Review: Rex Ingram: Visionary Director of the Silent Screen, by Ruth Barton
Kevin Rockett on a lively, well-written account of a pioneering Irish film director
Roll ’em: the Irish-born film-maker Rex Ingram on the European set of Mare Nostrum, in 1926. Photograph: John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images
Kevin Rockett Rex Ingram : Visionary Director of the Silent Screen
University Press of Kentucky
In 1980 the film archivist and historian Liam O’Leary published the first, and until now only, monograph on the Irish-born film director and writer Rex Ingram. At a time of increasing interest in silent movies, O’Leary’s evocatively illustrated labour of love, Rex Ingram: Master of the Silent Cinema, brought one of cinema’s greatest directors to the attention of general readers.
Ruth Barton, a lecturer in film studies at Trinity College Dublin, has built on O’Leary’s research to produce a lively, well-written account of Ingram’s life and work. Barton draws on O’Leary’s archive, housed since 1986 at the National Library of Ireland (but, shamefully, still uncatalogued and so unavailable to most researchers). She also makes extensive use of Ingram’s long-lost, almost 600-page unpublished autobiography, which she discovered with his home movies.
Ingram, born Reginald Ingram Montgomery Hitchcock in 1893, was the first son of the Rev Francis and Kathleen (née Ingram) Hitchcock. Governed by the dictates of his father’s Church of Ireland postings, the family moved in 1898 from Dublin to Tipperary and in 1903 to Offaly, where Francis was rector of Kinnitty.
The young Rex had little appetite for his father’s lessons in Latin and mathematics, and instead imagined a career in advertising and illustration. Much to the disappointment of his father, a Trinity College Dublin scholar and prolific author of ecclesiastical and historical works, Rex failed Trinity’s entrance exam and so emigrated to the United States, never to return to Ireland.
In the US Ingram enrolled at Yale to study sculpture but abandoned his studies to work in the nascent film business. Like so many in the early decades of the new medium, he learned his trade by working in a variety of jobs (extra, stuntman, scene painter, screenwriter) for different production companies (Edison, Vitagraph, Fox).
Universal gave Ingram his first job as writer-director with The Great Problem (1916), a convoluted crime melodrama that embodied both the strengths and weaknesses of his later work: visually and compositionally rich but with derivative or banal and usually melodramatic plots. Nevertheless, over the following 10 years his virtuoso direction and distinctive visual style largely compensated for shortcomings in the scenarios.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), based on Vicente Blasco Ibáñez’s blockbuster anti-war novel, was greeted as a landmark film, with comparisons made to such masterworks as Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria (1914) and Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915).
Barton takes the view that, in making the film, Ingram “must surely” have been influenced by the 1916 Rising and the first World War (in which his brother Frank served), though perhaps the Irish war of independence acted as a more immediate reminder of conflict. (Four Horsemen was released in March 1921, when the war was at its most intense.)
She notes, for example, how Ingram considered adapting Bram Stoker’s Dracula and suggests that The Conquering Power (1921), released four days before the Anglo-Irish Truce, is his most Irish film, given its “lurking Gothic sensibility, that sense of horror erupting into everyday life”.
The immediacy of the Irish war would have been brought home to Ingram with the killing by the IRA of family friends, the Pearson brothers of Coolacrease, eight kilometres from Kinnitty, on June 30th, 1921, less than two weeks before the truce was agreed.
Ingram, like his father, was further alienated from Ireland by the Civil War, and one of the most striking images reproduced in O’Leary’s book is an Ingram ink sketch, titled Irish civil war, in which the grim reaper is handing a gun to a man peacefully ploughing a field. In 1924 the direct family connection to Ireland was severed when Hitchcock, like so many of his background, moved to England.
We should not forget the importance of German expressionist cinema, which formed a lasting influence on Ingram’s major works and whose figures (such as dwarfs and hunchbacks, the embodiment of evil) populate Ingram’s cinematic world.
Disillusion sets inScaramouche Mare Nostrum
At its simplest Ingram’s difficulty with Hollywood was two-part. First, even though he retained an enviable degree of independence in his films (including final cut), he resented surveillance of his projects by the studio boss Louis B Mayer. It was a mutual hostility not unconnected to Ingram’s anti-Semitism. Second, Hollywood’s increasing emphasis on plot-driven narratives ran counter to Ingram’s focus on the image and his visual sensibility.
Believing that art cinema had greater status in Europe, Ingram relocated to Nice – where he acquired Victorine Studios – with his close collaborators, including his wife and lead actress, Alice Terry, and his regular cinematographer John Seitz.
The further attraction of Nice was its proximity to north Africa and Islamic culture. Between 1926 and 1932 (when he made his last film, Baroud) Ingram immersed himself in Arab culture and converted to Islam. Yet these post-Hollywood films display an uncritical orientalism, along with a sympathetic but voyeuristic representation of Arab culture, complete with age-old western fantasies and stereotypes, including the seductive woman dancing for the male viewer. Like his peers, Ingram did not challenge the miscegenation ban in his representations of inter-race relationships.
Ingram’s “outmoded” narratives and assumptions of a bygone era are, ironically, mediated by breathtaking exterior cinematography of north Africa within a realist documentary aesthetic, influenced by Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922). As a result these “travelogues” were received by audiences and critics alike as being simply old-fashioned.
Islamic art collector
Ingram’s interest in Islam seems to have been more aesthetic than ideological, seeing perhaps in the art a contrast to the visual sterility of the Protestant religious culture of his youth. Of course, Ingram’s rejection of western values can also be read as a reaction against his father and authority.
In any case it is hard not to see in his “immersion” the same “imperialist mindset”, as Barton calls it, that he encountered as a child when his father provided him with a large cardboard cut-out of the quintessential crusader, the Anglo-Norman Richard the Lionheart.
Perhaps Ingram, who behaved with authoritarianism on set, never really escaped his empirist and patriarchal roots. It could be, paradoxically, that, beyond the visual richness of his films and his embrace of Islam, he hankered for the old order.
Barton’s achievement is to touch on these themes in a readable and informative manner while providing us with a multilayered portrait of the pictorialist director.
Kevin Rockett is professor of film studies at Trinity College Dublin. His most recent books (with Emer Rockett) are Magic Lantern, Panorama and Moving Picture Shows in Ireland, 1786-1909 and Film Exhibition and Distribution in Ireland, 1909-2010