Lorna Doone [50 Films Older Than Me #13]

A few months ago, it was my birthday! And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of the fifty years before I was born, and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #13.

Spoilers ahead.  

Lorna Doone

Directed by Maurice Tourneur

Release Year:  1922 (48 years before I was born)

What it is about:  In 17th century England, young farmboy John Ridd meets Lorna, daughter of nobility, traveling through his village. Lorna’s party is attacked and killed by bandits, the notorious Doone’s who live in the hills near John’s farm. Lorna is taken to live with the Doone’s. Years later, Lorna and John meet again by accident, and fall in love. The young and angry Caver Doone wants to marry Lorna against her will, but she instead calls for help and John rescues her. The want to marry but she is forced to return to people of her own social class.

She eventually returns to John, but just before they wed Carver Doone (alerted by a jealous village girl) attacks and shoots Lorna. Believing her dead, John is enraged and driven to revenge. With the help of the village, the Doone’s are wiped out and Carver dies in mire after a brutal battle with John. Returning home, John is overjoyed to discover that Lorna has survived.

Starring John Bowers as John Ridd, Madge Bellamy as Lorna, Donald McDonald as Carver Doone, Frank Keenan as Sir Ensor Doone (Lorna’s adopted guardian amongst the Doones), Norris Johnson as Ruth (John’s cousin who is in love with him) and Irene De Voss as John’s mother. Mae Giraci and Charles Hatton play Lorna and John as children.

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  I had nearly none. I was vaguely aware that this was a novel, maybe. The movie poster boasts that this is the greatest love story written, so I guess I was expecting something highly emotional.

Reality: Lorna Doone, like a lot of films on this list, are “outside my wheelhouse” as far as movie genres and styles go, which means that there is a period of adjustment as I start watching it, trying to get my head around cinematic conventions that I’m not as familiar with. In this case we’re looking at a silent romantic drama–most of my silent film-viewing has been in the comedy realm (eg. Safety Last!, Seven Chances) where the emphasis has been on visual gags and stunt-work. Here we are looking at relationships and emotions, as well as sensationalized plotting–can such a thing work in a silent film without just seeming hopelessly melodramatic?

Well yeah, I think it can. Obviously one has to accept the world that the film comes from in order to let it do its magic. But if we can let go of the assumptions we have about what are supposed to be the forms and the norms of movie storytelling, there is quite the transporting experience to be had.

Actually, the performances in Lorna Doone are lot more relatable than I was expecting. My last silent filmmaking experience was Metropolis, which I wrote about earlier in this series, and in stark contrast to the exaggerated expressionism of that film, the performances here by John Bowers, Madge Bellamy and the rest are positively naturalistic, even relatively restrained.

And because the film’s exposition is so clear (often related by the movie’s inter-titles), this works well–often all it takes is a brooding look from John, or a forlorn expression from Lorna, and a world of emotion is made clear on the screen.

The movie is based on a novel by R.D. Blackmore which I have never read. In skimming a plot summary I can see there are quite a few changes from the source material to the movie that is presented here. I can see the reasoning for these adjustments in order to make the story fit better as a cinematic presentation, especially a silent film where there is such a limit on how much detail and backstory can be communicated easily. The movie wisely keeps the story focused with a solid structure and a plot that can be advanced largely through clear action points.

And there are some pretty impressive sequences, including John falling over a waterfall, and his infiltration of the Doone’s. I was especially impressed by the tension that was developed as the jealous Carver Doone approaches John and Lorna’s wedding, ready to take his revenge. There’s a great shot that shows him lurking by the window in the background as the festivities commence.

One of the most impressive things about the film is the production design. All the locales are positively transporting–the 17th farm village, the Doone’s mountain stronghold, and even the London court are brought to life with detail and authenticity. This, along with the “realistic” approach of the actors and action, make entering into the world of Lorna Doone an easy and enjoyable experience.

Lorna’s survival at the end, after apparently dying while saying her wedding vows, is a little out-of-nowhere–a bit convenient for a happy ending (although I see the novel ended this way as well, and I like the montage of misleading shots that leads up to it). It perhaps would have served the film to have had a less abrupt conclusion–just a bit more time to appreciate that Lorna was alive and spend a little more time with her and John together at the end. As I said above, the movie’s poster claims that this is the greatest love story ever written, and while I don’t know if it was ever going to fulfill that lofty promise, I think it might have had a stronger claim if it had gone beyond John’s obvious relief at the end and shown more of their joy at having overcome all their ordeals.

So…when you get down to it, what did I think? Well, as I’ve mentioned, it takes a bit of effort to get into the mindset of watching a nearly century-old silent romantic drama, but I think it’s a worthwhile process which opens up a lot of enjoyment for films from different eras and cultures. If you are willing to do that, Lorna Doone is a pretty good and satisfying story.

See here for the Master List.

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