chapter  1
The Little American (1917)
Pages 21

The US cinema’s silent era witnessed the production of a number of films that focus upon war, immigration, or both and, as such, are centrally concerned with the formation of a sense of national identity. Often, they do so by staging violent encounters with a ‘foreign’ entity. As their titles suggest, films such as The American Soldier in Love and War (Billy Bitzer, 1903), Making an American Citizen (Alice Guy-Blaché, 1912), American Aristocracy (Lloyd Ingraham 1916), and The Little American (Cecil B. DeMille, 1917) self-consciously strive to use emergent and newly institutionalized visual and narrative forms to articulate and assert the moral, political and cultural specificity of what it meant, in the early twentieth century, to be American. Such films dramatize conflicts with newly colonized subjects, recently arrived immigrants and only apparently ‘American’ traitors in order to mobilize and soothe anxieties aroused by the assertion of the USA’s recently consolidated military and political power. This should be no surprise, for the American cinema’s silent era (1895-1927) coincided not only with one of the greatest periods of immigration to the USA from Europe and Asia but also with the nation’s involvement in three wars – the Spanish-American War (1898) and Philippine-American War (1899-1902) and the First World War (1917-18). At the same time that these phenomena transformed prevailing conceptions of national identity, the American cinema, too, struggled to define its own ‘Americanness’. As Richard Abel has shown, during the first decade of the twentieth century, the American film industry mobilized a moral panic around foreign films in order to define a nationally specific cultural identity for its product and to secure the US market for domestically produced films (Abel 1999).