omaine Fielding arrived in southern New Mexico in May of 1913,  one year after America granted the territory statehood. The wild West had finally been tamed. Well, it is all over! President Taft had said, after signing the statehood proclamation, as if civilization was, by definition, preceded by nothing but nightmare.

 

Romaine was interested in nightmares, how terror never truly disappears, but evolves the camouflage of routine. New Mexico seemed a good place to try and catch the beast changing. Luckily, Romaine arrived with a new kind of gizmo perfect for trapping nightmares: the motion picture camera. 

 

In 1913, women’s suffrage was on hold. Segregation was law. Temperance seemed a noble proposition. Labor strikes were common, and commonly squashed. America’s military barely cracked the world’s top twenty power list and our highbrows were still uncrossing their eyeballs after the invasion of modern art—Duchamp and Picasso and Van Gogh—at the Armory Show in New York City. Our First World War was more than a year from sparking and there we were just yelling into candlestick telephones, smoking our newfangled packs of Camels, bopping around to ragtime, and finally trading our nickelodeons for extravagant movie palaces even though few had heard of Charlie Chaplin.

 

Romaine Fielding stepped off the train at Silver City and settled his top hat the way he always did, with some of that conniving charm. He knew he had his finger on the country’s pulse. And he was ready to unsettle something in its soul.

 

Soon he would fit his 28 horsepower Buick with military search lights and a massive machine gun. Soon he would strap a canon to an airplane. Soon he would gather thousands of pounds of explosives, gather and arm thousands of dispossessed laborers. Soon he would orchestrate an apocalyptic uprising the likes of which the world had never yet seen.

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This is the story of an entertainer,

a charlatan, a socialist visionary who made 

(and lost) America's first

APOCALPTIC

dystopian

science-fiction

feature film.

Story by Joshua Wheeler

Illustrations by Rui Ricardo

Produced in association with SNM Arts 

Additional Image Credits 

I

THE SHOW TRANSPIRES FOREVER

IN THE CHEAP SEATS

     omaine and his crew of about 25 actors and technicians unloaded into Silver City's dust the three boxcars that made up his traveling state-of-the-art film studio: hulking steel cameras, thick wooden tripods, trunk after trunk of costumes and wigs and so much blush. Lubin Film's Southwest Company had arrived in the middle of nowhere, once again.

 

They were a ragtag bunch from back East who'd spent over a year cranking out nearly a film a week in El Paso, Tucson, and Nogales. Save Romaine’s fancy new Buick, which he'd picked up after a recent promotion to director of the company, they weren't any more glamorous than the hordes of anonymous prospectors daily passing through town. If anybody out here did recognize them from the movies, it didn't mean much.

Romaine got to work by doing what all good directors do. He wandered around. With his leading lady, Eleanor Mason, he drove east from Silver City, over 15 miles of tough scrub, the 3000-pound luxury vehicle jangling its riders at a brisk 20mph as they watched ore cars chug by on rail, carrying tons of something to somewhere to make someone rich. 

 

Topping the hills at Cobre Pass, suddenly: a void—a crescent gape 600 feet deep stretching to the horizon in every direction, the guts of the earth’s crust laid bare in massive descending stripes of brown, white, red. In the midst of the wound, like an island: the village of Santa Rita, pop. 1999.

 

The Chino Mine had been operational as one of America’s largest open pit copper mines for only four years. But the land around Santa Rita, where the Chihuahuan Desert rises and blossoms into the Gila Forest, had been plundered for as long as people had traversed it. There are bells forged from copper mined here in 1150CE. For centuries, the Apaches, then the Spaniards, dug here for copper, gold, and turquoise. In 1804, the Mexicans made it their primary source for copper coins.

 

Now, in 1913, we Americans were clawing away with our trademark industrious abandon.

 

Romaine and Eleanor would have parked next to the DuPont company operations center, near the big crusher house and the grizzly conveyor sifting through all the earth dug from the gutshot. Eleanor would have pulled out her notebook because, like everyone in the company, she played many roles: actress, accountant, publicist, and writer. Romaine would have stood on the leather bench of his Buick, scanned the scene with his deep-set eyes, heard with his big ears the noise now beyond tolerance, felt the racket in his bones: steam whistle shrieks, drill clank and grind, shoveling and dumping, explosions like the tic of a maniac clock, the pervasive sigh of locomotion under it all. They’d have shook hands with chemists, engineers, and foremen, all in their suit-coats and fedoras. Or derbies. Or that iconic saucer like a rawhide halo: Stetson’s Boss of the Plains. These miners were the new frontiersmen, after all, but hardly a horse in sight. 

 

At the edge of the pit, Romaine would have marveled. How the mine seemed a massive amphitheater! The workers crawling down the benches: lower and lower, blasting out more benches: never revealing a stage: the show transpiring forever in the cheap seats! The cyclone drill chugging out blast holes, four men guiding each steel beast, a driller and his wingmen, sharpening giant bits by firing them in the drill’s forge, then grinding the glowing steel with hand files.

 

And the blast hole crews behind the drills, three men with their spools of fuses and boxy detonators, no protective eyewear or even a hard hat in sight—plenty of cigarettes, though—dropping scoopfuls of white-nitro starch powder or sticks of DuPont dynamite, hunkering behind steam shovels yelling Todo Claro! as they lean on the detonator’s plunger.

 

And the steam shovels, billowing black smoke, moving the blasted earth.

All around everywhere the track gang laying rail with sledgehammers.

 

And on the horizon: tall churn drills, digging scout holes 700 feet deep, the wheels of the drill eight feet tall, men climbing the forty-foot tower like the mast of a ship on a thick ocean in which one sails only slowly and down.

 

Romaine would have stared at the smelter stack spewing fire heavenward, settled his top hat, and remarked to Eleanor in a sinister baritone which his adoring fans never heard: Well, alright. 

 

The miners worked 12-hour shifts, earning about three bucks a day. The temperature routinely broke 100 in May of 1913. At any moment, the percussion from a miscalculated ore blast might send a steam shovel flying, maiming everyone in its shrapnel wake. Miners might be electrified at the crusher, run over by a runaway boulder, decapitated by a broken swingchain, thrown into the machinery of a digger by a gust of wind. The windstorms in southern New Mexico, it is said, are proof we’re two-stepping at the devil’s dance. 13 miners died at Santa Rita's Chino Mine in 1913, with scores more mangled.

 

Straining to spot the limps and missing fingers and limbs, Romaine and Eleanor would have noticed how the blast crews spoke only Spanish. All the most dangerous work was done by Mexicans. Over half the miners were Hispanic, with more than a third born in Mexico. These were immigrants, killing themselves for next to nothing, lining the pockets of American capitalists.

 

This summer, copper miners in Michigan were on strike. And coal miners in New Zealand. And gold miners in South Africa. A new drill that required only one attendant was sweeping the industry and the danger of drilling alone—bleeding out alone when the beast bites back—compounded with inevitable layoffs, had miners everywhere grumbling about their rights.

 

Exactly one year before, in May of 1912, a small group of miners at Santa Rita had gone on strike. They were promptly fired, blacklisted from all jobs in the industry.

 

Romaine gazed out on the gutshot at Santa Rita and saw an army of dispossessed: strong, courageous, knowledgeable about explosives. Our story begins here, at the edge of the mine in southern New Mexico, because this is the moment Romaine and his guerrilla filmmakers of the Southwest Company were finally doomed to prophecy.

