July 17, 2007

Rescued from an Eagle's Nest (1908)

In 1908, a 34 year old playwright named D.W. Griffith was having little success with his plays and decided to try his luck in the newly formed movie industry with an adaptation of "Tosca" he intended to sell to the film studios of the Edison Manufacturing Company. The head of the studio at the time was film pioneer Edwin S. Porter, who wasn't really impressed with Griffith's work as a writer but, since Griffith was also an actor, Porter decided to hire him and send him to director J. Searle Dawley. A former theater director (he liked to called himself as "the first professional motion picture director"), Dawley immediately chose Griffith for the main role in his new film: "Rescued from an Eagle's Nest". It would be in this early adventure film where D.W. Griffith would have his first contact with the movie industry and where he would first learn the crafts that would make him a legendary filmmaker in the following years.

"Rescued from an Eagle's Nest" is the story of a woodsman's family and the extraordinary adventure they live one day while the Father (D.W. Griffith) was outside working. After the father leaves the house, the Mother (Miss Earle) begins her own housework and leaves the child (Jinnie Frazer) outside to play. While the mother is inside the cabin, a big eagle descends from the sky and takes the child away. The mother notices the eagle kidnapping the kid, but it's too late for her to save him, so she runs to the woods in order to tell her husband about it. After hearing what has happened to his child, the lumberjack and his mates run together to the mountains. When they find the nest, they discover that it's very difficult to reach it, so the Woodsman takes a rope with him and begins to climb down. However, before returning home he'll have to face the eagle that kidnapped his kid.

As usual with the early movies from the Edison Manufacturing Company, it can't be known for sure who exactly wrote the screenplay of the film, but considering director J. Searle Dawley's background, it is highly probable that it was all Dawley's creation expanding from one of his or Porter's ideas. The story of "Rescued from an Eagle's Nest" is pretty simple and has almost no characterization, focusing on the action and adventure that the Woodsman faces to save his kid. In this sense, the movie works like a folktale put on film, as it is concerned more about the adventure in itself than about the characters. While simple in its construction, the plot of "Rescued from an Eagle's Nest" remains so universal that is hard not to feel thrilled by the Woodsman's adventure.

In "Rescued from an Eagle's Nest", director J. Searle Dawley truly shows a better understanding of the new options that film offered him as a narrative language, and moves further away from the idea that movies were simply plays on film. The influence of Edwin S. Porter (who was in charge of cinematography in this movie) can be seen in many scenes as Dawley employs several of the editing techniques that Porter originated in his 1903 seminal classic, "Life of an American Fireman" (Techniques that Griffith would further develop in his own films). This is reflected in the very original ways the movie uses edition and its primitive special effects to play with action and suspense in order to thrill and surprise the audience. By our standards, the effects look poor and clichéd, but it was definitely a step ahead in its time.

As written above, the film focuses entirely on the family's adventure without leaving too much for character development, so it would be not only difficult but also unfair to judge the performances of the cast on those terms. So considering that they were playing basically archetypes, it could be said that the whole cast was actually good, as there rarely was any overacting (so common in the early days of cinema) and everyone seemed to know what to do. It is obviously interesting to see D.W. Griffith as the Woodsman, and his performance doesn't disappoint. His fight with the eagle is a very good scene that forecasts similar scenes in future action movies like the ones with Douglas Fairbanks. Even when she was not a professional actress (or probably because of that very reason), Miss Earle is very good and looks very natural in her concern for her baby.

While the film still feels stagy at times, it was a step ahead in the development of the language of cinema that spawned an entire series of imitators that further developed the adventure genre (even Griffith himself would use the same basic plot of a kidnapped child in his first movie, "The Adventures of Dollie"). To call this movie clumsy or uneven and judge it under our standards is criminally unfair, as while "Rescued from an Eagle's Nest" is not a perfect movie, it is not only actually very good for its time but it also helped to set the basis for the action and adventure films of today. "Rescued from an Eagle's Nest" is not only a must see for Griffith fans interested on his first work, it is also an amusing short movie for fans of early action movies and silent film in general.


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