The Epic Days and Nights of CABIRIA

Princess Sophonisba, daughter of King Hasdrubal of Carthage, languidly strokes her restless kitten who having finished her milk, leaves her mistress with but a fleeting touch of her tail.  Sophonisba is played by Italia Almirante Manzini who would be among the first to flourish in cinema muto as “diva:” one of two Italian gifts to early motion pictures.  The other?  The historical epic film.  “Cabiria” (Itala Film, 1914), directed by Giovanni Pastrone.

As a kid growing up with the movies in the 1960s, my favorite films by far were historical epics and their many variations: legends of ancient Greece and Rome, stories of the Bible from Moses to Jesus Christ, tales of armour-clad knights of the middle ages, viking sagas, dramas of the American frontier, the wild west, civil and world wars — even comedies that received the “epic” treatment.  Although I didn’t give it a lot of thought at the time, it seemed that many were foreign or “international” productions — late-comers copying the earlier American originals, probably made more cheaply in Spain with an Italian cast.  Many years later I learned that the Italians as much or more than anyone made historical epics earlier and as well as or better than anyone else at the time, and that films like “Intolerance,” which seemed the seminal Hollywood epic, was largely inspired by these earlier Italian films.  It seemed that the American film industry were the copycats.  Well, yes — and no.

The early American film industry as a system of production, distribution and exhibition was a lot more cohesive, even rigid than is commonly thought.  We have this mental image of seat-of-the-pants movie-makers and fly-by-night flim-flam film salesmen and storefront nickelodeon exhibitors, more “mom and pop” than “Henry Ford.”  Not true.  Yes, there was an ongoing “war” between the (mostly reluctant) members of the Edison/Biograph extortion scheme known as the Motion Picture Patents Company and the rebels of the “independent” film producers, but the product of all of them was made, sold and consumed within a system that was breathtakingly American in its rigidity, its attempt at maximum efficiency, and in its design to maximize the profits such a system could theoretically produce.  It was already an assembly line system of manufacturing (though not anywhere near the full stride it would hit a few years later, re-baptized “Hollywood”), distribution and exhibition, and it preceded Henry Ford by half a decade.

But this was a system based not so much upon the film product itself as on the reel that held it, and as a system it would not survive in its present form as movies grew in popularity and movie-going became the most common form of pubic entertainment, rather than a novelty with which to “kill” ten or fifteen minutes time, as films were frequently advertised in the early days of the storefront theater.  Film historian Eileen Bowser, former Curator of Film at the Museum of Modern Art, sums up the pains the system was experiencing at the time.

“The producers belonging to the Motion Picture Patents Company are usually said to have been too conservative in clinging to the single-reel film .  . however . . it was the rental exchange and the exhibitors, both licensed and independent, who were most reluctant to change.  The whole system tended to keep films at the same length; in other words, the system that gave stability to the industry was also the system that resisted change.

“At first, the exhibition format itself was the strongest barrier to increasing length.  The nickelodeon was goldmine only if there was a quick turnover of audiences.  But competition to offer the most reels for a nickel had worn away this concept in many areas of the country, thus contributing to the eventual acceptance of multi-reel productions.  When the number of theaters with a large seating capacity increased, it was less necessary to have rapid turnover to make a profit.”  Eileen Bowser, “The Transformation of Cinema, 1907-1915” (Macmillan, 1990)

But those filmmakers who wanted to make “artistic” productions and exhibit them in a single showing rather than each reel as a separate “part” in serial fashion often bypassed the rental/exhibition system and took their long films on “road shows” as if they were a traveling stock company production of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” or “The Warrens of Virginia.”  Once a “tour” was completed, the film would be rented to theaters in smaller towns where the film had not yet played, often at a slightly reduced rate, and if demand was sufficient, theater owners could charge a price close or equal to the higher first-run ticket price and make a better than usual profit.  (It was system of exhibition not unlike the one that evolved into what I was familiar with when I was growing up in which you had a choice of driving or taking the bus to the city to see a first-run showing of a “blockbuster” release, or waiting six months or longer for it to appear in your hometown second-run theater.  And I suppose we have similar variations based upon supply and demand today — the need or desire to have something streamed, on-demand, or just wait to rent or purchase a copy of a program.)

