LOLA home                        HOME        CURRENT ISSUE 

Ah Yes! Griffith was a Marxist!   

Luc Moullet


Translated by Ted Fendt


Of the 495 short films shot by D.W. Griffith between 1908 and 1913, A Corner in Wheat (1909) probably remains the best known. This is because of its social and economic contents, which are a prelude to the depiction of strikes in The Iconoclast (1910) and the political and social position of the modern section of Intolerance (1916), without forgetting the depiction of Berlin’s instability in 1924 (Isn’t Life Wonderful?) and the examination of the misery of the slums (The Struggle, 1931).


This film shows, in alternation, the life of country peasants and the management of the wheat market by speculators (one of whom ends up acquiring a quasi-monopoly), their accumulation of wealth, and the consequences at the agricultural and consumer levels.


We are shown:


  The work in the fields and the surrounding life (4 shots),
Speculator meetings (4 shots),
The banquets of the newly rich (4 shots),
The visit to the wheat silo (8 shots),
The baker and his customers (4 shots).

25 shots in a quarter of an hour that are, essentially, all fixed, sequence-shots, veritable tableaux vivants (as in Goethe’s Elective Affinities) that impose a precise theatrical space – with diverse contrasts in actions, gestures and attitudes from one shot to another, accentuated by the framing always being the same.


The whole production reflects a great virtuosity. Almost all of the film was shot in two days, November 3, dedicated to exteriors, and November 13, 1909. (1) For a more economic production, Griffith grouped together the exteriors and the interiors of several films. It was necessary since, let us not forget, Griffith directed 131 short films in 1909 alone ... (2)


This manner of working turns out to be quite original. For a contemporary, socio-economic and thus supposedly realistic subject, we find here a fable because the brevity of the work pushes Griffith to tell the story in a series of very concentrated acts. Reality and fable: between them, there is something that satisfies the public’s desire to be confronted with reality and that, at the same time, offers to them – condensed – every possible emotion. Several decades in advance, Griffith anticipates here the work of both Brecht and Angelopoulos.




1. The day that Griffith was also going to shoot parts of The Test and A Trip to Suit a Class.


2. This is a copiousness that stupefies our contemporary short filmmakers. Let’s specify that people shot and edited much faster when there was no sound, and that the public in 1909 was much fonder of short subjects since features did not yet exist.

Looking for the Mistake

The second shot is quite typical: three peasants, with horse and plow, sow seeds and plow a wheat field. The gestures the farmers make borrow from Millet’s painting Le Semeur (1850), which was shown in Boston in 1897 and in New York until 1903. A very pure, beautiful, exemplary shot, but not very realistic. The peasants throw the seeds in front of them, but they continue walking as they rummage through their sacks for the grains. Then they throw more seeds on the ground. Making it so that, during the seconds while they are searching for grains as they are walking, the path they have covered can’t have been re-seeded, since they didn’t throw any seeds down. It is normal that they never stop, that would be bad for the dynamic of the shot and the action. It underlines the monotony and the unending nature of the work. But they seed one out of every two metres of earth, which makes no sense. And their gestures are too big, too poetic and too imprecise. Nobody will complain about this lack of realism, however.


This shot can be compared to the last shot of the film, which shows the same action. There, however, there is no more than a single peasant, with neither a horse nor a plow, and he seems much more disillusioned than before. Thus, we understand, in a very concrete manner, the decline of this peasantry, who their economic representatives, no doubt, found no place for within the system reorganised by the monopoly. 


The lengthy discussions between well-dressed businessmen on the stock market floor include a great number of characters, between five and twenty, all arguing and gesticulating like puppets. It’s an early attempt at working on a crowd or group scene, a domain in which Griffith will excel until his final film (whereas the cinema, in 1909, was generally content with two or three actors in front of the camera). Except that, here, there is absolute commotion, with the actors entirely focused on themselves (among them, many names will become famous), without any explicit development or correspondence with regards to a particular idea. We can also read these manual frenzies as a way of looking down upon the conformity in the commotion of all these white-collared workers who hate each other, eat, drink gluttonously, and do nothing – in contrast to the proletarians, who no longer have anything to put in their mouths.


In the course of the shot, an old man moves away from the group of speculators, makes a few steps towards the bottom of the frame, staggers, collapses and faints (the change in composition might lead some to believe it was an accident during a news report). Never does Griffith reframe him or cut to a tighter shot, forcing us to do the reframing ourselves.


