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Orphans of the Storm (D. W. Griffith, 1921)


    D.W. Griffith’s wonderfully oversized French Revolution epic Orphans of the Storm audaciously tackles its mammoth subject by setting real-life figures next to shameless caricatures and melding a melodramatic plot with a spectacular recreation of the uprising. During the first reel, a French ambassador admirably tells the visiting Thomas Jefferson of the United States’ legal system, "That's the kind of government we want here." France's search for a "REAL DEMOCRACY”, as Griffith puts it, is the legitimizing subject of this embellished piece of pumped up historical fiction. With his gung-ho camerawork, exaggerated emotion and insistent editing, Griffith dictates what we should feel and refuses the audience an opportunity to judge history for themselves. Instead, he harnesses the skills that made him one of the cinema’s premiere storytellers to compose an intense fugue of heightened emotion and suspect politics.


    Orphans certainly has a somewhat bloated sense of self-importance and its moral grounding is somewhat dubious.  Everything is boiled down to choosing Mercy over Tyranny and Love over Hate - a stance none would disagree with, but one which grossly oversimplifies the situation. Griffith shows the aristocrats bathing in a fountain of wine at their orgies while the poor beg for bread outside, but when the Revolution goes bad and mob violence ensues, the director shows that he disdains the poor equally. Such techniques tell the viewer more about the filmmaker than the events that he’s portraying, but by downplaying one’s reliance on the film’s message, one can find superb entertainment in Orphans, even if Griffith’s politics seem faulty. With guillotines, dastardly villains, blind orphans, a women's prison and epic battle scenes throughout, the film can’t be fairly called boring. As was the style of the time, the intertitles have an annoying tendency to explicitly telegraph future plot events, but the satisfaction in this sort of full-bodied melodrama lies in the execution and not in the surprising twists of the plot. Griffith’s Dickensian scope and tendency toward caricature results in a series of undeniably amusing surface pleasures. Clichéd as they might be, Griffith possess an uncanny ability to make the dilemmas exciting and almost harrowing. As usual, his work with is cast is solid, with the most inspired moment coming when he temporarily turns his muse Lillian Gish into a Joan of Arc figure. In studying his camerawork here, it becomes apparent that there are fewer sequences that boldly demonstrate Griffith’s revolutionary technique than in his early epics and only a few scenes that cross-cut between events, but that’s because the pacing and style of the film is more akin to modern films. Griffith’s assimilation of the techniques he helped popularize into his filmic grammar marks a progression for him. Though there are certainly things about Orphans of the Storm that are problematic (if nothing is nearly as problematic as something like Birth of the Nation), the sheer amount of realized ambition on display in it makes it a sight to behold. 



Jeremy Heilman