It wasn’t only the artsy American independent filmmakers like Helen Gardner, who took roadshow screenings of her own Cleopatra across America in 1912 and 1913 (and the film continued to circulate for several more years on smaller-town screens).  The George Kleine Company of Chicago, a film producer and member of the MPPC, was also in the business of importing and distributing European films in America.  Kleine imported the big eight-reel Italian production, Quo Vadis, and then gave the American premiere of  the film at the Astor Theatre, a new Broadway house owned by George M. Cohan and Sam Harris.  After its New York premiere, Kleine took the film on a road tour with “fifteen companies touring the United States and Canada,” presenting all eight reels of Quo Vadis together as a single program “divided into three acts, and special music . . . arranged and composed for the performance” on each stop of the tour during the spring and summer of 1913 (The New York Dramatic Mirror, June 11, 1913, pg. 30).  The Mirror added that “Mr. Kleine positively refuses to sell or states rights or lease his property to anyone.”

Kleine’s contract to import and distribute the French Gaumont releases in the U.S. had expired, giving Kleine the opportunity to contract with and now also invest in an Italian film producer, Cines Film, and its epic production, The Last Days of Pompeii, which Kleine released and distributed in America in late summer, 1913.  For Kleine, it was only the beginning.  Other companies within MPPC, particularly Vitagraph (and notably NOT the stodgy Biograph), had begun to crank out multi-reel films with more than occasional frequency, but unless the theater-owner-operators successfully pressured exhibitors to have both or all the reels at once, not in “parts,” audiences had to settle for waiting a week or two or longer to see the second half or third reel of a film from the producers.  They were often angry when a film ended after they had been caught up in the story only to be told the next part would be only available next week or next month.  Not surprisingly, when the major American producers were approached by famous stars of the stage, among them Sarah Bernhardt, Minnie Maddern Fiske and Nazimova, to star in prestigious artistic reproductions of their stage successes, they were more than happy to take the multi-reel results and tour the nation while bypassing the typical single-reel treadmill of the exchange and exhibition “system.”

There seems to have been a considerable amount of upward pressure from the consumers in the marketplace, on the exhibitors and exchanges to offer mult-reel films as whole programs.  And if not enough American producers were able to fill the demand, there were more of those outside the system who could and did.  In the preceding post, we saw how two of the early long Italian historical films, Quo Vadis? and The Last Days of Pompeii raised audience and critical expectations with the long-format, six or eight reel motion picture — with all six or eight shown at one sitting.  No one damaged their eyesight or was hospitalized for hemorrhoids as a result.  And a little over six months later, another film would establish permanently the long film — specifically the historical epic film — as a cinematic fixture.

 * * *

It doesn’t seem useful to describe Cabiria as one of the first or even an early “feature” film.  The label, “feature,” has origins in live theater, most likely from the variety programs of vaudeville, where a “featured act” was billed above or more prominently than the others on the program for an evening’s entertainment — the “feature” was the headliner, the star “act.”  Its use in film ultimately has no solid foundation from which to draw meaning because its use and meaning changed as film changed.  Up to the time of Quo Vadis?, The Last Days of Pompeii and Cabiria, movie producers were still advertising two and three reel films as “features,” and such films were reviewed in consumer magazines and trade periodicals under both “features” headings and “regular” releases — there was never a constant or a standard type of film based upon length — except the original basic unit of measurement — the single reel — that had been relegated “to the dark corner of the marketplace” by 1914.  But the “reel” would (and continues) to define a basic analog unit, one reel=1,000 ft., of film, raw stock or developed, finished product, negative and positive.

