“The American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest Movies was selected by AFI’s blue-ribbon panel of more than 1,500 leaders of the American movie community to commemorate 100 Years of Movies”. Every weekend(ish) during 2015, I’ll review two(ish), counting them down from 100 to 1.
“Don’t be afraid of me.”
I don’t remember where or when I first heard of Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, but wherever it was, or whoever was talking about it, it obviously made some sort of an impression about the quality of the movie, because I’ve owned a copy of it for years. But the specifics of that impression were quickly forgotten, because I never actually got around to watching it until I was forced to by this AFI countdown. I can’t say I was blown away by Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, but I do feel like I’ve seen an important part of cinema history that needs to be seen, even if it’s just the once.
As the heat of summer hits, people leave the bustling cities to relax and enjoy vacations in the countryside. The Man (George O’Brien) is a struggling farmer in the country where he lives with The Wife (Janet Gaynor) and their young toddler. Their marriage isn’t the happiest, and things only become more strained when The Man starts seeing The Woman From the City. This strumpet has seduced The Man and almost convinced him to sell the farm and move to the city with her. When he points out that his wife may not be on board with that plan, The Woman From the City convinces him to take The Wife on a sailing trip where he can kill her and disguise the murder as a drowning accident.
Once on the water and looking his wife in the eye, The Man realises that he loves her and could never hurt her. When they reach land, she runs for her life, trying to escape on a tram. The Man barley catches the tram as it pulls away and the two ride to the city together. What follows is a day of The Man and The Wife trying to remember and recapture whatever it was that drew them to each other in the first place.
Sunrise opens with a title card that reads, “This song of the Man and his Wife is of no place and every place; you might hear it anywhere, at any time. For wherever the sun rises and sets, in the city’s turmoil or under the open sky on the farm, life is much the same; sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet.” Now, I know it was a different time and that it’s hard for me to fully understand what life was like when this movie was made in the 20s, but I find it harder to believe that the specifics of this story are something you might hear anywhere, at any time.
But story aside, I can see why this is an important movie on a technical level. I’ve been surprised before by the level of special effects in silent films from this era, but Sunrise knocks it up another level. And not just in the way that it uses effects to achieve tricky shots or stunts in its telling of the literal story, but in the way it uses visuals and effects to tell the story on a metaphorical, symbolic level. It’s a level of storytelling that I didn’t think existed back then. Which is why I now understand why Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans has its place on this AFI list, and in cinema history.
Best unique and Artistic Production (this was the first and only time this award was given)