Why have we curated a list of the top 10 silent films from the birth of cinema? Well, compared with movies of today, the earliest of the silent films can often feel like they come from an alien world. The image flickers badly in places where the film has decayed. The motion feels wrong due to the hand-cranked cameras.
However, these movies are the genesis of cinema. The first moments of moving imagery which created a new form of entertainment and, without these, we would not have everything which came after.
The criteria for the top 10 silent films
This list below features a number of notable firsts on both the technical and storytelling side of things. All of them have a great significance on the birth of cinema.
Sadly, this can never be the most accurate list as such a great number of films from this period are now missing.
Due to copyright laws, a lot of the films which are in the list are quite easy to find so, below, you’ll find silent cinema from the dawn of cinema at your fingertips.
So, sit back, dim the lights and raise the curtain on the top 10 silent films of the early cinema era.
Only 1 minute long and does exactly what it says on the tin. Created by Auguste Lumiere and Louis Lumiere, this was not quite the first but certainly the most famous of these first screened films. This is truly the birth of cinema and needs no further comment.
IMDb rating: 7.4 | My rating: 8
A rather forgettable film. The director is Arthur Marvin but all the actors are unknown. However, it is notable for being the first screen appearance of the great detective. Sherlock has been a staple of cinema throughout the last 125 years and this 1 minute of film is the birth of a legend on the big screen.
IMDb rating: 5.2 | My rating: 3
Standing at an epic 13 minutes, this entry in the list shows how the medium of film was starting to be used in the telling of stories. This film shows the birth of science fiction cinema and came from eminent magician George Melies.
The production is largely theatrical, using large painted backdrops to create a sense of grandeur. Individual cells were hand painted to create the colour images flickering on the screen. Whilst it has dated there is enough spectacle here for any movie fan to admire.
IMDb rating: 8.2 | My rating: 9
This gem came from the Edison film studios and was another first in cinema. Whilst only 11 minutes long it is often credited with removing the theatrical element from film through the new technique of editing. The team( including director Edwin Porter) behind the making of the film had created a new look which rapidly became the norm in cinema. This was the transformation from capturing a scene to capturing the action. Many also consider this the birth of the western.
IMDb rating: 7.3 My rating: 7.5
One of the first films to incorporate car chases. These have formed the bedrock of cinema action films, from Bond to Bullitt (1968) but this was the first. A 3-minute car chase which includes a driver attempting to escape from the police by driving up the side of a building to escape into space and includes a lovely little diversion as it drives around the rings of Saturn. Crafted by R.W Paul, this is a charming little piece of escapism well worth a quick view.
IMDb rating: 6.6 | My rating: 7
A five-episode series about a criminal and his adventures in France. At 337 minutes long, this is quite a time-consuming silent movie and only for those who truly relish early cinema.
However, this was the birth of the series long before television had come about and started a popular trend in cinema which would last until this type of work transitioned onto TV.
IMDb rating: 7.0 (1st episode) | My rating: 5.5
An 11-minute short which introduced the world to the character of ‘The Tramp’ as played by Charlie Chaplin. The film itself is nothing special, especially when compared with the later works of Chaplin, but this is the birth of possibly the most famous character in movie history. Basically, this film shows ‘The Tramp’ disrupting a go kart race for children.
IMDb rating: 5.8 | My rating: 4.5
A truly nasty film about the Klu Klux Klan from director D.W Griffith and actress Lillian Gish. It portrays them as the heroes saving the southern states from the treacherous blacks sent into the south after the civil war to destroy their world. Sadly, this film is also important in that it was the birth of the Hollywood epic. At 195 minutes long, it featured a huge cast, grand sets and an incredible scope. The success of this film has had a huge influence on cinema. If you ever feel your bum going numb after a 3-hour film, you can blame this movie.
IMDb rating: 6.3 | My rating: 3
This film was an apology on a grand scale after the hostile reception to ‘The Birth of a Nation’ which had received a lot of protests even upon its initial release.
Its director, D.W. Griffith was incredibly upset and so created this movie. Standing at 2 hours 43 minutes long, this was an apology for his previous film. It told the story of a wife separated from her husband due to intolerance and was interwoven with other examples of intolerance from history. This was a public apology hidden in movie making of the epic variety.
IMDb rating: 7.7 | My rating: 7.5
This is probably the first feature length action film of note. It is only 71 minutes long, but it featured many remarkable stunts from its lead actor. It is fair to say that Hollywood needed someone remarkable for this type of movie and they turned to none other than Harry Houdini, the great magician.
The film included fantastic aerial stunts which stand up reasonably well, even by today’s standards.
Thought a lost movie, it was only recently found and was screened in 2015 for the first time in nearly 100 years.
IMDb rating: 6.8 | My rating: 7
Editor & Artwork: Richard Williams