Cabiria has minimal basis in the real story of the Roman Republic and Carthage in the third century BCE.  It is a mix of bad history, good melodrama, suspense, a touch of humor and moments of great filmmaking.  Unlike the other Italian epics that immediately preceded it, it had good special effects, some spectacular stunt work, and a camera that moved to hone in on action as well as to survey it in brief pans.  Though some of these are effective, and are highlighted in images that follow, many are of little use or interest other than in themselves.  In fact, pans and tracking shots — moving cameras in general — were not new, but they had been abandoned by many makers of early narrative film in favor of editing to break down the space of a scene rather than to capture it in a single, moving shot.  This lack of movement was also part and parcel of the “tableaux” style of filmmaking — a sort of photographed painting, greatly composed, but static, single shot scenes, minimal editing, and no camera movement — a style of filmmaking that is done about as well as it can be in The Last Days of Pompeii.  Static and beautiful, with a depth of composition achieved without camera movement, but at the expense of excitement that can be gained when the camera moves with the actors.  In contrast to “Pompeii,” Cabiria with camera in motion on probably less than 10% of its shots seems almost hectic in pace despite its two hours-plus (12 reels in the original release) length.  But this is due to relatively brief scenes and frequent cutting rather than its vaunted camera motion, the “Cabiria movement” as it became known generically in the years following its 1914 release.

Occurring in the second scene and about 2 minutes into the film, we have the first “Cabiria movement.”  The camera moves in toward the actors slightly panning right, a movement that lasts about 16 seconds and, as can be seen, only brings us from a distance shot at first frame, to a closer distance shot at center, and a near-full figure shot at the third frame, the end of the “movement,” which is followed by an intertitle.  It is very modest but, if not expecting it (and if you’ve watched a lot of static films of the period immediately before this film), it is a slightly odd feeling, but probably much more so for a film audience of 1914.
Giovanni Pastrone must have listened to the pleas of Moving Picture World columnist Louis Reeves Harrison who chided the producers of The Last Days of Pompeii for not having a convincing (preferably real) shot of an erupting Mount Vesuvius.  So Pastrone obliged with a very good studio mock-up of an exploding Mount Etna early in the first reel of Cabiria.  It was only the first of many very good special effects scenes in the film.
Although the toppling of marble columns, urns and statues were a familiar symbol even in 1914 of the “fall” of Rome, they were not yet a cinematic cliché.  In Cabiria, it is the eruption of Mt. Etna in Sicily, part of the Roman Republic, but not “Roman,” where the residents of the island province are more vulnerable to invaders such as Carthage or “Phoenician pirates” in the chaos following the eruption.
But during all this chaos, the camera remains still until . . .
. . . immediately above, a twelve second shot in which the camera moves a shade closer and to the left as it surveys the residents of the villa trying to escape to safety . . . and followed directly by another twelve second shot, immediately below, as the camera moves backward and along to the left as we see some residents who are more concerned with looting than personal safety.

Above and below, the camera is still, but the sets are not:  two nice special effects shots of fiery destruction of the villa, and of Mt. Etna raining fire down on victims trying to escape the hell that has struck their island paradise Sicily.

The survivors divide the treasure,” reads the intertitle.  Croessa, the nurse to the little girl “Cabiria,” whose parents believed her dead among the ruins, finds a signet ring among the bags of loot from the villa — and a cut-in shot, a close-up, shows the ring, followed by (below) a short (8 seconds) movement that pulls away from the nurse pocketing the ring.

The survivors find a boat in which to flee the island, but it belongs to “Phoenician pirates.”  A pan shot from right to left lasting 25 seconds (it stops once briefly, then restarts) follows them as the Phoenician’s capture Croessa and little Cabiria and take them to their boat.
This scene, of Croessa and Cabiria being sold by the pirates in Carthage, is one of the more complex moving shots in the film, (above) as it moves in toward Croessa and Cabiria, then (below) backs out and follows them in a brief pan to the right as they are led away by their captors.  The entire movement is continuous and lasts approximately 30 seconds.

