its audience had lived through a war that seemed literally apocalyptic, which was followed immediately by a global plague, in the form of the lethal influenza epidemic that killed at least fifty million worldwide. How could this generation see the world except in apocalyptic terms?
The film of Four Horsemen not only retained the novel’s heavy reliance on Revelation but also used this as the essential framework of the war narrative. Throughout, the film interpreted the First World War in terms of “the breaking of the Seven Seals of Prophecy,” “the age of fulfillment,” and “the angel of prophecy.” A typical intertitle tells us that “Four years had War, Pestilence, and Death held sway until the nations of the Old World were torn asunder and lay bleeding, crying out to a just God to free them from the forces of evil.” The four horsemen themselves appear literally and repeatedly, riding through the heavens over the battlefields. Even the Beast appears on screen, as a fire-breathing behemoth unleashed on the world in 1914.
In Europe too, mystical and millenarian themes permeated the legendary films coming out of Weimar Germany. The most influential European filmmaker of these years was Fritz Lang (1890-1976), whose strongly Catholic interests combined with his attraction to mythological themes. He had seen military duty in the Austrian service and been repeatedly wounded. Throughout the postwar years his films return to themes of apocalyptic warfare and destruction, usually accompanied by plague and spiritual corruption, all of which inevitably recall the wartime rhetoric of cosmic confrontation.