 

In mining Romaine Fielding saw an archaic industry, full of inequality and misery. In filmmaking he saw a new artform, on the verge of industrialization. 

 

In both, he saw the total destruction of Earth.

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Chino Mine, 2016 | Mark Goebel

II

ONE OF THE BEST HEAVIES EVER SEEN

       omaine Fielding got famous making a bunch of films in nothing flat—something like 100 films in just four years, from 1912 to 1915. Some of the films were probably awful. Others were showered with critical praise. Film was a fledgling medium still trying to find its voice, still battling to evolve from novelty to art. But Romaine rose above the melodramatic din of the silent film era. He was, by some accounts, America’s first movie star and, by even more accounts, among the medium’s first true visionaries. 

 

Romaine loved to play the roles he wrote. He loved to envision blockbusters, before anyone knew what blockbusters were. He loved to delve into the psyche, loved to strap dynamite to anything, loved to be on camera during the blast, to magnify the explosion with a wild contortion of his hauntingly angular and endlessly malleable face. But almost none of his films exist today as a result of one unlucky inferno and maybe also because fame so rarely lights upon that which will endure. Maybe nothing really endures, and we will get around to pondering that sad notion if there is time and it turns out to be a notion worthy of lasting for a stretch of it.

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Romaine had already lived a lot of life when he began making films in 1912. There were only a dozen film companies in Hollywood. The magazine that would launch our nation’s rabidity for celebrity culture, Photoplay, had just published its first issue. Romaine was 43 and on his fourth name by then: baby William Grant Blandin became Royal A. Blandin became Romanzo A. Blandin who made the leap finally to Romaine Fielding at the dawn of the 20th century.

 

There are lots of reasons for adopting pseudonyms and these include shame or aspiration or fear of legal recourse or extralegal recourse or confusion about identity or certainty about identity or general restlessness and for some it is all of this plus the usual feeling of fraudulence and an overdeveloped flair for the dramatic. In 1867 Romaine was born out of wedlock in an Iowa that wouldn’t stand for it and so his first name change was the projection of others’ shame. For the rest of his life he layered on identities, ever grander, though never entirely disingenuous.

 

Many of the prophetic writings in the Old Testament are pseudonymous, though that is likely the simple coopting of names from well-known religious figures by unknown scribes, desperation to legitimize as old prophesies the explanations for how Jews ended up where they were, chosen and tortured. But there is maybe something necessary about slipping out of one’s own skin if the hope is to know the future now.

 

The long-forgotten story of Romaine Fielding is about understanding that American prophecy is also a zero-sum game. You lose yourself, and the future doesn’t change.

 

Please remember: prophecy has always been about change. This is one great mistake we make when talking about prophets: as instruments of some higher power, they were rarely only about predicting the future. They often meant to change it. We selectively recall the part where prophets say This will come to pass...  We forget that these predictions were nearly always followed by: Unless…

1915

1913

1915

1911

Prospectors during Klondike Gold Rush, 1897

Before the movies, Romaine spent most of his life as a charlatan of one kind or another. He was born into penniless Midwestern anonymity but channeled that struggle into a life of ambitious transfiguration. He told everyone he was an immigrant from Corsica, sometimes improvising about a royal lineage. He claimed for decades that he was in his thirties—and no one questioned such a proclamation from a man so handsome and virile and charming. He moonlighted as a travel agent, selling overpriced train tickets to overhyped locales, along with insurance for a whole litany of possible travel catastrophes.

 

Most boldly, he frequently impersonated a doctor, claiming medical degrees from the world over. He even fraudulently practiced medicine for several years in Kansas. Years after trading in his phony stethoscope for a motion picture camera, he would masquerade as a Red Cross surgeon in order to film behind the lines of Poncho Villa’s rebel army during the Mexican Revolution.

 

He ventured out on several Alaskan treks for gold and reportedly first met the writer Jack London while prospecting in the Klondike. His friendship with London, at least, appears genuine: the legendary novelist kept a number of candid snapshots of Romaine with him until the day he died. In a way, their relationship would come to define the downfall of Romaine's career.

 

Inevitably, Romaine ended up in the theater, trying to scratch out a life bellowing the melodramas of others on stages across the country. In the theater he got his first taste of fame. About Romaine’s 1908 stage performance in Sure Shot Sam, Billboard Magazine raved: His bright striking personality and suave villainy makes one shudder at times, then when he trips into lighter moods you find it irresistible not to amble along. Romaine Fielding is one of the best heavies ever seen in New York.

 

Then came the movies.

 

The movies, as you know, are a haven for charlatans.

Romaine got a job with Philadelphia’s Lubin Film Company in 1911. Siegmund (Pop) Lubin, a cigar chomping, gold-tipped cane wielding, diamond ring flashing German immigrant, had spent a decade evolving from an ophthalmologist, to a pioneer of film piracy, to a peddler of Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope phantasmagoria to, finally, a premier baron of the burgeoning motion picture landscape. Pop Lubin saw in Romaine a fellow hustler, a unique visionary. And so he sent the aging actor to the one place where he could spin a con job larger than life.

 

Lubin sent Romaine west, to make some Westerns.

Motion Picture Magazine, featuring Romaine - December, 1914

Romaine Fielding’s pictures are different wrote The New York Dramatic Mirror in 1915:

...he makes of his lead—usually played by himself—a unique figure. ...he dresses extravagantly and in extreme and he makes altogether such a figure as one might not infrequently encounter in dreamland...

 

...add to such an interesting figure, for those who do not know it, a country as bizarre as the man himself, a land of stone and cacti, cacti that grow in strength and weird shapes in a land that photographs beautifully because of the clear atmosphere, and we have an almost ideal character and topographic combination. It is difficult to tell whether the land favored the director or vice versa.

 

A country as bizarre as the man himself. Romaine must have basked in such high praise. And, suddenly, it came from everywhere.

 

Among the achievements that help to make him unique, wrote Photoplay Magazine in 1915, one of the most notable is that he can produce a "Western" that really is Western. Even those frequenters of the picture-theaters who are surfeited with the usual cowboy-Indian-six-shooter "thriller" will never miss a Romaine Fielding play.

 

 Just three years after leaving the stages of New York, middle-aged in a young business, he managed to pass himself off as the very embodiment of the modern American West.

III

AMERICA'S MOST POPULAR PLAYER

         ummer. Tucson, 1912. Romaine arrived with a small crew and got cracking on his first film: The Sleeper.

 

He’d taken charge of Lubin’s Southwest Company after the previous director managed to get everyone imprisoned back in El Paso. They were accused of inciting widespread panic when 400 extras acted out a battle from the Mexican Revolution even as real battles in the real Mexican Revolution were raging in Juárez, just 20 miles south. See how reality has always been slow to adjust to our representation of it? So Romaine took charge of the company and took to heart a lesson about the importance of local sentiment when shooting on location. He took the company to Tucson, looking to start fresh. When he arrived, he found a wild west town built atop a Spanish mission with a whole lot of industry pouring over it on account of recent statehood and rumors of gold.

 

He wrote everything he found into a script, just like he always had, even if this was the first time it would be filmed.

