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.
Lang’s 1927 work Metropolis is commonly regarded as one of the classics of cinema, and at the time it was probably the most expensive film ever made. Only in light of recent restoration work, though, can we see how explicitly it draws on apocalyptic themes in its prophetic depiction of modern society. Partly, Metropolis reflects the ideas of Oswald Spengler, whose sensationally popular book The Decline of the West appeared in 1918. Spengler presented nightmare forecasts of the vast megalopolis, ruled by the superrich, with politics reduced to demagoguery and Caesarism, and religion deformed by strange oriental cults. In the future world of Metropolis, the ruling classes dwell in their own Tower of Babel, while the industrial working class is literally enslaved to Moloch.
Lang borrowed that model but added explicit references to the New Testament, and above all, Revelation’s chapter 12. This describes the awesome figure of the Woman Clothed with the Sun, “the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars,” who gives birth to a messianic ruler. She is the holy and heavenly counterpart to Satanic figures like the Scarlet Woman and the Whore of Babylon. The plot of Metropolis depicts the contest between two female figures who respectively recall the Woman Clothed with the Sun, and the Whore of Babylon. The former is named Maria, while her evil android counterpart is associated with a satanic inverted pentacle.
Through the discovery of long-lost copies of the original film, we now see how directly and extensively the film quotes Revelation, and especially its account of the Beast and the Whore. Repeatedly, we see the visions of cosmic destruction awaiting the futuristic city. So comprehensively Catholic is Metropolis, so utterly Marian, that no critic should be allowed to discuss it without first receiving an imprimatur!
Silent cinema produced some of the greatest religious art of modern times, and specifically the finest Christian art. We might call that fact the Greatest Story Seldom Told.
Philip Jenkinsis a Distinguished Professor of History atBaylor Universityand author ofThe Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade.