Whereas Hollywood is now recognized as the biggest film industry in the world, initially, other countries had equally large and influential cinemas. Films from France, Japan and even Germany have secured a spot in some of the very first and most influential movies of all time. During World War I, the film industry grew to international audiences due to stories about the war, politics and family issues. Importantly, silent films were very common due to their ease of production, lack of much expertise on synchronized sound, and general enjoyment from the general public. Some silent films steered away from the norm and set their mark as some of the most memorable films of all time. One such film is “A Tale of Two Cities” which was based on the 1859 novel by Charles Dickenson of the same title.
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Cinema has come a long way since the early 1900s. between 1890 and 1930, a lot of inventions and innovative ideas in film were recorded all over the world, but mainly in the US. Kalat explains that initially, silent films were the most common type of cinema in the world.1 History describes cinema before and during World War I as entertaining and informative. Ideally, some of the major themes that revolved around cinema then were politics, identity and culture. There was so much myth about the different cultures in the world as people began traveling. Additionally, World War I also enhanced storytelling with a need to keep families informed about what was going on around the world. In fact, as Dudley observes, World War I enhanced the field of cinema in terms of quality of content and picture.2 Sound became a critical part of cinema at this point as well.
The selected silent cinema, as per the instructions of the assignment, revolves around a French doctor referred to as Manette, who was imprisoned for 18 years in Paris. After being released, he opted to make shoes, a skill he had learnt in prison as opposed to going back to being a physician. Manette was arrested immediately before his daughter was born and so did not know her. After his release, his daughter, Lucie, tracked him down in Paris and introduced herself. He then decided to move to London to reconnect with her. The story is intertwined with the activities that led to the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror. The story shows the differences between the two cities, London and Paris as the characters go back and forth while trying to make their mark before the French Revolution.
Analysis of A Tales of Two Cities
Element 1: Silent Film
One of the key elements of the film is its “silent” nature. Kalat explains that a silent film does not use synchronized sound in its production but can incorporate text cards to help the audience understand the story.3 There are several reasons why “A Tale of Two Cities” was successful as a silent film in 1911. The first is the fact that this was the most common form of film production at the time. Although there were cinemas that incorporated sound at the time, many producers and the public in general, still preferred the silent films. Additionally, the silent films were cheaper to produce, thus, made it also cheaper for people to watch the movies. As stated, when the movie was released, much innovation and experimenting was being done in the film industry.
It is crucial to mention that the silent film also allowed the production team to use creativity to communicate with the audience. Parrill notes that a majority of successful silent films were comical in nature.4 This was due to the fact that it was easier for both the production team and the characters to portray funny actions based on culture and even politics. “A Tale of Two Cities” was, however, highly political with underlying messages of patriotism, nationalism, and family loyalty/ties. It is arguable that this was made harder by the fact that a majority of the audience preferred silent movies. Indeed, the challenges ensured that the production team tapped into their creativity to deliver the film, which is identified as a classic in cinema history.
Element 2: Story Line
The story line has some similarities with film during that era. The new medium era, which is the period between 1890 and 1930, when the film was produced and released, was characterized by simple storylines revolving around one character. Today, story lines are more complicated with one film focusing on the development of different characters. “A Tale of Two Cities” adhered to this standard method of storytelling by only focusing on the growth and development of the main character, Dr. Manette. There are several characters that have been used to advance the story of Manette. Whereas these characters are fully developed their personalities are highly dependent on Manette’s story. For example, the Defarges struggles to define themselves and fight for their family that they decide to go to the cell Manette was held in for 18 years. The story has very few supporting actors and actresses as a majority of them are well developed. This is very different from the silent films that were released at the time as they only focused on one storyline with many supporting characters.
As stated, a majority of the movies that were produced at the same time also used the same simplicity in their story lines. This was done to enhance the understanding of the audience. Arguably, many of the target audience were not learned and would have a harder time comprehending complex story lines. The simplicity of the story line also ensures that the film is considered an entertainment as opposed to a critical thinking platform. Wall-Ramana explains that early cinema focused more on light humor and acted as a get away from the normal chaos and challenges of daily life.5 Arguably, this is one of the reasons why people watch Hollywood movies today. Thus, at the time, it made sense to have a light and simple story line to encourage people to watch the film.