 

A riff on the Rip Van Winkle myth, The Sleeper was a two-reeler that followed a failing prospector who gives up digging and dozes for too long—years, maybe—and, when he wakes, inadvertently sparks a gold rush. The bum had made his nest in undiscovered paydirt. The bum becomes a celebrated buffoon, a mascot for the promise of indiscriminate fortunes. In the chaos of greedy prospectors that follows, he is separated from his family. He spends the rest of the film searching for them, lost and confused and none-the-richer for having passed so peacefully through the nadir of his leaner days.

The Sleeper captured the strange evolutionary blur in which Tucson found itself when Romaine arrived in 1912: two century old adobe buildings from Spanish settlement covered over in frontier ramshackleness, plus the erratic opulence and fleeting debauchery of a gold rush, all surrounded by the burgeoning loom of industrial sprawl. The story also seems a metaphor for Romaine’s own journey; what was filmmaking in the 1910s if not a newfangled gold rush, an industry of renegades moving ever westward looking to make a fortune?

 

In 1914 Romaine would provide the shortest answer of any actor for a Motion Picture Magazine article titled How I Became a Photoplayer: It is the simplest thing in the world…I became a Photoplayer thru monetary inducement. He was, no doubt, capitalizing on America’s celluloid gold rush, but he would also, almost despite himself, at least for a little while, develop a reputation as an artist among mere producers, a moralist among so many exploiters.  

 

In Tucson, Romaine hired hundreds of extras from the community but gave them no costumes and so: there was the prospector alongside the cowboy alongside the farmer alongside the padres amidst all the urban-looking factory workers. He spread the money he had among the people he saw, in order to tell the story he invented after seeing them. That story: the West had, seemingly overnight, become a place with a maddening multiplicity of narrative trajectories and Americans were likely to feel they’d fallen asleep and missed something, lost something that could not survive this growing frenzy of wealth.

 

Linda Woal, one of the few scholars to have studied Romaine, describes the film this way:

The Sleeper established a precedent for what were soon to become widely recognized as trademarks of Fielding's best films—intense, unconventional and increasingly strange Westerns, set not in the nineteenth century time frame of already traditional Westerns, but in the contemporary West, as Fielding found it, or in another West of his own imagining…The Sleeper rendered meaningless the classical boundaries of time, linear narrative and reality versus the imaginary.

 

After completing a half-dozen films in Tucson, Romaine moved the company a few hundred miles north, to Prescott, Arizona. There he shot The Cringer, a two-reeler in which the senseless brutality of a gang of aging cowboys pushes a peaceful sheepherder to acts of domestic terrorism. The dregs of our manifest destiny were spoiling things. The Stetson-crowned American iconoclast had rarely been shown in such a negative light. Where The Sleeper began to unravel the legacy of the Old West, The Cringer went straight for indictment: bad cowboys.

Reel by reel, Romaine was evolving into a new kind of American seer. Audiences were loving it. By the end of 1912, Romaine was one of Lubin Films most successful directors, his silent pictures illuminating new movie palaces nationwide.  

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Romaine with cast and crew

New Mexico, 1913

Romaine in a Lubin production, 1914

Romaine then headed south, to the border town of Nogales, where he achieved peak stardom with a 1913 film called The Toll of Fear. As always, he wrote and directed the film. But this time he really held court by playing both of the film’s only two characters.

 

From Lubin Films’ 1913 summary of The Toll of Fear:

Dick McKnight, a deputy sheriff, of Santa Cruz County, receives a phone message from Sheriff Wheeler of an adjoining County to the effect that Pedro Aquillo and his band of outlaws are in Santa Luis Canyon. Dick’s brother, Bill, is away and the young deputy resolves that he will go himself and try to track the band. He leaves a note for Bill, stating his quest and goes forth. Getting into the mountains, he finds a notice tacked to a tree which reads “Go back or you die with the Sun.”

 

He continues his way, but fear overcomes him and, in a delirium, he enters an adobe hut and shoots himself. Bill, the sheriff, returns to the home and finds the note from Dick. He starts in search of his brother and finds him dead, with the ominous paper clasped in his hand. Bill in turn experiences the same fear. He mounts his horse and rides, he knows not where. He penetrates into an old deserted Mission and secrets himself in a crevice.

 

There he becomes crazed and fires his revolver at the walls until they fall and bury him in a living tomb.

 

The brothers kill themselves on account of fear. And not being able to find each other. Neither man happens across another living human. They die because they get caught up in themselves. This is part of what prophecy is too.

 

The Toll of Fear traffics in obvious stereotypes: a no-doubt brown Aquillo is the ominous threat to our white purveyors of justice, Dick and Bill. Though this must also be a condemnation of those stereotypes, as Dick and Bill are so inept they would be laughable if the unrelenting realism of the picture, as the papers described it, didn’t make their psychosis so horrifying to the audiences of 1913. The stupid white man invents a fear of the brown man and is, in turn, destroyed by that fear. Seen this way, The Toll of Fear sounds quite progressive.

 

As early as November 1912, Romaine had made his intentions in Nogales clear. The Arizona Daily Star reported He says that whereas the Mexican has usually been made the scapegoat in pictures heretofore, he is now making him a hero as well, believing there is good in him as in all people.

 

Romaine made a string of these Mexican-hero pictures leading up to The Toll of Fear, including The Blind Cattle King and Courageous Blood. None of them were successful like The Toll of Fear. Americans, it seemed, were more willing to watch white men destroy themselves than to watch Mexicans triumph.

 

But it’s hard to say just exactly how forceful The Toll of Fear was in condemning racism. The film no longer exists. Something like 75% of all silent films are lost. And of Romaine’s: nearly everything. Only eight of his films survive, and only in fragments.

 

We’re piecing The Toll of Fear together from contemporary reviews and interviews and announcements, the odd publicity photo here and there, and a whole bunch of concerns projected back through time from the present day. How can we speak with any authority about a thing which does not exist? It is in our nature, I suppose.

 

The Toll of Fear was hailed as one of the first great psychological thrillers. An unusual and one of the most remarkable films ever released proclaimed a General Films publication.

New York Dramatic Mirror: Truly it was a daring undertaking that Mr. Fielding mapped out when he sought to utilize an abstract principle in a one-man picture and drive that principle home.

 

Moving Picture World:

...a tragic picture of fear. People of strong imagination are apt, if they have Celtic or Gothic blood, to exploit the morbid in their art (both Poe and Hawthorne did)… The uprising of Gothic arches is ours and also the plummet line into the shadows. With the latter belongs this offering. It is two reels of unrelieved horror.

 

Our scholar, Linda Woal: 

A one-man film about the power of isolation, a silent film about the power of silence, The Toll of Fear was recognized as a unique effort to elevate the Western to the status of art. It was apparently a self-conscious Western that, thanks to his choice of setting, Fielding transformed into a brood meditation on the psychological power of the western landscape.

 

After the success of The Toll of Fear, Romaine made the cover of Motion Picture Magazine. He was voted America’s Most Popular Player by the magazine's readers, snagging over 1.3 million of the 7 million votes cast by film buffs.

 

This award was a remarkable accomplishment in the pre-Oscars era. He beat out Mary Pickford, an early cinema powerhouse and eventual cofounder of the famed United Artists studio. He beat out Bronco Billy, who had starred in The Great Train Robbery (1903), arguably the first ever Western film. Bronco Billy had been the exact representation of the way America had long envisioned their West, full of strong, individualistic cowboys whose moral idealism sometimes put them on the wrong side of the law. 

