Although this little drama of primitive
man was apparently intended as a serious work, it's awfully
difficult to watch it today without at least cracking a smile.
Whatever the filmmakers' intentions—and they're not entirely clear—Man's
Genesis is undeniably funny. Perhaps director
Griffith was concerned that audiences would find this material
amusing no matter how he handled it, for he added a subtitle calling
the film "A Psychological Comedy (whatever that is) Founded Upon the
Darwinian Theory of the Evolution of Man." Looks like he was
hedging his bets: if they laugh, fine, it's a comedy.
Otherwise, the film seems intended as drama, taking the audience
back to the discovery of creative intelligence; specifically, to the
very moment a primitive man discovers his ability to craft a
tool—specifically, a weapon—to achieve an important goal. This
isn't at all the "genesis" of humanity, but why quibble?
Despite having to wear grassy outfits
that are sure to provoke mirth, the actors appear to take their
roles seriously, especially the leading lady, solemn-faced
Mae Marsh, and they emerge with dignity more or less intact.
The structure of this film is problematic, however. The story
is related as a tale-within-a-tale, told by an old man to a pair of
siblings, a little boy and girl who are fighting. Apparently,
the old man's intention (and the director's?) is to indicate that we
should use our intelligence to solve conflicts, that Might does not
make Right, but the protagonist of his story uses his intelligence
to build a club, and pound his enemy to death. Hasn't he
proven that Might, backed by intelligence, is indeed Right? At
the end, when the old man finishes telling this story, we half
expect the little boy to put the lesson to use by building a club to
pummel his sister; instead, the kids go off together happily,
hand-in-hand, having learned...What, exactly?
is not entirely ridiculous. It's well worth seeing, either for
campy laughs or to get some sense of what contemporary attitudes
were about early civilization, but no one is going to mistake it for
a serious work of speculative anthropology, either.