Early Film Classics: Timeless, or Simply Timepieces?

Growing up in the 90’s and 00’s, I hardly ever developed a taste for old films. And from this point forward let me define what I mean by “old”: anything before 1930. It’s only in recent years where I’ve felt the need to see these supposedly “old” films, as a way of broadening my taste. Not only broadening, but finding the few gems that are surpisingly palatable to my currently extant tastes. As such, I have tended to explore those older films often considered “classics.”

But do all “classics” stand the test of time? I will make the bold assertion that no, not all of them do. In fact, some of them are quite silly by today’s standards, but interestingly enough, set many standards that we take for granted in modern films.  Then there are the films that manage to be both influential and meaningful.  I make a distinction between the influential “great” films, and the films that stopped at “influential.”

Let’s look at Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, perhaps one of the first dystopian stories ever commited to film.  Metropolis was proof that a filmmaker could create an entire fantastic world where the rules of his own imagination could work, and, perhaps, comment on the conditions of the “real” world. It’s hard to imagine films like The Wizard of Oz or the Star Wars saga even existing without Metropolis (hell, C-3PO was designed directly after the android from Lang’s film).

But as a movie itself, Lang’s ambitious science fiction epic hardly stands the test of time.  The film follows the son of the ruler of Metropolis, who sees the terrible work conditions of his father’s city.  Like most early films, it never strays beyond propaganda, albeit well-meaning propaganda.    Characters act less like people and more like types, and the film relentlessly bangs into our heads its overly simplistic message of “The mediator between head and hands must be the heart!”.  In addition, for a supposedly advanced society, it’s curious that much of the film’s conflict revolves around damsels in distress and fistfights.  Lang himself sums up the film the best: “I didn’t like the picture – thought it was silly and stupid”.  While certainly an important historical artifact, Metropolis is impressive more in its form than its content.

Other supposedly “great” films, such as The Great Train Robbery, The Battle Potemkin, and The Birth of a Nation boast impressive technical achievements, but possess silly or even morally reprehensible ideas (especially with respect to the last film, which portrays the KKK as a force for good).  Should we credit their influence in creating modern film?  Of course.  But they ought to remind us of films that not only accomplish technical feats, but also present meaningful ideas.  Reflecting reality, rather than creating reality, is the infinitely more difficult task.