Joe Baker and his arch-nemesis race across the virgin American wilderness and try to kill each other in a search for gold. One of about 61 films its director made that year (1912), 13 minutes long, silent, forgotten, and French, Jean Durand’s Le railway de la mort should be a great American classic. But maybe it could only be French: the two men, nearly indistinguishable from each other, occupy far backgrounds beyond swaying wheat stalks and shimmering swamps, as indifferent figures to the landscape as they are to Durand. The human tale is purely existential, in the pettiest ways—the men are nothing more than bodies trying to kill each other and get gold—as the nature ode is totally romantic in the sublimest.
Years later, American avant-gardists would forget the men, film nature, and find, in a flash of wind, all the corollaries to filmic experience in their backyard: the sparkle of lights on waves is like sand in the wind is like the flicker of film grain; the flare of lights through the trees, illuminating vision then wiping it out, is like the flare of lights at the end of a reel, as the film, like a candle, flicks its brightest as it dies (and the world, to the director, is illuminated no more); and only film, in its flicker, could capture the brush of wind on a tree as it moves beyond our grasp. This is the great power of film that only the early silent filmmakers and late avant-gardists (from Jacobs to Brakhage) seem to have realized: show the world as it moves, completely on its own. In Straub-Huillet we can see the light brighten and darken in single shots. “What modern movies lack is wind in the trees,” D.W. Griffith said famously, or perhaps not at all. “Do not move/ Let the wind speak/ That is paradise,” Ezra Pound wrote. Durand, like Renoir, like Brakhage, like Griffith, lets the wind speaks. It tells us men are petty penny-idiots. And have nothing to do with the earth.
This is deadpan romanticism: you can say Durand captures men oblivious to the world, or the world oblivious to men. It’s a gangster story set in the fields—what could be more American? Murnau and Malick would show men as wildlife in the harvest, but there, man and nature’s in harmony as each is subordinated to the other; here, they’re in total divide. Did Stroheim see this thing? Only the last scenes of Greed, it seems, even attempted what Durand attempts here, to take two men struggling to own the world, pluck them out of civilization, and put them in the world itself, indifferent as they kill each other for the gold that could never save them.
And nowhere is this divide—between the objectivity of a camera plopped-down recording whatever happens and the raptures it records, between two men in a gangster film and the Western that surrounds them, between their blood-lust and nature’s calm—more perfectly irreconciled than in a single shot on a train top, as the men wrestle, and the camera patiently stares at them and the grass to the side of the train passing by. Feverous as their fight is—and it is all the more dramatic with the realization that it’s real, that there are two actual men actually fighting on top of an actually moving train—their trajectory is only one element of the scene. The train’s steady traversal is another; the nature it traverses is a third. These go serenely. The world, as it does throughout Le railway de la mort, seems to move entirely on its own. Vitalized, if only the men would see it.
Frank James, Henry Fonda, jumps on the back of a train from his horse, then, in one or two tracking shots shots, sulks along the roof to the front while locals eat their food and play cards and read the newspaper in the cabins below. They’re seen lit-up against warm yellows in the windows; James is only a shadow in the moon-light. Henry King’s 1939 Jesse James contains no stronger use of color, or of movement. The train is a whole safe, traveling world, to and from which James is the threatening outcast. The camera shows it, but passes by it, and follows James. But in a single shot, two worlds, criminals and card-players, dusky blues and bright, circumscribed patches of yellow, collide. Each window’s a vignette of people who have no idea what’s going to happen. James, of course, can’t see that they’re there. But they’re each one side of the other. The bankers the James brothers rob are the original enemies in King’s version, but in their drive to avenge society’s wrongs, the brother just rationalize their real drive: they, like the bankers, just want money. In one shot, we see two versions of the rich, and, just almost, how they got to be that way. In time, King will be recognized as one of the great directors of frontier loneliness (State Fair, The Black Swan).
In a few takes, the shot will be repeated in Nicholas Ray’s remake, The True Story of Jesse James, another Ray story about rebels looking for a home, even as domesticity erupts in the raging madmen it’s suppressed. A stiff film, but the shot will work again: here, in the exact same shot, it’s the loner expelled from the warm lights of home he tries to recover. Did Ray just make The Odyssey over and over? In any case, a shot of a horse breaking through a bank window at the camera will not just recur in the King and the Ray, but Walter Hill’s The Long Riders, about a community all its own.