The bakery – in four shots distributed across the film, always structured on the principle of an enlarged checkerboard – marks the development of the crisis well: the rise in bread prices (solidified by a written sign that the spectators of the film can read very easily, but which the people buying the bread cannot due to its placement having been chosen solely for the public), the quarrels that result from it, the intervention of the police, the distribution and then the absence of bread.


At the end, the fashionable dowagers (the target of numerous Griffith films from The New York Hat [1912] to Intolerance) visit the wheat silo. As soon as his minions go away, leaving him alone, the Wheat King, the only person in the film given a personality (the tremendous feat of A Corner in Wheat), falls into the silo a half-second later (a brilliant short cut that is a beautiful example of narrative economy, one that tramples any credibility since the rich would never step foot in a silo) and is suffocated to death (a scene copied by Dreyer in Vampyr, 1932), the grains of wheat obstructing his mouth at the same time that the people have nothing to put in their own mouths. A rather artificial ending, justified by Griffith ’s moralising: the investor makes a lot of money but loses his life, forgotten due to the self-absorption of the others, which resembles his own. What is strong is that the action is both continuous and involves a constant change of characters; the peasants and the wealthy never meet even though they are so dependent on one another in the wheat market, and the action starts up again perfectly from one location to another.


What is Not so Clear

Let us admire here the extraordinary compression – in a quarter of an hour – of an entire economic system and its development. We could criticise the film for this simplification, but it is, nevertheless, effective in the sense that we understand quickly that it is not a realistic film – in spite of the nature of the events portrayed – but a form of allegory. A hybrid, possible only within the framework of the silent film. The talkies brought too much realism. This is why, in my mind, Abraham Lincoln (1930), a film close enough in principal to this one, fails.


Not everything is clear, however; the silence creates certain limitations. I suppose that it is the representative of these small farmers who was ousted by the Wheat King. And that the Wheat King, once in control of the market, was able to inflate the price due to the lack of competition. But I am not sure about that. My mind won’t stop working to understand, to figure out the meaning. Perhaps that’s a virtue of the film, although one that is, without a doubt, offered involuntarily.


Why does the baker suddenly give free bread to everyone? And why is there no more bread to distribute in the following scene? A specialist of the aughts tells me that it is a reference to the activities of the Bread Fund (a type of organisation that helped the poor) whic had begun to give bread to the destitute, but who soon had to give up due to the colossal rise in prices.


To be sure, Griffith was not yet perfectly assured in his narrative practice, as confirmed by the awkwardness of the insert shot of the letter that informs the Wheat King of his new fortunes (as unrealistic as it could possibly be). An oddly stable photograph stuck between two lively shots with the characters’ motions from before the insert being repeated afterwards. But one finds comparable faults in the all films from the period.


In spite of these issues, you have to admit that, fourteen years after La Sortie des usines Lumière (Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory), the work was done; the cinema has hardly progressed since then. In fact, it has surely declined, because no one since then has arrived at an equal level of such concentrated density.


The pictorial references are complemented by two literary references. A Corner in Wheat is inspired by two novels written in 1901-1902, The Octopus and The Pit, by the naturalist Frank Norris. (3) The cinema owes him a lot, since he also wrote McTeague, the 1899 novel adapted by Erich von Stroheim for Greed (1924). (4)


The film is also the first masterpiece of militant cinema. Eisenstein dreamed of adapting Capital, but Griffith had already done it twenty years before with this film. While we often think of the Southern conservative of The Birth of a Nation (1915), Griffith is here, paradoxically, very close to Karl Marx.


A Corner in Wheat can be viewed here (Part 1) & here (Part 2).

Originally published in
Bref, no. 79 (November 2007); republished in Luc Moullet, Piges choisies (de Griffith à Ellroy) (Capricci, 2009).

  3. The Pit is an ironic title because it is the nickname of the place where the wheat market trading is held and it is also the grave where the Wheat King dies.

4. It was also the basis for Robert Altman’s 1992 opera production McTeague, libretto by Altman and Arnold Weinstein, music by William Bolcom (in 2004 the trio collaborated on an opera version of Altman’s film A Wedding).

from Issue 1: Histories


French original © Luc Moullet 2007; English translation © Ted Fendt and LOLA 2010.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.