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Element 3: Cinematography
The cinematography used in the film was significantly different from other movies of the same era. One unique factor about “A Tale of Two Cities” cinematography is the low angle light. There are several implications that were realized due to the use of low angling cameras. First, the characters were made more human and relatable. Barsam and Monahan argue that the low angling lighting ensured that actual human physical characteristics were recorded.6 This, coupled with the fact that the characters did not use any make-up, allowed the audience to see them as their next door neighbors. One of the reasons this was important was to allow the audiences to share mutual feelings and appreciation for the heroes of the story.
It is important to point out that “A Tale of Two Cities” is described as one of the first films to experiment with up-close shots. Additionally, the film used a few up-close shots and its impact can be tied to the historical “Joan of Arc” film that was released a decade later. Interestingly, the up-close shots were mainly reserved for the antagonists of the movie. This is due to the fact that the shots were not flattering to these characters, thus, made it harder for the audience to relate to them. Manette and his daughter were filmed differently so that they were likeable.
It is interesting that Charles, who later became Lucia’s husband, was initially filmed differently as well. This ensured that the audience could not tell whether he was a good or bad person. Later, after marrying Lucia and rejecting his family, he was filmed in a similar fashion as Lucia and her family. The difference in appearance based on light was made possible through the use of different lights and unusual camera angles. Notably, during the period the film was released, there was standard way of taking shots. This was largely adhered to in the production of the film. One can argue that the producer wanted to clearly bring out the true story of the two cities, which make up a lot of the background scenes, through the right mix of camera work.
The unique style of filming, especially the unusual angles, also helped with the portrayal of the different places that were highlighted in the movie as mentioned. In particular, the prison where Manette was held immediately after capture, in Bastille, is painted as a miserable, lonely and pathetic place. The producer used the different angles and specific camera shots to bring this out both when Manette was there and when the Defarges went to investigate it. A difference in lighting also allowed the production team to highlight the horrible conditions of the prison. Arguably, the story line is enhanced by the different camera and lighting works that were used. Barsam and Monahan agree that producers began to look at filming, camerawork and lighting differently during this particular time of film production.7 It can be argued that the movie opened up the industry to the possibility of using cinematography to advance a story’s plot and also for character development.
Unlike other movies of the same era, “A Tale of Two Cities” included several master shots to bring out the difference between the two cities clealy. Komatsu explains that cinema should not always be viewed from a streamlined artistic viewpoint.8 One can argue that this concept is applicable in the production of “A Tale of Two Cities”. Komatsu explains that the quality of video after World War I greatly improved.9 This was not only in Japan but also in the US and other parts of the world. “A Tale of Two Cities” was released right before World War I and even though film largely changed after the war, this particular movie stood out from the rest. This is due to the influence of both storytelling and production that had been changing due to the talks and preparations of war.
It is also important to note that the lack of consistent eye lines in the film worked to make the story line more interesting and adheres to the rules that guided film production at the time. The camera work ensures that people who are addressing each other are looking at different sides of the screen. For example, if character A speaks facing the right side of the camera, the person s/he is addressing will speak facing the left side. This ensures that the audience understands the actions between the characters and their relationship with each other despite it being a silent movie. Critically, the extreme close ups that were used in the movie also enhance the audiences understanding of the individual characters’ relationship and feelings of other characters. An example can be given to explain further.
