Sometimes a film comes along, seemingly out of nowhere, and completely blows your mind. The Land beyond the Sunset is one such film, and is one of the most beautiful, moving and touching of all silent movies. I would guess that, prior to the release of the film in 2000 on the Treasures from American Film Archives DVD boxed set, very few people had seen or even knew of the film. Thankfully that has now changed, and this lovely little film is now being recognised for the masterpiece that it undoubtedly is.
The film tells the story of a young newspaper seller, Joe, who lives in poverty with his grandmother, who drinks and beats him. One day, he finds himself with a ticket to an outing to the countryside with the Fresh Air Fund, a charity that allows children who live in the city to experience country life. When he arrives, he and the other children are told a fairy story about a mythical “land beyond the sunset” with no hardships or pain. As everyone starts on the journey home, Joe stays behind, thinking that he has found a way to reach the land himself.
The Internet Movie Database states that this film was intended as a promotional film for the Fresh Air Fund (which still exists) but, if that is the case, this little movie is even more remarkable because of its ambiguous, ultimately downbeat ending. It has to be said that the final few minutes of The Land Beyond the Sunset are some of the heart wrenching ever committed to film. The effect is made all the greater thanks to the gorgeous tinting on the version in the DVD boxed set, and anyone interested in seeing what difference tinting can make to a silent film should watch the tinted version back to back with the untinted version that is currently available on Youtube, which is far less effective.
It is interesting looking back at magazine and trade journals from the time the film was released to find that it is barely mentioned at all. In The Moving Picture World, the film is referred to as a “real kiddie story” (Sargent, 1912: 450), despite the fact that this really isn’t a children’s film at all. But, apart from a three-line comment in that journal, and a synopsis of the story within another edition of the same publication, the film seems to have been released virtually unnoticed – something which is all the more surprising considering it came from the Edison studios. There are certainly no comments on the worth of the film itself, which seems almost bizarre considering the praise being lavished upon it a hundred years after it was made, and the fact that is was selected for preservation by the United States Film Registry in 2000, being recognised as “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant”. Arguably, the film falls into all three of those categories.
Finally, very little seems to be known about Martin Fuller, who plays the central character of Joe. What does seem certain is that at least part of the IMDB filmography is incorrect. Trade journals of the period make it probable that there were two actors on screen at this time with the name “Martin Fuller”. Considering the boy in Land Beyond the Sunset is probably no more that twelve or thirteen, it seems highly unlikely that he is playing a Civil War veteran with rheumatism in the same year’s A Doctor for an Hour! The confusion between the two actors may well have been the reason for the name change to Marty Fuller in 1913 but, alas, after that year this talented young actor appears to have left films entirely.
(Adapted from the forthcoming e-book Beyond ‘The Artist’: 101 Silent Films for Beginners)