Review of Cabiria (1914)

Moving picture, 148 minutes

Review refers to a 130-minute Swedish national archive version, seen with live piano accompaniment.

Greedy servants discover their master’s treasure chamber as it cracks open during an eruption of mount Etna. The young daughter of the wealthy household sticks with her thieving, fleeing nurse and is consequently abducted by pirates. They bring the girl to Carthage, where a Roman spy and his huge black slave try to rescue her from the sacrificial furnace of the dark god Moloch. The city does not fall for ten more years.

A Roman epic recorded partly on location. Cabiria is loosely composed, based on simple tableaux, but it nonetheless represents an important historical development from the previous year’s Quo Vadis? (1913). Whereas action scenes in Quo Vadis are cheap and boring, with little or no stunts, carefully controlled foreground fires and empty clothes instead of credible-looking dead bodies disturbed by lions, Cabiria is a cinematic spectacle that looks as if it was dangerous to make. It is one of the earliest films of its length: A more daring attempt to create a blockbuster that would beat the competition by the scale of its thrills.

This is apparently the original source of a successful modern folkloric archetype, the fascistoid Maciste. He resembles Ali in The Count of Monte Cristo (1844), but is simplified for film. Maciste thus appeared in more than 50 later films with little regard for “facts” like skin colour or that he lived as a slave in the Punic wars. Later on, in the post-fascist 1960s, the same thing would happen to Ursus, a Lydian (modern western Turkish) character who looks similarly impressive in Quo Vadis but, again, that movie didn’t have stunts.

References here: Die Nibelungen: Kriemhild’s Revenge (1924), Metropolis (1927), “The Imagination of Disaster” (1965).

moving picture fiction