Element 4: Depiction of Themes
There are several themes that are highlighted in the film. One of the major themes is politics. Whereas Manette was loyal to France, he had been wrongly arrested and imprisoned for 18 years. The same applies to Charles, who was almost convicted for wrong doing by his own country before he fled to England. One can argue that the experiences of the main characters in regards to politics was highly motivated by the war. In the novel, the war was the French Revolution, where France was fighting England, but during the production of the film, the war in question was World War I. The theme was common during the era due to the concluded World War I. Considering that World War I shaped ideas and opinions in regards to global politics, the film rode on the interest of the masses on political affiliations. At that time, countries were testing whether their allegiances formed during World War I would work. Historically, France was allied to Britain, Russia and the US during World War I. However, France and Britain had previously been at war during the French Revolution, as mentioned, which forms the story line of this film. One can argue that although this theme resonated more with alliances made during World War I, it was also significant (to be released at that time) as a reminder of both France’s and Britain’s history.
A second major theme is the role of women. Lucia Manette is considered a heroine in the movie due to her efforts to fight for the rights of her father, maintain her household and marriage and unite her country. The film brings out the power of Lucia (and by extension the power of women) through her character depiction. This is in sharp contrast with Madame Defarge another strong female character in the film. Madame Defarge governs equally alongside her husband and even makes some critical decisions on her own. She is considered one of the main antagonists of the film.
The issue of family is also highlighted in the film. There are three main families in the film, namely The Manettes, the Defarges, and the Evrémondes. Each of these families is pushed by their loyalty to each other. For example, despite not knowing her father, Lucia went to France to pick him up after he was released from prison. She also made sure that he was accepted into the English society where they lived together. On the same note, the Defarges work together to advance their family’s interests, which is similar to the efforts of the Evrémondes. The theme of family is also highlighted through Lucia’s marriage to Charles, who uses the name Darnay, but is in reality an Evrémonde. The fact that Charles did not want anything to do with the Evrémondes goes to show that individual family members can have different opinions despite being raised in the same set-up.
In conclusion, the history of world cinema is indeed portrayed in the silent film, “A Tale of Two Cities”. The film is considered as one of the best films of its era. One factor that led to such a consideration is the use of unusual camera work and lighting to enhance the plot and also develop the characters. For instance, close-ups have been used to highlight emotions and character relationships. The history of cinema revolves around three main periods. “A Tale of Two Cities” was produced and released during the first phase, which is referred to as the new medium. Some of the characteristics of movies in the period include the use of black and white pictures, simplicity in storyline, humor and use of make-up to hide flaws. “A Tale of Two Cities” shaped the film industry after its release as it changed some of these normal occurrences and usage in film. For instance, it did not incorporate humor and did not shy away from politics even though it was released in the middle of World War I.
Barsam, Richard, and Dave Monahan. Looking at Movies. New York, NY: Norton & Company, 2015.
Dudley, Andrew. “An Atlas of World Cinema.” Framework 45, no. 2 (2004): 9-23.
Kalat, David. A Critical History and Filmography of Toho’s Godzilla Series. 2d ed. New York, NY: McFarland, 2017.
Komatsu, Hiroshi. “The Foundation of Modernism: Japanese Cinema in the Year 1927.” Film History 17, (2005): 363–375.
Parrill, B. William. European Silent Films on Video: A Critical Guide. New York, NY: McFarland, 2015.
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Wall-Ramana, Christophe. Jean Epstein: Corporeal cinema and film philosophy. London: Manchester University Press, 2016.
- David Kalat, A Critical History and Filmography of Toho’s Godzilla Series, 2d ed. (New York, NY: McFarland, 2017), 32.
- Andrew Dudley, “An Atlas of World Cinema,” Framework 45, no. 2 (2004): 10.
- David Kalat, A Critical History and Filmography, 32.
- William B. Parrill, European Silent Films on Video: A Critical Guide (New York, NY: McFarland, 2015), 41.
- Christophe Wall-Ramana, Jean Epstein: Corporeal Cinema and Film Philosophy (London: Manchester University Press, 2016), 13.
- Richard Barsam and Dave Monahan, Looking at Movies (New York, NY: Norton & Company, 2015), 14.
- Richard Barsam and Dave Monahan, Looking at Movies, 14.
- Hiroshi Komatsu, “The Foundation of Modernism: Japanese Cinema in the Year 1927,” Film History 17, (2005): 363.
- Hiroshi Komatsu, “The Foundation of Modernism,” 364.