But in 1913, with 1.3 million votes, America embraced a storyteller who saw the West as a place where the human species was particularly encouraged to invent things to fear and then become obsessed with destroying those inventions, thereby ruining themselves because the feared thing had, after all, come from within. Romaine understood that telling stories of the old frontier was no way to break new ground. And so he traversed the infinite frontier, the one where normal grows a tumorous, hypnotic prefix: para (meaning against, as in beyond—or meaning against, as in protection from). Whatever is normal must be vanquished by going beyond. And the only way to go beyond, in the age of a closed frontier, was to turn inward.

The Toll of Fear explored the psyche through suggestion of the paranormal, through exploration of the West not as we’d imagined it, but as we’d made it. Lonesome and dirty and violent. Self-destructive. Full of ghosts. A vast, rough canvas on which we could paint in blood all the ways we suspected civilization was merely the latest incarnation of savagery. Romaine was recording the nightmare.

 

And still the crowds forked over their dimes and cheered.

 

That The Toll of Fear no longer exists, over a century later, seems part of its brilliance too. The film must be created in one’s mind, from almost nothing, viewed only at the theater of inner consciousness, all the roles played by you, and directed by you, and watched only by you: a personal revelation.

Valley of Fires, NM | Joshua Wheeler

IV

THE FRONTIER TURNS INWARD

   onathon Rosenbaum, in his book about the 1995 Jim Jarmusch film Dead Man, writes about a subgenre called Acid Westerns, a term coined by the critic Pauline Kael in her review of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo (1970). El Topo includes scenes of people rising naked out of the sand. A herder of rabbits roams the dunes with his hopalong hoards. A naked boy navigates a massacre on horseback, clinging to his black clad gunslinger father. All the blood is neon red. It runs through the desert more than water. And a man with no arms straps himself to a man with no legs and together they train fledgling gunfighters. And rituals of communal Russian roulette and lots of desert padres acting wonky and bedeviled dames on horseback having bullwhip fights and everything tinged with horror or divinity or the confusion of the two which manifests as absurdity that is just as sincere as it is rampant.

 

Kael suspected, more or less accurately, that the filmmakers and/or the audiences of El Topo were tripping balls on weed and peyote and, most especially, LSD.

 

So: Acid Western.

 

A few decades later, Rosenbaum ran with the term and retroactively traced the genre back to Monte Hellman’s The Shooting (1966), Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie (1971), Robert Downey’s Greasers Palace (1972), and a dozen other Westerns from the psychedelic era that, he writes, conjure up a crazed version of America at its most solipsistic, hankering after its own lost origins.

 

These were films at the fringes of the revisionist Western craze made famous by Peckinpah and Leone and Eastwood. Acid Westerns put a gritty, hyper-realistic eye on stories of desert madness. The Shooter is one long horse ride, a chase after nothing, a perfect mirror of Samuel Becket’s long, pointless waiting. Greaser’s Palace is the story of a zoot-suited Jesus who falls from the sky to the New Mexico desert and tries to tame the Old West with a song-and-dance routine.

 

One hallmark of all Acid Westerns, Rosenbaum writes, are their drug like handling of time. And: an inability to distinguish inner consciousness and external reality. They were never films about drugs, exactly. But drugs were a good shortcut to describe how the films meant to unsettle, meant to burrow deep into Western mythology until you lost all sense of direction, moral and otherwise, a vortex rather more horrifying than the straight-shot triumphs our screen cowboys traditionally gunslung toward.

 

Way back in 1912, Romaine Fielding had no acid. Maybe he had a tincture of cocaine, as that drug had become all the rage with the wane of frontier opium dens. And Romaine would eventually make a film, His Blind Power, about the psychosis of cocaine addiction. And Romaine was roundly hailed for his ability to work 20 hour days. (Eleanor Mason was said to be the only one capable of keeping up with him.) And Romaine, in the surviving reels of his performances, often seems keyed up and wild-eyed, like his blood rushed harder than the heart traditionally dictates.

 

But maybe this is just the way everyone in silent films looks to us now. Back then they filmed at 16 frames per second, just enough frames to trick the brain, which can recognize up to 12 distinct images a second, into perceiving movement. Screening silent films nowadays often requires duplication of individual frames to match our higher projection rates. This causes hiccups. And so it seems people moved through the world more hectically in the silent film era, more jerky, as if their limbs were still stiff from the molds of creation.

 

But even if you watch a silent film unconverted, projected at the original 16 frames per second, the ghost of the seams between frames are there. Your eye can almost distinguish individual images. You can sense the struggle, at the root of all storytelling, to manipulate time.

 

Running in Romaine’s blood was maybe cocaine but mostly just the common conman’s paranoia, a nervous sense of grandeur, a notion that the whole story could be rigged, and had been, and might therefore be manipulated again for some other means and then again ad infinitum like nothing is solid, everything is gelatinous, at best—the desert a place where the quivering of the wormhole we all forever sense grows particularly acute.

 

Romaine wanted to get rich, surely. And even more, he desired fame. But in him too was an inkling of moral imperative. He was a fraudulent doctor, after all, but no one ever claimed he was a bad one. While filming a Mexican Revolution battle in Nogales, imbedded with the rebel leaders Juan Cabral and Alvaro Obregon, Romaine took time to tend to the wounded from both sides. This was, of course, a cover, the filmmaker dressed as a Red Cross surgeon to sneak into the battle. And, in addition to all the fighting, he made sure his crew was there to film his heroic doctoring. 

 

This moment—Romaine directing the cameras even as he sutures soldiers’ lacerations—captures the contradiction that would come to define his life, maybe even the whole glitzy industry he helped to kickstart: the irreconcilable pursuits of celebrity and wealth and social justice.

 

While he always insisted on the spotlight, Romaine tended to play the villain. He was the star of his films but his star was never moving triumphantly through an unconquered frontier toward beautiful vistas and ultimate freedom. Romaine’s star was always floundering psychotically in a liminal clusterfuck of cacti and civilization, bombarded by all manner of inexplicable phenomena until an ugly death. His were not pessimistic films, exactly. They celebrated the obliteration of myth. To be against mythology is to be open to the possibilities of the future. To be against mythology is to really open the doors of perception.  

 

Place his Westerns alongside those of his most famous contemporary, DW Griffith, to see how little Romaine cared for the dominant myth of heroic American expansionism. The Battle of Elderbush Gulch, a 1913 Griffith film, tells the story of Native Americans as primitive demons in opposition to white civilization. In Gulch, a white child is kidnapped by Native Americans. Then look at Fielding’s film released earlier the same year, Who is the Savage?, in which a white woman kidnaps a Native American child. Of this film a baffled New York Dramatic Mirror reviewer wrote It was the queerest picture ever projected and Why on earth would the society leader want this dirty little Indian baby?

 

Romaine’s film was an indictment of American exceptionalism. The white woman, in her frenzy to show off the baby to her fancy friends like some new trinket, crashes her car and brawls with the child’s mother. There were no men in the film, the critic complained, and there were actual Native Americans in the cast. It is more like a nightmare than a photoplay the critic wroteExactly, Romaine must have thought. Realism.

