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A fascinating relic of the later work of a British pioneer of cinema. Hepworth's film is a melodrama in the classic 19th century literary mould,
When comparing some of the early work of British film pioneer Cecil Hepworth with that of some of his European and American peers, it is easy to dismiss them as inferior. Georges Melies' 'La Voyage De la Lune' was an extraordinary piece of work. Edison and Porter's 'The Great Train Robbery' practically invented a genre that would go on to rule Hollywood for many decades.
The truth of the matter, however, is that each of these great creators was different. Each experimented with what they knew and developed their techniques in a different way. Hepworth created some fascinating effects using filming and editing techniques to trick the amazed early cinema viewer in films like his 'How it Feels to be Run Over' and 'Explosion of a Motor Car' and the very first adaptation of 'Alice In Wonderland'. Hepworth, of course, practically invented a genre himself with the Lassie-style creation of 'Rescued By Rover'.
Naturally, his ambitions grew over time as he moved on to creating longer narrative films, often based on literary classics by the likes of William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens. It is in this bracket that 'Helen of Four Gates' fits.
An original 35mm copy of the film was discovered to have survived in Montreal, Canada, and was brought back to Britain and publicly screened for the first time in around 90 years to a sold out 500 person audience at one of the oldest surviving Picture Houses in the UK in Hebden Bridge, the town above which 'Helen of Four Gates' was filmed. This was a truly special event, especially when considering that Hepworth Manufacturing Company went bust in 1924 and his films were melted down for the silver nitrate content. The vast majority of these early cinematic treasures are tragically lost forever.
Based on a novel that launched with immense success at the end of WW1 by an ex-mill girl named Ethel Carnie Holdsworth, Hepworth's adaptation opens with a prologue that doesn't exist in the book, laying down the motivation behind the despicable actions of Abel Mason. Hepworth clearly felt that the hatred and violence inflicted upon the titular Helen by he who is supposed to be her father required explaining.
We are launched, then, into the life of the grown-up Helen, named after her mother whose rejection caused so much grief and anger to swell in Abel Mason's heart. I will reveal no more than this. What follows is a Bronte-esquire story of vengeance, jealousy and love set against the bleak yet beautiful backdrop of the Pennine moors.
The contrasting nature of the pennine moors is important. The harsh, bleakness of it perfectly represents the harshness with which Helen is treated. By contrast, the wild, elemental beauty of it is represented perfectly by the beauty of Helen, who shines amidst the tortures bestowed upon her. This may be stretching it, but the vividness of the image that Hepworth has created may represent this very contrast in the story. Light and dark are beautifully rendered in the shots.
When viewing silent films of the time, it is always important to expect lots of animated gesturing in the acting. In 'Helen of Four Gates', this is particularly evident during the prologue sequence. Afterwards, the acting in 'Helen of Four Gates' is often surprisingly subtle in comparison to other films of the time. I may, however, just be getting more used to it.
It is interesting to see such an old film depicting violence towards women, in light of some recent articles examining the fascination cinema seems to have with such depictions. It would be very interesting to learn what feelings and reactions were drawn from audiences both men and women when viewing the film's more violent moments 90 years ago.
It is important to mention that all the caption text is written in old Yorkshire dialect, taken directly from the novel, and is slightly difficult for Yorkshire folk even now to follow. There is often enough time to read through it twice, and that is mostly enough to get the general idea.
In criticism, I would say there are a number of scenes that could have been shorter. A number of shots linger too long and test the viewer's patience but this is not a major problem and much of the film is quite well paced for a melodrama. The story is perfectly adequate and plotted well, but it pales in comparison with some of the European classics of the time. The underlying alleged family madness that causes the sequence of events that leads to all the hard feelings doesn't stand up particularly well, but is reasonably believable for the time. The depressing nature of much of the story is quite jarring, but this is not a major criticism, more a warning that there's very little light along the way. The main characters, even the lovers, have dubious elements that do not endear them wholly to the audience.
Overall, it was a wonderful experience to see this film in the packed old Picture House with live accompaniment by a brilliant pianist in Hebden Bridge, above which it was shot. I, in fact, grew up just along the road from the farms and valleys in and around which the film was mostly shot and to see these locations 90 years ago was a joy. I may have a certain biased outlook towards the film but it is well worth checking out if possible.
It may not be on the same level as the German 'expressionist' silent classics of Weimar Germany, or the innovative silent classics emanating from the USSR, but as a relic of our own British cinema history, of which there is precious little at the time of it's creation, this film is worth cherishing.
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