It’s hard to believe that film has been around for over a century now. Enough time has passed between the invention of cinema and now that there are already so many classic movies (both short films and feature films) that have cleared the 100-year mark. Of course, that number will only grow as time marches on.
With the era of silent filmmaking reaching its peak in the 1920s – before the talkies started taking over by that decade’s end – now’s as good a time as any to highlight some of the best century-old movies. There’s still a novelty to a movie being 100 that might start to dissipate once we reach the 2030s, for example. And so as of 2022, here are 10 great silent films that are 100 or more years old.
‘A Trip to the Moon’ (1902)
In just 15 minutes, A Trip to the Moon does exactly what its title promises: there are some people, they want to take a trip to the moon, they do, and then they come back to Earth.
Why do they want to do this? How exactly do they pull it off, scientifically? Doesn’t matter, really, and it’s the purity and simplicity of such a concept being realized in this way so long ago that ensure A Trip to the Moon is still charming. Of course, the fact it can claim it’s one of cinema’s first-ever science-fiction movies doesn’t hurt its reputation, either.
‘Les Vampires’ (1915)
Cinema in the first couple of decades of the 20th century mostly consisted of short films. There were exceptions, but it was rarer to get proper feature-length films. Les Vampiresthough, blurs the line between short and feature, being a series of 10 serialized episodes / movies that add up to one seven-hour long film.
In a way, it feels like a precursor to the ever-popular miniseries, which would achieve significant popularity 100 years after Les Vampires’ release, thanks to the rise of streaming service content in the 2010s. A thrilling, fast-paced crime epic broken up into 10 digestible chunks, Les Vampires might be the best film made before 1920, with its legacy still inspiring modern filmmakers to this very day.
‘The Great Train Robbery’ (1903)
Releasing a year after A Trip to the Moon, The Great Train Robbery does for the crime genre what that other iconic short film did for science fiction. In less than a quarter of an hour, it shows – you guessed it – a train robbery by a group of bandits, followed by a sheriff and his men hunting the robbers down.
A simple premise to be sure, and it plays out as you’d expect, but The Great Train Robbery was the first to execute it well, and so its place in history as an early piece of crime fiction is cemented. It’s certainly worth a watch for any cinephiles, and at 12 minutes, it’s not like it’ll waste much of anyone’s time.
‘The Phantom Carriage’ (1921)
The Phantom Carriage is an unnerving fantasy-horror film about ghosts, the afterlife, and the story behind the driver of Death’s horse and carriage. It’s one of those rare silent horror films that’s genuinely creepier because it doesn’t have any dialogue; it gives the atmosphere more time to shine.
And the atmosphere and overall feel of The Phantom Carriage is what makes it memorable, with its story being solid but less remarkable. For the visuals, eerie aesthetics, and special effects that must have blown away film audiences back in 1921 away, The Phantom Carriage earns its place as one of the first truly great feature-length horror films of all time.
‘The Kid’ (1921)
One of Charlie Chaplin’s first truly great films, The Kid also stands as one of his very first feature films (even if, at 53 minutes, it’s barely feature-length). The story is very simple, too, focusing on the bond between Chaplin’s Tramp character and an abandoned child he effectively adopts and struggles to look after.
Everything great about Chaplin is found in The Kidmaking it his first great movie, and one of his most fully formed and well-balanced. It’s a comedy but balances some more serious moments with the laughs without ever feeling jarring – as is the case with all great Chaplin movies – and holds up as a great watch some 101 years on from its release.
‘Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages’ (1916)
Few movies that are over 100 years old are as ambitious as Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages, if any. While Les Vampires from 1915 is an epic told in 10 episodes, Intolerance is almost three and a half hours long and one complete movie, focusing on a young woman’s family-related hardships, with these scenes being contrasted with various flashbacks to instances of extreme intolerance throughout history.
It’s both a small-scale character movie and a huge, varied historical epic, and it executes both well. It’s surprisingly engaging for a 3+ hour silent film, and the scale of the sets and ambition of the production are still remarkable after all these years. It turns out that one of cinema’s first true epic movies is also one of its best.
An odd mix of horror and historical documentary, Häxan explores various stories relating to witchcraft throughout history, starting from as early as the Middles Ages and working forward, towards (what was then) the modern era.
As such, it does not have much of a story, but it definitely has some interesting subjects, and a number of effectively weird, creepy, or just downright bizarre scenes. If you’re the kind of person who thinks silent films are all predictable and a little samey, Häxan may well be a film that could help you change your mind.
‘Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler ‘(1922)
Director Fritz Lang started his film career in Germany, making iconic films like Metropolis and Mbefore moving to America in the 1930s and having a successful Hollywood career, mainly making film noir and crime movies. Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler is one of his earlier German feature films, and also one of his best.
Granted, the 4.5-hour runtime may be an obstacle, and not only is it long, but it’s a fairly dense movie, with a complex narrative and many characters all wrapped up in a sprawling crime story. But it has a unique energy and fast pacing (at least for its time), meaning it’s more than watchable to film buffs who do not mind their 100-year-old movies being a little on the long side.
‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari ‘(1920)
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a horror film that also might serve as one of cinema’s earliest psychological thrillers. Its twisty, dreamlike plot involves a malicious hypnotist who uses a sleepwalking man to perform his sinister tasks, which usually involves murder.
It throws the viewer into a strange world with even stranger characters, and the striking visuals and unusually-designed sets are the most memorable things about it. For being one of the first films to willingly distort reality with the intention of making viewers feel uncomfortable or not at ease, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is without a doubt a landmark film that’s over a century old.
Perhaps the most iconic vampire film that does not star Dracula, Nosferatu is technically a bootleg version of the more famous bloodsucker, though not in a bad way. While it’s not an official Dracula movie, it’s in no way a cheap imitation, having an amazingly creepy atmosphere and an absorbing vampire story; and having a truly disturbing-looking vampire does not hurt, either.
Nosferatu holds up better than just about any other horror film of its era, and the titular vampire himself remains a significant enough figure within the film world that a remake with Anya Taylor-Joy and director Robert Eggers is apparently in the works. Whether a 2020s version of Nosferatu can work as well as the iconic 1920s version remains to be seen …
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