There are old movies - really old movies, I mean, movies from the first 15 or 20 years of cinema, when the visual language and narrative structures were so different from any of the norms we've grown accustomed to in the intervening decades that it's virtually a different art form altogether - so self-assured and visionary and cunningly-mounted that the modern viewer has to make hardly any adjustments to fall into the rhythm of the thing and find it totally enjoyable on its own merits, without any need to mentally adjust to the psychology of a generations-dead viewer. The Squaw Man is not one of those movies. Despite being one of the major box office hits of 1914, the movie lover of a century later - even the movie lover with a particular affection for early silents, as for example the present reviewer - can only gawk at the thing a little unbelievingly, and conclude, "well, things sure as hell used to be different".

Yes and no. Even by the standards of a 1914 feature, it would be a stretch to call The Squaw Man an especially sophisticated piece of filmmaking. This is partially because it was made by unsophisticated filmmakers: the short version of a story that reeks of myth (but then, so many silent-era making-of stories have at least a tang of legend to them) is that an entrepreneurial group made up of Samuel Goldwyn (then going by the name Goldfish), his brother-in-law Jesse L. Lasky, Arthur Friend, and stage director Cecil B. DeMille, whom Goldwyn/Goldfish had worked with in the theater, decided it was time to break into the wild new movie industry, buying the rights to a fantastically successful play by Edwin Milton Royle to smooth that process out. DeMille proving to have not a lick of knowledge about making movies, short film veteran Oscar Apfel (though the short/feature distinction was much more fluid then than it is now) was hired on to serve as co-director, and by some accounts all DeMille really did was watch and learn. The production was set to take place around Flagstaff, Arizona; upon arriving, the crew found it much too unphotogenic for their needs, and so rode the train the rest of the way into Los Angeles, California. There, they made The Squaw Man in December of 1913 and January of 1914, having so little clue what they were doing that they ended up creating a print that couldn't be projected, and had to be jerry-rigged for the film's premiere. Which I've seen referenced as being on 15 or 17 February (post-production used to be a hell of a lot shorter in the medium's Wild West days), neither of which squares with the date of 23 February given in the press book, though perhaps that was merely a date after which it was available for sale.

The point being, no matter how much we want to strip out the romantic bullshit from the story, we still have here a movie made by, essentially, a bunch of well-heeled amateurs. It shows, though not consistently. The thing that surprises me most about The Squaw Man - a film that I've now seen twice, and I do not completely know why - is how erratic the whole thing is. Parts of it are truly wonderful, taking full advantage of the California landscape to eke every drop of production value out of what wasn't a very impressive budget by the day's standards: there is some truly beautiful location photography (the IMDb suggests that the cinematographer we have to thank for this is one Alfred Gandolfi; I don't know how far I trust that site on information for even American movies this old), including one particular shot on the top of a bluff that shows of the splendor of nature with a screen-devouring grandeur that reminds us, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the 32-year-old making his cinematic directorial debut here would end up making some of the most ridiculously splashy, over-indulgent, costly epics in the history of the art form. And I also must admire the outlandish ingenuity by which DeMille and Apfel present the reality of a Western boom town: they simply built their main interior set right alongside a railroad track, and filmed the action as trains roared by, adding a priceless measure of verisimilitude.

On the other hand, there's so much of the film that's just plain wrong, outdated and clumsy by 1914's standards as surely as by ours. The worst is absolutely the way the story is paced: at 74 minutes, the film is less an adaptation of the play than a condensation, and several of the early scenes are flat illustrations of action that the viewer was presumed to already know. In introducing us to cousins James Wynnegate (Dustin Farnum, replicating his stage triumph and inaugurating a film career) and Sir Henry, Earl of Kerhill (Monroe Salisbury), the filmmakers are so eager to push through the exposition that they put up a title card explaining exactly what we're about to see, before presenting a wide shot of activity that we'd otherwise lack any context for. The kind of cinema in which the visuals served mainly as an illustration for the intertitles wasn't exactly dead by 1914, but it was certainly behind the curve. I would certainly get huffier about the notion of a film that's more interested in dramatising barely-connected scenes which only make sense to people who know the source material well if we were just a little bit farther removed from the Harry Potter franchise.

Worse than the clumsy structure of the story - and worse than the aching, dated melodrama, which finds James taking the fall for Sir Henry's embezzlement to spare the woman he loves, Henry's wife Diana (Winifred Kingston), from embarrassmen, sending him to America; he ends up in Wyoming, where he is rescued by and falls in love with a Native American woman named Nat-U-Rich (Red Wing) - is is how frequently clunky and generic the execution is. There are some lovely touches: a dream in which James sees a photograph come to life features a well-mounted double exposure, and there are a few unexpectedly smart close-ups to props, but these are going to mostly only impress film historians.

For everyone else, and even for the historians in great long chunks of the movie, The Squaw Man is full of weirdly unmodulated acting, particularly from Farnum. One would assume that a pre-WWI stage actor making his debut in a relatively primitive silent film would indulge in the most garish of histrionics, but the unbelievably strange thing is that he so consistently underplays, to the point that we frequently have no reason to know what he's thinking or feeling, or if we should care about it. The only credible acting in the film is courtesy of Red Wing, a Ho-Chunk actor with several years of experience at that point, and a relaxed naturalistic relationship with the camera that feels wildly anachronistic, but it works: both because her character is a somewhat exoticised Other, and because (separate from that), she's an emblem of care and warmth and All Good Feminine Things, and the simplicity of her acting is comforting.

In other words: aye, it's a problematic film, though its uncomplicated endorsement of a mix-raced marriage that results in a child feels like it must have been hugely progressive for the era, without even visibly trying (don't forget that the arch-racist The Birth of a Nation was still in the future). It is a film with simple concepts of what roles people fit into. That, and the blunt "Feel This! Feel That!" lurches in tonality (a bad habit DeMille never grew out of), are matched by an aesthetic that is trapped in endless wide shots of people standing in groups; truly dynamic cinematography was a few years out yet, but dynamic blocking wasn't nearly so rare, and the "people talking at people, then a title card" structure needs no desperate historical context. The film made plenty of money, so contemporary audiences must have found it charming, but compared to something like the Italian Cabiria, released only a couple of months later, it's static and dull. For all that it was the first feature-length film shot in Hollywood and thus the progenitor of so much cinema history, it's a blandly reactive, aesthtically conservative film content to trade on a brand name and try as hard as possible to avoid surprising its audience in any way, looking only to make a quick buck off comfort food, and... I've forgotten where I was going with that.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1914
-Charles Chaplin and his Little Tramp character debut
-Winsor McKay premieres the groundbreaking cartoon Gertie the Dinosaur
-The film serial The Perils of Pauline begins

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1914
-The Italian epic Cabiria introduces the tracking shot
-Director Fuat Uzkınay releases a documentary held to be the first Turkish film production
-In France, Louis Feuillade's serial Fantômas is completed