 

On the other hand, about Griffith’s Gulch, film historians have said: Perhaps more than any other single silent short, it determines and develops the dominant perspective of the Myth of Conquest. This Myth of Conquest, the delusion that westward expansion was the righteous duty of Americans, would go on to dominate the silver screen for half a century after Griffith. Looking back, it seems Romaine leapfrogged that whole golden age of Westerns, skipped right past four decades of cinema stubbornly whitewashing the American story.

 

So: The Toll of Fear was our first Acid Western. Or The Cringer. Or The Sleeper. The point is that by 1913, Romaine Fielding was totally hip to the Acid West.

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Romaine in The Harmless One

Las Vegas, NM | November, 1913

If you can survive the savage hallucinations of an Acid Western, Rosenbaum argues, you’re left with an urge to upset the very thing that set into motion the bad trip of manifest destiny in the first place: capitalism.

 

If all those trippy horse flicks in the 60s had any sort of agenda beyond fucking up your childhood notions of the heroic cowboy, it was maybe to suggest that exactly because the landscape of the West could so efficiently collapse internal and external reality, allowing us to project our true nature, however unjust, onto it, then that same landscape was also the only place a more equitable kind of America could emerge, if we ever happened to develop a more just nature.

 

But it would take a few decades beyond the 60s and the explosion of a whole other genre of films, something a bit more forward looking, to do more than just suggest the complete overthrow of capitalism.

 

Romaine got there too.

 

Which brings us back to where we first came upon our auteur, gazing out on an open pit copper mine.

V

THE GOLDEN GOD

         ilver City, New Mexico. May, 1913. Romaine stands next to his Buick, pondering something big. Ever since the public panic following the Lubin Company's staged battle in El Paso, Romaine had perfected the practice of enlisting local communities in his films’ productions. Hundreds of Tucson’s residents took part in The Sleeper. While in Nogales, Romaine had managed to stay out of jail when staging Mexican Revolution battles to cut in with his documentary footage of actual battles, happening just across the border. At the Chino Mine in Santa Rita, he would again make the locals his cast.

 

These laborers were the story, after all, the heart of a spectacle he was finally ready to tackle, something as long as ten reels, two or more hours of unrelenting action projected into the eyeballs of lookers in movie palaces nationwide, a whole novel on the screen, the natural evolution of his strange Westerns: a futuristic dystopia in which labor rises up against capital in an apocalyptic battle, a science-fiction adventure to put all other films to shame.

 

In 1908, Romaine’s old prospecting friend, Jack London, had published The Iron Heel. This novel, while not anywhere near London’s best writing, has the distinction of being inspired in at least one way: it is one of America’s first popular dystopian novels, following in the speculative footsteps of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888) and Ignatius Donnely’s Caesar’s Column (1890). Perhaps most famously, The Iron Heel is acknowledged by George Orwell as a major influence on his ever-relevant and popular novel, Nineteen-Eighty-Four (1949).

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Grosset & Dunlap, 1917

Bantam Paperbacks, 1971

Penguin Classics, 2006

London’s 1908 novel portrays the near future of 1912. America's democracy has fractured under the rule of a homegrown oligarchy known as the Iron Heel. The massive labor class abandons the factories and takes up arms. 

 

The book is a slog of London’s often astute, always passionate, but unmercifully long-winded socialist arguments. By 1906 London had made a name for himself as one of the loudest members of the emerging Democratic Socialist Party, giving lectures at fancy joints like Yale while wearing working-class rags and shouting We will be content with nothing less than all power, with the possession of the whole world. We Socialists will wrest the power from the present rulers. By war, if necessary. Stop us if you can! The poster advertising the lecture portrayed London standing amid flames, hovering above the word REVOLUTION.

 

Though the novel was roundly panned by critics, fervent socialist passions among the labor classes helped it sell 50,000 copies. It was passed around surreptitiously in factories across the country as a kind of manifesto about the inevitable comeuppance of those with grease ground into their bones.

 

Despite being a bust as entertainment, The Iron Heel stuck with Romaine. After all, he and London were both illegitimate children born into the dregs of industrial society. They lusted after the power of the well-bred. They approached their art like labor and were prolific far beyond their peers. They were always looking to make a quick fortune, strike it rich, find gold. Their personal moralities often fell far short of the ideals championed in their stories. And no amount of fame or critical praise could ever wipe the poor off of them.

 

This is London’s novel: The daughter of a prominent scientist, a man who is an outspoken critic of the newly empowered American oligarchy, marries a journalist turned leader of the Socialist rebellion. She watches as her father and husband organize the masses. She becomes the de-facto scribe of the movement which eventually grows into a worldwide labor revolution that will take seven centuries of apocalyptic warfare to succeed.

 

London’s novel is the memoir of this woman, filtered through the scholarship of an academic who writes from the year of our Lord 2632.

This convoluted structure allows for little action on the pages of The Iron Heel. But the epic battles of the near future that London mostly left to his reader’s imagination were, Romaine understood, perfect fodder for a film.

 

Romaine gazed out over the copper mine in southern New Mexico—maimed men in the heat of the sun, in the soot of their machines, in the wake of their dynamite blasts. The story of The Iron Heel was relevant, was real, was exactly the story the modern West was bending toward, the whole of America, all of civilization. And the massive organization of the mine, its bestial rampage of technology, was a model for the means of realizing that vision. What if they labored not to tear the earth apart, but to tell a story, to show people everywhere an earth already torn apart, in order to heal the one we still had? What if they made a movie on the scale of the mine?

 

Of course, as always, the story would require lots of dynamite.

 

Romaine arranged to film an explosion on June 25, 1913. Perhaps he even encouraged the chemists and engineers to take a risk like they never had before, seducing them with the power of his own machines, a couple of Bell & Howell 35mm Studio Cameras retrofitted for constant travel. The mine was buying more and more state-of-the-art No. 5 mechanical shovels, could move more dirt than ever before, meaning they must loose more to move, to sift through, to plunder. They arranged the mine’s biggest explosion yet, the first step in a new era of massive mining that would eventually disappear the whole town of Santa Rita. And the first shot for Romaine’s new scheme, new epic, the new story he’d taken to calling, almost too perfectly, The Golden God.

 

The blast crews gathered $7000 of explosives. 25 tons of dynamite. Over 2000 people came to watch and participate in the staging of a riot, a mock uprising of labor that would culminate in 300,000 cubic yards blasted from our wobbling rock. The immediate result of this footage was a two-reeler called Riot at Smelter, by all accounts a fairly lackluster story about the dangers of a localized labor strike. But really, Romaine had surreptitiously filmed the first scenes of his big project, an unauthorized adaptation of London’s novel that Romaine set in the year 1950.

 

For so long prophecy had been this thing that was written or yelled—preached, maybe—but Romaine wanted to act it out, pantomime and title cards and pyrotechnics, wanted everyone rapt in their seats as their eyeballs caught the beams of over an hour of futuristic destruction.

 

While most two-reel films were shot in just a few weeks, often only days, The Golden God would take months. Almost no one in America was making films longer than two or three reels. The motion picture was still a novelty, the investment in a feature film not worth the risk. Theaters wanted to sell tickets every half hour, rather than have seats occupied for two hours by people who only paid once. But Romaine wanted audiences glued to their seats for ten or more reels of narrative, wanted at least one battle spanning multiple reels featuring tens of thousands of combatants.

