Orphans of the Storm (1921)

There’s no denying the importance of D.W. Griffith in establishing an effective foundation for narrative storytelling in films. His ability to capture simultaneous action and follow various plot threads certainly makes him an early filmmaker of note. Yet, to call some of his films problematic is more than a bit of an understatement.

Orphans of the Storm is such a film. While birthing pain should be expected as Griffith comes to form this narrative framework, a lot of poor creative decisions in terms of following certain plot threads even when nothing particularly noteworthy happens and forcing rising action makes Orphans of the Storm a hackney, crass narrative construct. But, as irksome as it is to admit, the film still works fantastically.

The tale of sisters Henriette (Lillian Gish) and the blind Louise Girarde (Dorothy Gish) caught up amidst the French revolution makes for a powerful emotional journey. Henriette is kidnapped by a leering aristocrat who wishes to have his way with her and Louise is caught by some homeless people who see her blindness a chance to increase their income as beggars.

On a purely emotional journey, their story works. The innocence of the girls and the oppressive nature of society on both ends of the spectrum makes the desire to empathize with them almost a moral responsibility. In this regard, the film exploits the audience’s basic recognition of human desire and pity. And yet, it’s a device that works so well, it’s hard to knock Griffith for doing it so well.

One of the surprising nuances of the film is the almost apolitical stance the film takes on class. At first, the film seems to aim for the easy targets of the manically rich and evil men, but as the film progresses, there’s just as much of the same kind of evil to be found among the beggars and the oppressed. And instead of positioning the revolution as a good ole’ spreading of American freedom, the film argues that the new government might be even more oppressive than the one it overthrows.

It’s also impressive how Griffith is able to weave the stories of five different characters throughout the film, making each one easy to trace. Honestly, a couple of characters are simply narrative contrivances, it becomes apparent by the end they’re simple vessels to allow Griffith to show off he can make a film with so many stories and that isn’t particularly interested in whether or not each story becomes meaningful or is compelling to watch in and of itself.

That’s the point where the patchwork of Orphans of the Storm becomes apparent. While the core story with the Girard girls is compelling, a lot of the scenes that don’t involve them become forced ways of pushing narrative and playing with the ability of editing between sequences and scenes. The artifice of narrative is too forced and contrived, focusing more on constructed happenstance to allow Griffith to build his narrative sequences.

And the frustrating thing is that the film still works so well in spite of this. As hackney and piecemeal as the narrative is, the narrative is still a fantastic vehicle for delivering the emotional experience and cinematic excitement Griffith hopes to attain. It gets a lot of details along the way wrong, but it ends up right where it needs to be.

© 2012 James Blake Ewing