No movement is used or needed to introduce the mountainous Maciste, dark-skinned slave of the Roman, Axilla.  Maciste turns his muscular torso in a semi-circular movement as he scans the horizon at Carthage for trouble.  Maciste is played by strongman Bartolomeo Pagano who, along with Italia Almirante Manzini, became an international star as a result of Cabiria, through the remainder of the silent film era.  Pagano made a series of highly successful films — more than two dozen between 1914 and 1927 — based on Maciste, his character from Cabiria.  He more than any other individual benefitted from Cabiria with his “Maciste” franchise.  Rocky WHO?
The owner of the appropriately named “Striped Monkey” Inn, Bodastoret the Innkeeper (Raffaele di Napoli), whose movements are generally too quick to be followed by the camera even if the director and camera were inclined to do so.  And Below, inside the “Striped Monkey,” the camera moves in on a comical scene . . .
. . . as the rotund waitress (in light turban) takes a fancy to an embarrassed Maciste, much to the delight of Axilla.  Aside from the epic sets, special effects and camera movement (as if that wasn’t enough), a sense of humor distinguishes Cabiria from its predecessors — and its many imitators in the years to come.
In the next three sets of frames below, we see the images that have been the most enduring of Cabiria, the weird, fiery brutal human-eating “god” Moloch, his temple and followers, which have little or no basis in fact with the real Carthage.  Some blame the wars in North Africa won by the Italians in the years preceding Cabiria for the twisted image of Carthage that we see in the film.

As if fire and human sacrifice was not enough, we get Hannibal crossing the (real) Alps, on location in northern Italy.  Oddly enough, none of these location shots utilize a moving camera — just many moving extras.
One of the longest moving camera sequences, about 60 seconds (separated by a brief pause about halfway through) as the camera pans from left to right (the wooden beam serves as a marker), then right back to left again.  In it we see nearly all the principal characters of the film, Axilla, Maciste, Bodastoret and Cabiria (who grows into a woman later in the film, played by Lidia Quaranta).

Daughter of the king, Hasdrubal, princess Sophonisba “The Pomegranate Flower” (Italia Almirante Manzini) and her pet lioness.  She does not yet know it, but her father has promised her in marriage to Numidian King Masinissa, who sends a gift to her, below . . .
The steps of the palace of king Hasdrubal, shot with the camera moving in a pan from the left, then diagonally inward to a medium shot at far right, a move lasting just under 30 seconds.  This set was supposedly the inspiration for the steps of the palace of Nebuchadnezzar in the Babylon story of D. W. Griffith’s “Intolerance” (1916).  Griffith was especially taken with the huge statues of elephants, tusks raised, which he duplicated by the droves (or is it herds?) on the set for his film.  In spite of his usual striving for historical accuracy, Griffith didn’t care that elephants were unknown in ancient Babylon.  He just liked the way they looked.
BELOW, “Masinissa, prince of the knightly cavaliers, sends a gift to the mysterious virgin and begs to see her in secret, at moonrise, in the garden of the cedars.”  So reads the intertitle preceding this scene of Sophonisba receiving the gift (of jewelry) from the prince through his female emissary who presents it to her.  The intertitles for Cabiria were written by the author of the original work, Gabriele D’Annunzio.
Sophonisba is intrigued.  She asks breathlessly, “What is he like?  Tell me!”  “He is like the spring wind that crosses the desert on feet of clouds bearing the scent of lions . . .”  The scent of lions?  Well, Sophie does like her pets on the wild side . . . and she seems quite pleased with her gift . . .

Maciste jumps to escape capture by the Carthaginians, while leaping into cinematic history and giving former circus strongman Bartolomeo Pagano one of the most successful film franchises ever.

Cabiria, in box office returns, was the most successful cinematic production prior to D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” (1915).  It easily crossed international boundaries — in the era of silent film there were only occasional intertitles that required translation for specific language markets.  There was little practical distinction made by audiences between “foreign films” and those made in the U. S.  Cabiria was a huge success in America.

In cinematic terms, Cabiria did something of much more lasting importance.  It proved beyond any doubt that not only could audiences could sit still for a film longer than 3 or 4 reels (roughly 45 minutes to an hour), but they could watch a film (provided it kept their interest, as Cabiria did) of two hours or more.  And audiences were willing to see it many times over.  It played in many U.S. cities virtually non-stop for several years following its June, 1914 American release.

Although it is often credited, Cabiria did not inaugurate the era of the “feature” film.  But it did close the door on the short film drama, leaving the format largely to comedy and non-narrative filmmaking.  Nor was it the first historical epic.  But having seen it while making a film tentatively titled, “The Mother and the Law,” Griffith decided to incorporate that story within a much larger framework of three other, older tales told in parallel fashion, including the story of fifth century BCE Babylon, with gigantic sets largely inspired by those of Cabiria.  The epic historical film was now a permanent part — a cornerstone — of world cinema.