Happy St. Patrick’s Day everyone! We thought we would kick off the Irish festivities today by discussing one of Ireland’s brightest film legacies, Rex Ingram! We recently chatted with UPK author and Ireland native, Ruth Barton, who reveals some insight on the research of her book, Rex Ingram: Visionary Director of the Silent Screen, and the life of the director himself! Check it out below!
UPK: Why did you choose to study Rex Ingram?
RB: I had written an earlier book (Acting Irish in Hollywood) on émigré Irish actors in Hollywood, which threw up some extraordinary stories. So, I thought it would be interesting to extend that study into directors. I knew the outline of Rex Ingram’s story but I had never really explored it much, so this seemed to be a good time to do that. Outside of Liam O’Leary’s book on Rex Ingram, he had been surprisingly neglected by film historians and writers so it seemed like the moment had come. Also, a number of new films have emerged and new materials, like letters and family papers, so that helped.
UPK: Did anything surprise you in your research?
RB: We were very lucky to acquire his memoirs for the Trinity (College Dublin) archives and I was surprised by just how attached he was to Ireland and how that stayed with him throughout his life. When I started, I hadn’t been sure if he had really converted to Islam, it seemed such a radical step for the son of an Anglican rector, but the facts mounted up and now I’m convinced that he did. It was also interesting for me to find out more about the early film industry and to read his account of that in the memoirs.
UPK: What, in your opinion, makes Rex one of the greatest artists in silent cinema?
RB: He was truly convinced that film was the great new artform of the twentieth century and that he could put the principles of sculpting that he had learned studying under Lee Lawrie at Yale into practice by making films that had the depth of sculptures. And he managed that, making films that were acclaimed as artistic masterpieces but that were also really popular with audiences. Artistic blockbusters, if you like. He was a real perfectionist too and refused to compromise on detail.
UPK: What influenced him to go into the film industry?
RB: To be honest, he started in the film industry (as an actor) to make money but then he got hooked. That wasn’t unusual in those early days of the film industry, when people didn’t really know what it was. Then, too, people didn’t waste too much time on learning what to do or how to do it, they just learned on the job, which is what he did.
UPK: Do you think growing up in Ireland had an impact on Rex’s career?
RB: I’m sure that it did. In particular, he grew up in the Irish Protestant tradition. Irish Gothic writing comes out of that tradition, most famously with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which Rex had wished to film. The Irish Gothic is filled with images of haunted castles and ghosts and supernatural apparitions, as are his films. He always spoke of how important Ireland was to him and was very proud to be Irish.
UPK: How did the Great War affect Rex and his work?
RB: Rex’s brother, Frank Hitchcock, was an officer in the war and was gassed in the trenches and Rex was very affected by this. Also, many of the boys he went to school with at St Columba’s died in the war. He himself joined the Royal Air Force Canada but didn’t see service. He was also always very interested in military matters and collected military items, like swords. I think that he was fascinated by war generally and deeply affected by it personally so that this feeds into his great anti-war war film, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and also Mare Nostrum.
UPK: Why do you think Rex felt pulled toward America?
RB: Irish people have traditionally emigrated to America and he saw that he would have opportunities there that he never would have in Ireland. His father had a friend there who promised to look after him, so that made it easier for him to leave. Also his mother had died and he missed her terribly and wanted to get away.
UPK: Do you feel that Rex’s work is underappreciated today? In what ways?
RB: Unlike other of his contemporaries, such as say Cecil C De Mille, very few people have ever heard of Rex Ingram. One practical problem is that it is hard to get to see his films. Another is that the pictorial style that he so pioneered is less in favour now than fast-paced narratives. Another just seems to be chance–no one kept his reputation going. I’m hoping to rectify that!
UPK: Do you feel that he still has an impact on modern Ireland?
RB: I believe that it is important for Irish filmmakers to realize that they come out of a longer tradition (of art cinema) than they knew. I’ve found people in the film industry are very intrigued by this history that they didn’t know about.
UPK: What do you think Rex would have to say about the film industry today?
RB: I think he’d love some of the films being made by non-mainstream cultures, such as Iranian films. He didn’t much care for Hollywood by the time he left it and I doubt he’d care for it any more now.
UPK: What is your favorite Rex Ingram film and why?
RB: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse has to be my favourite film, because it is so visually stunning and so ambitious and it carries it off, but I also love The Magician, which is a very creaky horror movie in the tradition of over-the-top Gothic melodramas.
To learn more about Rex Ingram: Visionary Director of the Silent Screen, check out our website!