The Silent Era Lives! Action Movies Carry On the Silent Film Tradition
Welcome to Yippee-Ki-YAY, a regular column that celebrates action cinema in all its glory. This edition looks at how action movies have embraced elements of silent films to tell their stories.
The action film as we know it was born in 1903 when the theatre lights dimmed and The Great Train Robbery played for the first time. Sure, it was also a western and a crime film, but think of the set pieces: a robbery complete with a tied-up hostage, a shootout, an explosion to open a safe, a fight scene atop a moving train, and the list goes on. There was no doubt that the action film had arrived.
The genre would barely be in existence for 25 years before the film industry had its first great existential crisis: the advent of sound. Films and filmmakers would struggle and flounder in this new hybrid medium; famous silent stars like Vilma Banky and Norma Talmadge didn’t make the transition to sound, and even Charlie Chaplin resisted at first. The writing was on the wall, though: once audiences saw and heard singing and dancing in perfect sync, sound was here to stay.
There have been many homages to the silent era in the 90 years since the advent of sound. From love letters like Singin’ in the Rain and Silent Movie, to characters like those portrayed by Jacques Tati, Harpo Marx, and Pierre Étaix, to Oscar-winning films like The Artist, Hollywood has long embraced its silent roots. The one thing they all have in common, though, is the desire to look backwards with their love for silent cinema, never forward.
What future is there for silent cinema, you might ask? Look no further than the action genre. Action movies were barely 26 when sound was invented, still discovering themselves, and the advent of sound brought its own problems to action movies. How do you get light and exciting camera movement once there is a microphone there to pick up every sound, whir of a machine, and rustle of fabric?
That’s where action movies got inventive. Sure, they would embrace sound, but they would do it on their own terms. Action movies became a soundscape of music and diegetic sound, free of the prison of human voice and exposition.
Think of the greatest moments in Leone’s action-westerns, from the Fistful of Dollars trilogy to Once Upon a Time in the West. Is it the dialogue you remember? Or is it the music and tension before a gun is drawn? Moving ahead in time, what is the best line of dialogue in John Wick? And does it even remotely measure up to the dozens of virtuoso action moments that surrounded it?
The genre is successful in its evolution of silent cinema because it achieves its central tenet and expectation without needing to utter a single word: action. An action film is at its best when it needs to tell you nothing and show you everything. It is perhaps ironic that playwright David Mamet once said, “A good film script should be able to do completely without dialogue.” He is a famously verbose dialogue writer and many of his films are a bit stagy, but he isn’t entirely wrong in his assessment. That’s why action movies excel at silent film storytelling.
There is a pragmatic purity to the structure of action film storytelling. All action stories have a task to be accomplished, and a plan to bring about that accomplishment. From out of the plan comes the complication, for which there can only be two outcomes: failure to achieve the task, or ingenuity to find a new solution. That’s it! And every bit of that can be done without dialogue. It’s not that dialogue is worthless (trust me, I’m a screenwriter who loves writing dialogue). It’s just that, when an action film is perfectly calibrated and executed, dialogue is unnecessary.
The best action films, from Mad Max: Fury Road to No Country for Old Men to The Revenant, understand the power of focusing on a single task and the narrative satisfaction of watching a protagonist single-mindedly pursue it. If you doubt the truth of that proposition, I invite you to watch Jules Dassin’s Rififi, a brilliant film with a 30-minute robbery sequence that contains no dialogue and no music but is some of the most breathtaking action storytelling ever committed to film.
That relatable simplicity is what makes action movies connect emotionally. The heroes in action movies may seem larger than life, but in truth, they’re the characters most closely aligned to us existentially. They are there simply to get shit done.
We may be moved by the melancholy turmoil of Hamlet or the passion of John Keating teaching in Dead Poets Society. We may have lofty ambitions, angst, and deep-rooted passions. But just as importantly, we have things we need to do to survive in life. And that is where we relate most to the action heroes: John McClane needs to see his wife; Lewellyn Moss wants that case full of money; Furiosa just has to escape.
That’s where the action genre’s true dedication to the silent film tradition shines through strongest: their mostly silent protagonists. The “man of few words” has long been a cliche in action movies, from the taciturn western characters of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood to the tongue-in-cheek action roles from Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose sole form of communication was thematically-related one-liners about how his enemies died.
But the evolution of the modern action hero shows us a shifting reason for the characters’ silence. First, it was imposed due to technological limitations. Now, it is because of spiritual limitations.
In classic silent action films, there was a simplicity to character motivations: good guys fought bad guys, and the good guys won. However, the evolution of silent film storytelling in the action genre reveals a more complicated but truer narrative. For the protagonists in action movies (heroic, villainous, or somewhere in between), the things they do aren’t because of their profession; their actions are literally who they are.
Action films are a constant reminder that it is what we do that matters. Hamlet spends most of his play lamenting and contemplating, but nothing changes in his circumstance. Beliefs and ideals are commendable, but if they don’t come with actions, they are worthless. The modern action film is telling us that the silent protagonist is the pinnacle of faith: the protagonist lives their belief, therefore they are what they do.
For example, there are three films similar in style and intent, and each one gives us a piece of the puzzle that is the silent hero: Le Samourai, The Driver, and Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai.
Le Samourai gives us Jef Costello, a French hitman who styles himself as a modern samurai. The story begins in his apartment, and we know everything we need to know about him without a word. The room is empty except for a birdcage. He has no life except what he does. The movie begins when he gets an assignment, and it ends when the assignment does. It is not a coincidence that his life ends at the exact same moment.
The Driver gives that melding of action and identity a literal dimension. Our main character is The Driver; there is no other name because there is no other purpose. The same is true for everyone in the story, from The Detective pursuing him to The Player who gives him an alibi for a price. The identity of all the characters becomes existentially linked to their roles. What they do is all that matters now.
And in Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai, director Jim Jarmusch toys with the silent hero trope in interesting ways, using voice-over and dialogue to ironically prove the power of silence. He gives his hero, Ghost Dog, a continuing voice-over, but even in his inner thoughts, he speaks only in quotations from the book Hagakure, the Way of the Samurai. He is unable to even daydream of a life outside of what he does. The few scenes of genuine dialogue Ghost Dog has are with a French food truck owner, and the two of them echo each other’s thoughts exactly with no awareness of that repetition because of their language barrier. In his deadpan style, Jarmusch reminds us that dialogue can sometimes be less revealing than silence.
The exploration of silent cinema continues in the action genre through to today, with silent figures as diverse as Ryan Gosling’s nearly mute stuntman in Drive, Dafne Keen’s quietly feral Laura in Logan, and Keanu Reeves’ John Wick, who barely speaks 500 words in the entire first film.
In the modern era, when so much of human interaction is reduced to empty words on a screen, backed by nothing else, perhaps it’s time to take a page from the great silent action characters who first appeared on movie screens over 100 years ago. We don’t need to rob a train, or even seek revenge on the Russian gangsters who killed our dog. But we can follow their lead and embrace the existential idea that who we are is largely made up of the actions we take. That we can talk less, and do more.
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