 

As America’s Most Popular Player, and Lubin’s leading director, Romaine was in a unique position to demand the necessary budget. So the company loaded up on the El Paso & Southwestern Railroad in July of 1913 and headed north from Silver City to Las Vegas, New Mexico. Romaine had found, at the foot of the Rockies, at the Western edge of the Great Plains, at the top of the High Desert, a landscape where the Western could finally evolve into the futuristic Apocalypse.

North wall of Plaza Hotel in Las Vegas, NM - 2018

Romaine kept Pop Lubin happy by churning out a few two-reelers in the months after he arrived in Las Vegas, including a wildly popular and supremely strange Western about a psychic rattlesnake—The Rattlesnake: A Psychical Species—which mostly survives and should be screened for anyone who doubts the power of silent films to unsettle. He made The Evil Eye and The Harmless One and the cocaine parable His Blind Power. Through it all, Romaine stayed focused on his feature.

 

A handful of American directors were increasingly experimenting with films that stretched up to or beyond an hour. A maudlin five-reel Civil War picture had been released in May, to lukewarm reviews. And DW Griffith was shooting a four-reel feature in California. But the budget of Griffith's film was less than half of the groundbreaking $50,000 Romaine had secured from Lubin Studios to begin production on The Golden God, a budget that would balloon to as much as $142,000, by some reports, when all was said and done, a truly absurd figure for a film in 1913. Plus, Griffith’s feature was yet another sword and sandal Biblical yarn, not a technological marvel of filmmaking set in the near future of 1950.

 

In Las Vegas, the Southwest Company began by filming  a real rodeo on November 10. This footage would presumably act as characterization for the labor class, seen as strong and organized in their hours of leisure, as in their hours of toil. The rodeo sequence continued Romaine's interest in melding fiction with documentary and, in retrospect, acts as the perfect transition of the quintessential America genre from Western to Sci-Fi Dystopian.

 

The Southwest Company also bought a hotel and painted Romaine's name in big letters on its brick façade (still visible to this day). Hotel Romaine was where he and Eleanor Mason gathered people. They gathered many people. The gathering of many people is always the first step when orchestrating apocalypse.

 

They enlisted the local police, the Elks Club, the Las Vegas Fire Company, the NM state constabulary, the National Guard, anyone and everyone he met, people of all classes and ethnicities. Over ten thousand, by some reports. They gathered guns and cars. They ordered a fleet of airplanes. Almost no one in New Mexico had seen an airplane. $15,000 of ammunition and explosives were purchased for the production. They fitted his Buick with search lights and a machine gun. When only one airplane showed up, they strapped a canon to it.

 

Romaine obsessed over every detail that would add up to the illusion of the future. Just as he'd dragged his whole company to New Mexico to capture the essence of his modern Westerns, he was trying to, gun-by-gun and costume-by-costume, drag his whole company into the future to capture the essence of The Golden God.

 

Day after day, for weeks, they gathered everyone around Hotel Romaine and went on with getting on with directing the end of the world. At least one day was declared a holiday in the region so that no person in the region would be left out of the film. Eleanor packed guns into her skirts for her role as the film's heroine. Romaine loaded up the Bell & Howell cameras. He ran back and forth, gazing into the lens, letting the lens gaze into him as he played the evil, conquering capitalist. He was auteur and oligarch, conducting what would be among the greatest technical feats in the area until, three decades later, atop an extinct volcano just 60 miles west, scientists began to build an atomic bomb.

Crowds at filming of The Golden God, 1913

The Las Vegas Optic, Nov. 18, 1913:

No scene recorded by the pen of Victor Hugo, no chapter from the French Revolution, can surpass in action, in thrill or in human interest the scene recorded this morning by Romaine Fielding’s battery of cameras. Those who witnessed the staging of the pageant or who participated in it could not help feeling as though they were part of a real instead of a motion-fiction drama.

 

Church Street, on the West side, usually quiet and almost deserted, was transferred into the battling place of humanity against organized wealth… The street is narrow and flanked on either side by houses. The roofs of these buildings were covered with men and boys armed with hand grenades, while the thoroughfare itself was filled with men brandishing bludgeons and other primitive weapons.

                  

Romaine had scrubbed the distant-future academic narration from his screen adaptation but kept the near-future setting and boiled London’s novel down to its core, adding a few twists. The Labor Film was already well on its way to becoming a popular genre (mean capitalists, angry workers, strikes, and revolutions) but just as Romaine had dissected and mutated the Western, his Labor Film would look nothing like its peers.

 

In The Golden God, a wealthy businessman, Myton Power, seizes the reigns of America’s political system by appealing to populist sentiment. Power then abandons his constituents and rounds up the wealthy worldwide by promising them more wealth through investments in his personal business ventures. Eventually, through consolidation of global industry, Power makes himself a global dictator.

 

Richin Manlove is a journalist assigned to cover the growing unrest with Power, but Manlove soon becomes the spokesperson for the labor revolution. When he confronts Power, and is on the verge of being executed by the oligarch, Power’s heiress daughter saves Manlove, moved to act by his stories of the mistreated masses. The heiress then joins forces with the journalist and becomes the leader of the labor revolution. She leads them in battle against the oligarch’s war machines and, in the film’s climax, steps in front of the machine gun mounted to her father’s war automobile. Myton Power, unable to murder his own daughter, orders his forces to retreat. Finally, at his daughter’s urging, Power becomes a champion of the labor class he had manipulated and so nearly destroyed.

 

What this plot summary, ripped from a contemporary newspaper account of the production, doesn’t relay: the impact of the New Mexico landscape on the film. There is little doubt that despite all the explosives and the futuristic planes and war automobiles and the ten thousand extras battling it out, the truest sense of apocalypse and dystopia and, ultimately, reconciliation, were pulled by Romaine from the land. That was his calling card, after all: a country as bizarre as the man himself.

 

We know for sure that Romaine filmed atop Hermit Peak, a 10,000 foot behemoth looming west of town, made famous by an Italian monk who spent the Civil War years living and meditating in a tiny cave at the summit. From there, looking back toward Las Vegas, Romaine could have captured the green forest disappearing into the darkness of Gallinas Canyon, and beyond the darkness, an almost white plain stretching toward Tucumcari.

Imagine the forces of labor coming across that plain, thousands of actual miners and factory workers and farmers excused from work for the holiday, paid one dollar to act as extras, to brandish their primitive weapons and charge toward the airplane, war automobiles, and turrets of a futuristic capitalist army. Imagine Eleanor, assistant director and heiress-turned-heroine leader of the revolution, spurring the masses on toward, Romaine atop that peak, using the reflection of the sun off a hand mirror to communicate with his leading lady miles away. And imagine all of this chaos packing into and slithering through the streets.

 

From the Las Vegas Daily Optic, 20 Nov. 1913:

Flaming torches laid waste to buildings and houses as the masses, now awakened to the full realization of their primitive strength, dynamited streets, making them new ploughed fields in which to bury the dead of the gigantic struggle. And overhead... the new terror of war, the dreadnought of the skies, with death at the helm spreading his grim toll of war.

