Let's hear it for silent hero of an epic quest

February 25, 2005

A fluke led Kevin Brownlow to write a history of early film that helped rescue a neglected genre. Christopher Wood explains

Kevin Brownlow did not intend to become Britain's leading film historian. Although gripped from an early age by a passion for silent films, it was as a maker of films rather than as our most able and assiduous documenter of film's early history that he wanted to make his mark.

"I started out trying to be a film-maker and not succeeding," Brownlow says. "And then virtually gave up - well, did give up, and went into television documentaries to make film history programmes."

Such a self-deprecating summary hardly reflects Brownlow's huge contribution to film culture. It fails to mention that he was still a teenager when, in 1956, with co-director Andrew Mollo, he embarked on a film that has since acquired legendary status. It Happened Here depicted a Nazi invasion of Britain. Made on a shoestring over many years, it was finally finished in 1964, picked up by United Artists and shown to acclaim in London's West End. Now that Nazis are such a hot button, it is hard to credit that Brownlow initially doubted the film's appeal. "When I started," he recalls, "I said to myself, 'My God, it's 11 years after the war. Nobody will be interested'."

They were interested, but despite its success, the film did not lead to more directing projects. Brownlow fell back on his training as a film editor and, during the 1960s, showed his mettle on two very different films: Lindsay Anderson's low-budget short The White Bus and Tony Richardson's epic The Charge of the Light Brigade . Another film directed with Mollo, Winstanley , came in 1975, but that was the last feature film Brownlow directed.

Instead, and almost by accident, he channelled his passion for silent film into one of the best books written on the subject. "I had this great interest in silent films," he recalls. "It struck me in the 1960s that it was as if you had a great interest in American literature and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway were still alive, and you could interview them. I realised that an enormous number of people who made these pictures were being overlooked. So I pretended I was writing a book in order to see them. I had no intention of doing it."

A visit to Hollywood in 1964 convinced him otherwise. Over ten days he conducted 28 interviews, including with Joseph Henabery, who played Abraham Lincoln in D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation , directed many films himself and who Brownlow had no idea was still alive. "It was almost as if I asked one question and got a four-hour answer. He was phenomenal. He told me so much that I realised I had to write the book."

The result, The Parade's Gone By , came out in 1968. A work of awesome depth and scope, it rehabilitated numerous forgotten films and film-makers and introduced Brownlow as something like the conscience of film history, redressing its inaccuracies, omissions and false emphases. No student of cinema history can do without it.

"In that era," he says, "the general run of cinemagoers had contempt for silent cinema: 'ludicrously acted, jerky, flickery, badly made' et cetera. Indeed, when silent films were reissued they tended to look like that. There were also 'flicker flashbacks'; they used to put a silent film on and have a commentator sending them up, and people would roar with laughter. There was a tremendous prejudice. I felt like someone on a one-man crusade to show that the technicians of the past weren't idiots."

When Jeremy Isaacs, then at Thames TV, read The Parade's Gone By , he was sufficiently impressed to commission a series devoted to the American silent film. Hollywood was directed by Brownlow with David Gill, another vital part of the silent revival, and on the strength of it the two directors, together with composer Carl Davis, established the highly successful Thames Silents series of silent films screened with live orchestral accompaniment. Some 30 films were dusted down and brought blinking into the light, but the most famous (and the one with which Brownlow's name will always be associated) is Abel Gance's Napoleon . Several decades of painstaking work have united disparate fragments of the film, and Napoleon now runs at a spectacular five and a half hours, in a tinted print with the famous triptych finale restored to its place. Brownlow's efforts won official recognition from the French Government, which made him a Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. His 50-year involvement with the film is commemorated in the recently reissued book Napoleon: Abel Gance's Classic Film .

In 1990, Brownlow and Gill founded Photoplay Productions with Patrick Stanbury to keep the crusade going on behalf of silent movies. Gill died in 1997, but Photoplay continued to produce illuminating TV documentaries, including Cecil B. DeMille: American Epic and The Tramp and the Dictator , about Charlie Chaplin, Hitler and the making of the satire The Great Dictator .

By rights, all this should have guaranteed silent films their rightful place in our cultural heritage. But for Brownlow, it is still an uphill struggle, even now when an increasing number of silents are available on DVD.

"The problem is we're so far away from that period. People have no connection with it. Young people won't even look at black and white (films). If The Times Higher sold as many copies as those DVDs, you'd be out of business overnight. The market is very small. But it's much more passionate. In the 1950s, you could not have filled a cinema to show a silent film. Now you get festivals in Italy that are so oversubscribed they can't find room to put the people up."

A seeming anomaly in Brownlow's bibliography is his 1996 biography of David Lean. But Lean, like Brownlow, was an aficionado of silent films, and his large-scale conceptions resonated with his biographer. "As a film director I always wanted to make epics," Brownlow says. "I wasn't interested in making anything except films nobody would back me for. Lawrence of Arabia I admired particularly."

Like much in Brownlow's career, the book happened partly by accident. He was hired to interview Lean to provide material for the director's autobiography, but a devious publisher allowed both to believe the other was writing the book. When Lean died, the task fell to Brownlow, who interviewed everyone he could find who had worked with Lean, and created a classic.

Depressingly, Photoplay is struggling to sell its documentaries for transmission in Europe. Turner Classic Movies in the US will screen the two latest, one on Greta Garbo, the other about Merian C. Cooper ( King Kong ) and Ernest Schoedsack, in the autumn. If sense prevails, Brownlow's own country will recognise his importance and follow suit.

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