I’ve enjoyed many of the attempts bold filmmakers have made to interpret the poetry of Shakespeare for the screen. Some are comendable mostly for their visual efforts (Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet (1968)) and others for their obvious understanding of the Bard’s work (Kenneth Branagh’s handling of the material for instance). Until now, I have never witnessed a silent film version of a Shakespeare work. I must admit that I have a hard time getting my mind around the concept. How can a filmmaker even hope to take this largely verbal experience, strip it of its defining characteristic, and hope to present a purely visual telling of some of the most sophisticated language ever? Can it be done? Should it be done?
The answers are "yes" and "maybe not." At least not with the techniques used by directors Kennedy, Dickson and Dando (why three directors for 70+ seconds of film?). British Mutoscope and Biograph Company’s King John attempts to recreate the death scene at the end of the play of the same name. At just over a minute the film has to squeeze in a lot into a short time. Unfortunately what it squeezes in is hardly worth watching. Visually, King John is a disappointment. The scene is shot from a direct level angle against a flat painted backdrop robbing almost all sense of three-dimensional space from the image. Why? The Lumiere’s were experimenting with angles to aid the illusion of depth since 1895, and Edison and others were creating sets or moving outdoors for similar effect. As for the scene itself, if I already knew the play intimately, and if I knew King John’s death scene dialogue by heart, and if I was able to render the memory of that dialogue in the proper Shakespearean cadence then the film might speak to me. As it stands, the film is merely 78 seconds of Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, in what looks to be a dress, writhing around on a throne while making eggagerated gestures. There is no sense of poetry, no pathos, I’m not even sure if King John dies at the end (perhaps not all of the film remains). Moreover, without the title, or foreknowledge of the play, I wouldn't have been able to figure out that the film is supposed to represent Shakespeare. Intertitles would have helped because at least we could have read the dialogue, but they weren’t invented until 1903. Any fan of Shakespeare at British Mutoscope and Biograph Co. might have at least tried something like intertitles four years earlier. How else are we able to experience the Bard's work in the silent format?
Silent film historians may glean something from King John, but fans of Shakespeare on film, perhaps searching for a long lost silent treasure, should look elsewhere. King John will only leave you convinced that bringing Shakespeare to the screen, while a noble idea, was far too great a challenge for early silent cinema.