 

...bombs were dropped from the plane which exploded in mid air. The mob, with flaming torches and rifles, tried to stop the terror of the clouds which spread in its path the vivid death of the cruiser of the air.

 

They didn’t have the word yet, but this was it: a real American blockbuster.

Cast and crew of The Golden God, 1913

VI

DECLARED INFLAMMABLE

         t the end of November, with the Rocky Mountain winter settling in, the Southwest Company packed up and headed for Galveston, Texas. They had completed all of the massive outdoor action for The Golden God in Las Vegas, and now used a small studio in Galveston to shoot some of the film’s interiors. Romaine spent some time with Jack London, who was in Galveston preparing to ship out as a war correspondent for Collier's Magazine, to report on the American occupation of Veracruz, Mexico.

 

Just as they completed the last of  the interiors for The Golden God, in March of 1914, DW Griffith’s first feature, a four-reeler called Judith of Bethulia, was released. Griffith’s story was taken from the Bible’s Book of Judith and, maybe not so coincidently, was also about a woman striving to stop a war. Griffith’s heroine is in ancient Israel. She poses as a prostitute, seduces a king, and finally decapitates him. In Romaine’s film, the heroine is in future America. She leads a rebellion against her oligarch father, before reconciling with him in order to negotiate a lasting peace for the labor class. This was the kind of heroine America needed, but would not get to see.

 

The Golden God was likely meant to go head-to-head with Judith of Bethulia. Lubin had aggressively marketed the film for months. But there were problems. By April of 1914, Lubin had Romaine cut the film  from ten reels down to six, and then possibly again down to five. He also demanded the title be changed to The Horror of War. This was likely in response to criticism from the National Board of Censorship. The exact nature of the board's objection to the film isn’t clear, but years later during a lecture in Arizona, Romaine would explain: Because of its mob and war scenes, the picture was declared inflammable by the National Board of Censorship and failed to pass.

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The Golden God's stunt aviation crew

Romaine and Eleanor Mason, in two of the only surviving advertisements for The Golden God

In those days, the censorship board was largely made up of studio owners, or friends appointed by studio owners. They were, in other words, almost exclusively wealthy white men. And in a time when there were daily strikes in factories and mines nationwide, these businessmen were likely not keen to have the most expensive film ever made portray a worldwide labor uprising, led by a woman, no less.

 

The censorship board records aren't complete, but I can tell you that I wish I could tell you more about the life and career of Eleanor Mason. Unfortunately, her life and career were not well documented. And it's not hard to imagine that the cultural forces that kept her out of the papers, that put women's suffrage on hold after the election of Woodrow Wilson, might also be involved in having kept us from seeing her save the world from the Golden God.

 

Changing the title to The Horror of War might have been an attempt to shift focus from the critique of capitalist oppression to the critique of violent revolution, a slight but absolute shift. Since the film had already been extensively advertised as The Golden God, this last minute post-production change seems coerced. And, following the change, Lubin removed Romaine’s name from all the company advertisements for nearly a year. Romaine had likely angered his boss by trying to defend the integrity of The Golden God against censorship.

 

There was also the small issue that Romaine, having been friends with Jack London, never bothered to officially secure the rights to his novel The Iron Heel. Many of London’s novels were already in production with another film company and London was engaged in a bitter and high-profile lawsuit with them over rights. In any case, all we know for sure is that in early 1914, the release of The Golden God was delayed again and again.

 

And then, it was destroyed.

VII

EVERYTHING THAT RISES

         strip of cellulose nitrate film, exposed to extreme heat, will ignite quick and burn like a fuse. A compressed mass of the stuff, like a reel in a canister, will burn like pyrotechnics, shooting a column of flame up to ten feet, loud and rushing out from the canister like a rocket engine.

 

On June 13, 1914, at the Lubin Film Vault in Philadelphia, tens of thousands of reels of film sat in storage. This was the center of all Lubin’s distribution, and so when it happened, tens of thousands of columns of rocketing flames shot out from the master reels of so much that had passed through the eyes of Americans: Satan’s Fan and Love Sweet Melody and The Taxidermist’s Dream and A Cowboy Argument and Saucy Sue and Spoony Sam and Celestial Vengeance and The Angel of the Slums and Athletic Carnival and The Kissing Pills and A Motor Boat Party and Self Convicted and so many of Romaine Fielding’s films including The Toll of Fear and The Sleeper and, of course, the as yet unreleased master of The Golden God. All the stories burned up, clouded the sky with smoke, settled as ash across North Philadelphia.

 

At 20th St & Indiana Ave., the whole block burned. There were over half a million dollars in damages.

 

The Motion Picture News, June 1914:

The explosion ripped out the street side of the vault and shattered the roof, scattering blazing reels of film in all directions... 

Eyewitnesses say that it was the most spectacular fire they have ever seen…

The newspapers all reported the cause as spontaneous combustion, but the theory of this writer, who has installed many thousands of square feet of vaultlights, similar to those used in the roof to admit daylight, is that the sun, streaming through one of the prisms of glass, produced the same effect as if a reading lens be held in the sun and the beam of light, being concentrated, set fire to some of the film.

               

So it was the sun. Like the god she is, reigning fire down on the people who are not ready to see their future. This, then, is maybe the true destiny of The Golden God, of the work Romaine had begun with his strange Westerns: the destruction of all the myths we’d begun projecting into our souls.

 

Two weeks later, a royal motorcade in Sarajevo passed by a delicatessen famous for its pljeskavica. Shots rang out. Two bullets exited the assassin’s pistol. One .38 caliber round tore into the gut of the Duchess. The other ripped through the jugular of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Soon the movie palaces would be full of newsreel coverage of The War to End All Wars. There would be little appetite for a blockbuster about a future world war between labor and capital. An actual world war had begun.

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EVERYTHING THAT RISES

VIII

FOR THE FREEDOM OF THE WORLD

       n July 1914, DW Griffith secretly began work on a new film. Though his last feature, the four-reeler Judith of Bethulia, had been something of a flop, he was still convinced that longer was better. When released in 1915, The Birth of a Nation clocked in at 12-reels, just over 3 hours of sweeping Civil War battle scenes. It was an immediate sensation, making millions beyond its $100,000 budget. And though they didn’t yet have the word, it was a real American blockbuster. 

 

You no doubt know something of this film: widely reviled for its racism, reviled for its celebration of the Ku Klux Klan, reviled for how celebrated it was in its day. The Birth of Nation is at once hailed as absolutely groundbreaking in the evolution of cinema and abhorred as a reminder of how stubbornly America has clung to its original sin. The Golden God, had it been finished, had it not encountered the board of censorship, had it survived the fire, had it been projected into so many American eyeballs just a few months before The Birth of a Nation

 

Perhaps it is naive to think The Golden God could have made The Birth of a Nation less potent. But it is possible. Romaine’s star was at least as recognizable as Griffith’s entering 1914. And a nation flocking to Romaine’s dystopian sci-fi epic about the need to speak to truth to power, it just might have revealed The Birth of a Nation for the elitist white nationalist propaganda that it was. Or maybe that notion credits American audiences too much. Maybe they would have loved the explosions and the sci-fi weapons to such an extent that any subsequent blockbuster that didn’t contain those hypnotic flourishes would fall flat.

