iconic silent films

If you read our article on film history, you no doubt noticed a few silent films. Many viewers, however, consider silent films to be the least palatable movies available.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Silent films have something to offer. Here, we’ll examine three iconic silent films that might change your mind.

Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925)

Synopsis

A tale of friendship and betrayal in the first century. In the first century C.E., two childhood friends are reunited as adults – the Jewish prince Judah Ben-hur and the Roman officer Messala. An accident leads Messala to betray Judah, sentencing him to the hard labor of rowing Roman warships.

Why it Matters

If you’re a film buff, you’ve likely seen the classic 1959 version of the film starring Charlton Heston. Maybe you’ve seen the modern remakes.

It is interesting to note that this film’s eight minute chariot race is just as stunning – if not more so – than those of later versions. It was recreated frame for frame for the 1959 version, and served as the inspiration for racing scenes in films such as The Prince of Egypt (1998) and Star Wars: Episode I -The Phantom Menace (1999).

Said one reviewer of the time: “No one, no matter what his age or religion, should miss it. And take the children.”

The sensuality of the original promotional poster is also worth noting, indicative more of the indulgence of the Roaring Twenties than the actual plot of the movie. Ben Hur: A Tale of Christ also features sequences of hand-painted colour slides.

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Synopsis

A disfigured musician “haunts” the Paris Opera House as the Phantom. He loves an unknown, thus far uncelebrated performer there, and acts to win her love and increase her fame – often with murderous intent.

Why it Matters

Like Ben Hur, Phantom has been the product of countless literary, cinematic, and made-for-TV remakes. The story and imagery are enduring. You’ll notice, for example, intriguing visual similarities to the 2004 musical version of the film. These include Raoul and Christine’s rooftop meeting and some of the troubles caused by the Opera Ghost.

Interestingly, the film did not meet with success in its original “director’s cut.” New footage was shot and the story reworked. This version, too, was “booed” at some showings. The third and final version of the film included elements from both of the previous cuts, and was released with sound in 1930. Despite these challenges, Phantom did become a box office success.

While modern viewers are not likely to find the film particularly unsettling, The Phantom of the Opera was considered a horror film in its day. Lon Chaney, famous for monstrous roles such as the Hunchback of Notre Dame, designed his own makeup. He painted his eyes to gain a skull-like appearance, and wore false teeth. Some reports state that viewers fainted or screamed when Christine removed his infamous mask!

This film’s impact led to a string of other horror films based on literary characters such as Frankenstein, Dracula, and werewolves – which we still observe today.

Metropolis (1927)

Synopsis

A futuristic city is divided into an upper class and a working class. When the son of the city master falls for a working class girl, society may be on the brink of a massive change.

Why it Matters

Metropolis was one of the first feature length films in the science fiction genre and thus influenced later writers, performers, and creatures of science fiction movies. Imagine two kids sitting through two and half hours of black and white film, poring over the futuristic city and robotic elements it displayed. Next, imagine them creating one of the most iconic characters of the twentieth century. Those kids were Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. The film was Metropolis. The character was Superman, and that’s how his city of Metropolis got its name.

Metropolis also qualifies as dystopian fiction, which has become wildly popular among millennials. Examples include The Hunger Games series, as well as countless other young adult fiction books and movies.

In 2001, Metropolis became the first film to be added to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation’s (UNESCO) Memory of the World Register.

Learn more about the history of film.

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