April 6, 2017
On The Symbol of the Unconquered: A Story of the Klu Klux Klan and Lost Opportunities
I had intended this post to be a full review of Oscar Micheaux’s 1920 film The Symbol of the Unconquered: A Story of the Klu Klux Klan; however, writing such a review about a film that is in this condition would be the equivalent of reviewing a book that is missing every third page, as well as the final chapter. In other words, I would have been reviewing an incomplete film, one whose remaining parts are too disjointed to create a complete narrative. To give you an example of this, toward the end of the film, a man’s mother arrives, which is significant because the last time we saw her she was being savagely attacked by the very son she is now looking for. What does she now say to him to try to heal their divide and to soothe the anger that surges within him? We’ll never know. The next we see of her son he is shot during what looks to be a gunfight, but we’ll never know for sure. The rest of the scene has been lost.
There are things that can be gauged from what remains of The Symbol of the Unconquered. Themes found in the literature of the time are also found in the film. There’s a Stepin Fetchit-like character that reminds us of the conventional wisdom of the time, that even serious films like this one had to have a comedic character to make the audience’s experience a little less grim. The film also has something to say, similar to Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, about the inner conflict that the tone of one’s skin color can cause. Here, it leads one character to essentially hate who he is and where he came from and another to embrace her culture all the while knowing that many people are blissfully unaware of her identity. The two are polar opposites, and an in-depth look at these characters would prove fascinating. Alas, if such an examination existed in 1920, it sadly no longer does today.
What does exist all too often details the scheming of a few criminal characters, including an Indian man, and the henchmen they hire to spread fear and intimidation. One of these men, Bill Stanton, is said to be able to “make people do things.” His means of achieving this is the Knights of the Black Cross, which is the Klan in everything but name. In what remains of the film, we see the Knights move out. Their attack and eventual defeat no longer exist.
The film was Micheaux’s fourth, and it was released the same year as Within Our Gates, a film I liked quite a lot. Both films include moments where characters rise above the limitations that society has thrust upon them. The character of Hugh Van Allen is a hardworking, resourceful young man intent of achieving his own version of the American dream, which includes land, liberty, and the ability to prosper from his diligence. He is the kind of man who runs toward danger and who exudes the chivalry often seen in the characters frequently played by Cary Grant. And then there’s Evon Mason, a single woman determined to make it on her own. In one scene, we see her pick up a shovel and work the land. It reminded me a bit of Scarlet O’Hara after the Civil War utterly changes her life. These are characters that I can easily see an audience investing in.
Watching the film got me thinking about how incomplete our collective film history is. According to the Chicago Tribune, of the 41 films that Micheaux made, it is likely that fewer than twelve still exist; most of Chinese legend Ling-yu Ruan’s films have been lost, along with countless other Chinese-language films made prior to World War II; and who can say for sure how many films were lost in Japan during the Second World War and in Douglas MacArthur’s later purge of supposedly duplicate copies of Japanese films. Entire careers have been forgotten, as all traces of their work have disappeared. On one of the Treasures from American Film Archives box sets, the first three volumes of which are now shamefully out of print, is a preview of a lost film that claims to be the greatest film ever made. It’s quite a declaration, but we have no evidence to the contrary.
It would be reassuring to be able to say that films can no longer be lost, yet, while the technology exists to preserve most of today’s films, that does not mean that there is the will to do so. And for all the promise that going digital offers filmgoers (Remember the Quest commercial in which a hotel has every movie ever made?), there are a number of films that have yet to appear on DVD and, let’s face it, may never do so. I remember reading about a billiards movie named Chalk in 1996 and vowing to watch it on home video – never released. A movie that blew me away was 1994’s The Day The Sun Turned Cold – still not available on DVD. The same could be said of Frioriksson’s Cold Fever, Chen Kaige’s debut film Yellow Earth, Yimou Zhang’s Keep Cool (available but not with English subtitles), Nikita Mikhalkov’s Anna, Jafar Panahi’s The White Balloon (available in Region 2/PAL, but not in Region 1). I could go on.
Newer films are not immune from this either. Over at The Digital Bits, Adam Jahnke has just written about the curious absence of Beasts of No Nation on DVD and Blu-ray. Sure, the film can be watched on Netflix, but that’s not the same as having a physical release. One would think they would want it to be seen by as many people as possible, and limiting its available will not accomplish that. There’s also a disturbing trend of moving films that were previously released in stores to MOD. It’s not hard to imagine OOP being next.
This is one of the reasons I rail so much against lists like the AFI’s top American movies of all time. There are many more films worth watching than the standard 100 that find spots on these lists and then get stocked in the few remaining stores that still sell physical DVDs and Blu-rays. While the movie industry continues to push the notion that 100 years of American films can be reduced to 100 “masterpieces,” films that are worthy of being discovered and that may be better than the ones they are pushing on consumers are quietly being forgotten. Foreign films are faring much worse, as the number of movie theaters allocating screens for these films shrinks and fewer movies make their way to the home video market. However, a film that is not released cannot find an audience, a film that is not publicized cannot build word-of-mouth, and a studio that doesn’t hear people talking abut a movie tells itself there is no reason to release it to the public. It’s a self-fulfilling prophesy, and eventually it will be too late to reverse it. Just look at all we’ve already lost .
Dr. Adam Jahnke’s column: http://thedigitalbits.com/columns/jahnkes-electric-theatre/open-along-edge-netflixs-dvd-problem