 

It's ultimately a false dichotomy, but I think it is worth trying to dethrone The Birth of a Nation as the thing that set the standard for the American blockbuster, even if the proposed replacement no longer exists. Or never existed. Or perhaps just remembering that, a hateful picture had a counterpart. There was a better film. A film that suggested exactly the role America would eventually play in our First World War, a nation capable of fighting for some essential moral good. A film that portrayed women not as victims but as leaders of the revolution. A film where working-class people of all races rallied together to ensure their rights in a world run by capitalists turned dictators.

 

We almost had that film. It was made by a born charlatan.

 

Romaine Fielding went on to make some other films but his star never shone so bright after the demise of The Golden God. Pop Lubin never really forgave him for not being able to recoup the unprecedented sum he’d sunk into the doomed project. He eventually gave Romaine $35,000 to crash two big trains into each other, which Romaine did to the delight of 30,000 people he'd gathered to watch the spectacle. But then Pop Lubin made him use the footage in a half-dozen films that had no additional budget, and they all tanked.

 

Lubin then briefly gave Romaine a shot at making the first Grand Canyon feature. Romaine was at the helm of The Great Divide just long enough to strap a four-cylinder generator to a Mitchell car and pioneer on-location lighting. But that, and other extravagances, ballooned the budget and Lubin fired Romaine and replaced him with a director, Edgar Lewis, who trashed most of his predecessor's footage. As a final slap in the face to Romaine as he parted ways with Lubin for good, The Great Divide went on to become a great success, outdrawing even The Birth of a Nation at many box offices.

 

In 1916, DW Griffith would make, Intolerance, considered another groundbreaking feat in filmmaking. Its primary storyline involves the consequences of a brutal capitalist violently breaking a labor strike, and though it had no war machines or airplane cannons, it is the film from the Labor genre most remembered today. 

 

In 1917, Romaine made For the Freedom of the World, one of his last forays as a director. America had entered the Great War and this was a propaganda film, funded in part by the government, and released to moderate acclaim. An auteur who spent his short career working against institutions of genre, of politic, of stereotype, of industry, got stuck with this ironic final success: a film about a wealthy American capitalist who volunteers for battle and becomes a war hero.

 

That year Romaine fell to 50th in Motion Picture Magazine’s Top 100 Film Stars issue, getting just 87,000 votes, a mere 6% of the 1.3million votes he had earned four years before. The poll was won by Mary Pickford with less than half a million votes. There were so many stars by then. We no longer needed to crane our necks so high to take in all the twinkling. The heavens were projected in front of us.

 

Then, for a decade, Romaine more or less dropped off the map. By most accounts, he totally self-destructed. In 1920, there was an ill-conceived and ill-fated attempt to cash in on his celebrity by starring, at the age of 53, in another director's semi-erotic film, Woman's Man. Then he married, and ended up fathering children with both his new wife and her younger sister. He squandered what was left of his money in St. Louis, mostly buying and racing and crashing expensive automobiles. He did some vaudeville. He reappeared briefly in Hollywood in 1927, staged a comeback of sorts, appearing in small roles in a few small films. But he was 60 by then, and must have hated how it showed.

 

Somehow he never lost the need to be a pioneer in the film industry: in his final year he subjected himself to a primitive facelift, wax injected all along the jawline. He was tinkering with his persona to the very end. And probably it helped to kill him, as he died from complications of dental surgery just weeks after the facelift.

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Romaine's Train Wreck
Romaine's Train Wreck

IX

THE WORLD'S END, AGAIN

        ne wonders what inspired Romaine’s last gasp, last grasp at stardom, those sad final days in Hollywood. Money, surely, as he died with only six dollars to his name. But maybe there was something else: in March of 1927, a German film called Metropolis, directed by Fritz Lang, was released in America. It was advertised in all the papers, yet another film claiming to be the most expensive ever made. But the budget of 5million Reichsmarks was well spent, as Metropolis is now considered one of the great films of all time, certainly one of the top science-fiction films ever made.

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Metropolis is set in the future, 2026, in an urban dystopia ruled by industrialists. The wealthy child of an oligarch teams up with a poor laborer to lead a revolution against the ruling industrialists. After an apocalyptic battle, the heir to the oligarch throne succeeds in uniting the warring classes. There’s a whole world of expressionist sets and choreography that really make Metropolis great, but when you strip it down to the bare plot, it is remarkably similar to The Golden God. And then there's this fact: Pop Lubin was extremely efficient about increasing film revenue (and evading censorship boards) by distributing prints of his films overseas, particularly in his native city of Berlin. He was the original film pirate. In the early days he funded his studio by illegally copying films from Thomas Edison and others in order to make money distributing them in foreign markets. Why would the copying king of early cinema not spread prints of his most expensive film far and wide? In what dusty archive of Berlin lie deteriorating reels of The Golden God?

 

I guess it is unlikely that Fritz Lang over in Germany would have known anything at all about the lost apocalypse of Romaine Fielding. But it seems pretty likely that a 60-year-old man in St. Louis, down to his last bucks, desperate and nostalgic about the years when he made his modest fortune, when his name was on the marquee, might feel drawn toward the matinee at the uptown cinema. And though the stark skyscrapers of Metropolis are a world away from Hermit Peak in Las Vegas, New Mexico, Romaine must have sat in that dark room feeling the kind of déjà vu that is equal parts satisfying and enraging: I did this. I already did this. And nobody will ever know.

 

I suppose this is yet another sadsack story of a broken artist, a flawed man ahead of his time, a failed prophet, a charlatan from the start. Here's the thing about people who aren't sure who they are, who constantly tweak their persona: they tend to channel whatever strong personality they came into contact with last. In this way, these people are just great conduits. They come into any space looking to steal a vibe that will help them get over. And if they're any good, they steal it and project it with almost no trace of their true selves slipping through. Pure signal boost. This is what make prophets. And, I think, what also makes despots. Romaine, it seems, was stuck in the middle.

 

But anybody can tell you that most human sorrow springs from inequality. Romaine, at least, in his love of spectacle, hoped that showing us two explosive hours of that sorrow might actually change something. Romaine hoped. This apocalypse will come to pass, unless…

           

The production notes for Romaine’s last day of filming evidence this hope, and show him slipping documentary into his fictions one last time, bringing metafiction into The Golden God and the early days of cinema:

4:30 p.m.: The World is Free. Symbolic picture in which all people used in the production, together with all spectators will be photographed with hands extended to heaven in thankfulness at the freedom of the world from the tyrant…

 

Lord knows this has not come to pass. But Romaine did conjure out of New Mexico at least one way in which we would find some equality. In what percentage of our big screen lives is the whole fate of the world at stake?

 

There is no question about it now, Romaine. We will all pay to see the dystopias. We will all sit through at least two hours of apocalypse. Together we are transfixed by our own total destruction. We fetishize our destruction because we fear we do not deserve immortality. We fear we do not deserve immortality because we daily witness the conflicts springing from inequality. But also, and far more troubling, we suspect that we are incapable of true equality. This is evident nowhere more than in the fact that we are a storytelling species. And stories, by definition, must have so much conflict. We literally cannot comprehend the world without it. 

 

What manner of species are we? We are moviegoers. And all the movies are blockbusters. Now we are all prophets, eyes filled with visions of the world’s end, again and again and again.

THE END

The Lost Apocalypse of Romaine Fielding

by Joshua Wheeler