In Italy, early filmmakers were drawn to the mythical and the spectacular. The works of Dante provided a fruitful source of material, the most successful example being L’inferno, which is considered to be the first Italian feature length film. At the same time, the historical genre was developing through a series of spectacular short films, notably La caduta di Troia directed by Giovanni Pastrone and Gli ultimi giorni di Pompeii directed by Mario Caserini.
In the United States The Great Train Robbery, directed by Edwin S. Porter, is recognized as the first US narrative film. Porter’s innovative camera techniques and editing, location shoots, and Western format combined to make an exciting film for audiences of the day. As technology advanced, filmmakers were able to make longer films, sometimes turning to literature for inspiration. In 1907, Canadian director Sidney Olcott made the first film version of Ben Hur for the New York-based Kalem Company. Adapted from Lew Wallace’s novel of 1880, the 15-minute film is hard to follow unless the viewer knows the story, and its famous chariot race-filmed from a fixed point-lacks excitement. However, it was popular enough for Kalem to be sued successfully for copyright infringement, and the outcome provoked the setting of a precedent for future literary adaptations.
Cramming a lengthy narrative from a novel into a short film was problematic and therefore some of the most satisfying films to emerge were those written specifically for the big screen. Le moulin maudit, shot for Pathe Frères by French director Alfred Machin, tells a story of revenge. Filmed on location in Belgium, stencil tinted to provide color and running at almost 6 minutes, the playlet has a self-contained narrative that is easy to follow.
As technology advanced, filmmakers produced movies that grew in length, and mini-serials developed. Among the more successful in this format is Fantômas, a five-part serial based on one of the most popular characters in French crime fiction, played by René Navarre. Directed by Louis Feuillade, each episode lasted about an hour and ended grippingly on a cliffhanger. Fantômas is an amoral, murderous villain who has continued to capture the imagination of filmmakers up to the present day. Another Feuillade serial, Judex, follows the fantastic adventures of a more virtuous and heroic protagonist in what perhaps marks the first appearance of a caped crusader. The prolific French filmmaker also produced the ten-part serial Les vampires, which tells the story of a Parisian crime organization known as ‘Les Vampires‘. The thriller techniques developed by Feuillade were to influence later masters such as Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock.
The opportunity to make longer products, the emergence of the Hollywood studios, and larger budgets encouraged filmmakers to produce literary adaptations such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, directed by Scotsman Stuart Paton and based on Jules Verne’s novel of 1869 and the same author’s The Mysterious Island. Paton joined forces with two fellow British immigrants to the United States, brothers John and George Williamson to create the first film showing underwater sequences. The pioneering special effects, location shoots, and elaborate sets -including a mock-up of the Nautilus submarine-created a film that was truly remarkable for its time. The appetite for spectacle continued to find expression in epic films such as The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, forming what would later become known as the sword-and-sandal genre. Directed by Fred Niblo and an uncredited Charles Brabin, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ proved a troubled and costly production for the newly merged Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. To make the chariot race more exciting, a US $100 prize was put up by the studio for the winner.
The spirit of pioneering director Georges Méliès can be glimpsed in such epic films of the 1920s and later in the special effects work of Ray Harryhausen in the 1950s and 1960s. Film techniques have grown more complex and narrative structures ever more sophisticated, but the basic creative rationale of cinema-to reinvent and reinterpret reality-has remained constant since its earliest days.