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Better Late Than Never: 'Orphans of the Storm' (1921)


The Guys from {FILM} is a discussion on movies and films from all eras and genres

Better Late Than Never: 'Orphans of the Storm' (1921)

Shaun Cordingley

Whenever there is a book, or even discussion about film history, it would be weird if D.W. Griffith does not come up at least in passing; the man is said to have made over 500 films by the time he was retired, and he helped to set the standard of visual storytelling, and style that we are so familiar with today. Fact of the matter is, however, most people have not seen any of his major films. 
Like, at all. 

Now, that could be chalked up to a few things, I'm sure: You have to make an effort to find them today, people are not always in for black & white films, let alone silent films, and Griffith's major works are never under two hours. I've seen three of his major films now: Birth of a Nation (195 minutes), Intolerance (197 minutes), and Orphans of the Storm...

Orphans of the Storm is a (breezy for Griffith) 150 minute silent which was based on the French play of the same name, which follows the plight of two orphan "sisters" during the "French Revolution". The film stars the Gish sisters, Dorothy and Lillian, as the titular orphans Henriette (Lillian) and Louise (Dorothy) who, after losing their parents, and Louise being blinded by the plague, head to Paris on the eve of Revolution, believing that a doctor there may cure Louise's blindness. On the way there, they encounter a Marquis who wants to...well essentially rape Henriette, so he arranges to have her kidnapped, leaving Louise at the mercy of the urchins of Paris. The film then (largely) follows the trials and tribulations of the sisters as Henriette tries to find Louise, amidst the fall of the Monarchy, and the rise of Robespierre. 

A fun for the whole family story...

Honestly, the direction is very clever in Orphans of the Storm, especially the use of close-ups, intercuts, and colour--the film is in black & white, but certain scenes are tinted yellows, blues etc. to add more dynamism, and for thematic storytelling (something Griffith also used in Intolerance, but I feel it is used to greater effect here). The performances are excellent, for the time--understand that it's big, and stage-y still, and it's really quite excellent. The Gish sisters are particularly good, but honestly, Lillian Gish is, as far as I'm concerned, one of the best actresses of all-time, and she gives a wonderful performance here. 

I also, before I move onto the things I was not fond of, want to point out how amazing the set, and the costumes in Orphans are. Griffith films were always opulent and huge (usually to the point that they never made any money), and you can see it here--I, on more than one occasion said out loud (to myself, as I'm obviously watching a movie like this alone) "wow, I want that coat" or "I really want those pants". The sheer scale, and luxury depicted in the scenes around the aristocrats was amazing; I cannot imagine what this film would cost to make today. 
There is literally a fountain filled with cider large enough for people to swim in. 
It was supposed to be wine, but that would've been silly, and water doesn't sparkle right.


If you know anything about the actual French Revolution, you are basically going to need to leave that at the door--for story purposes, Griffth has changed characters, facts, timeline, and all sorts of things to make sure it fits his narrative. 

His anti-Bolshevik narrative. 

Let that sink in for a little bit. Anti-Bolshevik, set in a time that pre-dates the birth of Karl Marx by 20 years.

Orphans of the Storm, a film about the "French Revolution" is told in a way to make it work as anti-socialist, right-wing American propaganda. It' strange...and it forces the Revolutionary side of the story to pretzel itself a bit, which....look I've said this a lot when it comes to film, but unless it is a documentary, don't take your history from it. 
This one gets  enough factually correct to keep in in the Revolution, and sure, it does have some things that are correct, but then slaps on  some strange metaphors, and twists in it to ensure that it fits the narrative. There's literally a title card that calls one of the characters "the Abraham Lincoln of the French Revolution". 

I'm usually pretty good a allowing a movie to tell the story it intends, but the way this one is used just felt so weird, that I got taken out of the story on more than one occasion. I ended up taking my own intermission to pause the film and grab a couple of my books (I studied history after all) to make sure that I was not crazy when it came to major Revolutionary events...

This will not happen to everyone, I understand, but it is something to be aware of: check that part of your brain at the door, and try and get invested in the story of the sisters. 

I don't know that Orphans of the Storm is for everybody, I think you need to have a fondness for silent films, or a very definite interest in film history to justify seeing...well practically any D.W. Griffith film, but...weirdly enough, of the three I have seen, this one is probably the most accessible: the performances are good, the story (however strange) is easy to follow, and...not pro-KKK (...yeah....Birth of a Nation is....yeah....)...

AND, if you are really interested, Orphans of the Storm is available, in it's entirety, below. 

Just make sure that you know you are getting into a 2 1/2 hour, silent, Anti-Bolshevik film.

-S (@Shauncord