The Panama Canal’s construction was a cause for celebration in the United States but Colombia had a very different viewpoint and this intriguing film presents it in no uncertain terms.
Tooth and nail
Before getting started, I want to thank Rielle Navitski for kindly sharing films and research material and for taking the time to help guide me on this voyage of discovery. This review is heavily indebted to the information published in Garras De Oro (The Dawn of Justice—Alborada De Justicia): The Intriguing Orphan of Colombian Silent Films by Juana Suárez, Ramiro Arbeláez and Laura A. Chesak. Further, I would like to tip my hat to Fundación Patrimonio Fílmico Colombiano for making Colombian film history available on home video.
Colombia’s silent film story will be all too familiar to fans of the art: the majority of Colombian silents are missing and presumed lost. Most disappeared due to the usual causes: decay, fire, neglect, etc. Garras de oro (Claws of Gold) has a different story. It was censored, suppressed, hidden away and then miraculously re-emerged six decades after its initial release.
A few years ago, there was an author who made a fortune selling books with secrets “they” don’t want you to know about. Well, what we have today is a silent movie that “they” don’t want you to see, for realsies. And by “they” I mean the United States government circa 1926 and 1927. Intrigued? I hope so!
Before we start, a few caveats. Let’s not mince words, this film has definite opinions about the United States and they’re not exactly positive. I like movies that have guts and nerve and you’ll definitely find both here. The criticism of United States foreign policy is very much on par with what you would find in Soviet films of this period, if that gives you an idea of what to expect. If this is going to be a problem for you, turn back now. Otherwise, join me in learning about one of the most astonishing film recovery stories of the silent era—and that’s saying something.
I tend to avoid political discussions on this site (there are approximately ten million political blogs and not that many silent film sites, so…) and many of the events portrayed in this film are still rippling through the Americas. I ask that everyone remain civil and keep in mind that this picture is no more anti-American than The Birth of a Nation. (Ooo, burn!)
It should also be noted that this film is not 100% complete and the missing snippets of footage can make following the complicated plot a challenge. I take this into account in my review and do not hold any opaque sequences against it.
Here’s some background on the specific beef in the film as it generally is not heavily covered in U.S. history classes: The United States backed Panama’s 1903 secession from Colombia and, in an agreement immediately labeled as shady, the U.S. gained control of the future Panama Canal in perpetuity. Then as now, nations tend to object to having sections of territory amputated, particularly by foreign powers.
President Theodore Roosevelt oversaw the realization of the canal’s construction, a longtime goal of the United States, but his actions were not viewed favorably in all corners. Negative press coverage of the negotiation process, the backing of the Panamanian independence movement, some fishy stock antics and a suspicious money trail led to the infamous Panama Libel Cases with Roosevelt squaring off against the Indianapolis News and especially Joseph Pulitzer the New York World.
These lawsuits form the backbone of Claws of Gold’s plot and it is certainly a juicy choice. On the off chance that you had any doubt as to where the filmmakers stood, here is the opening scene of the picture:
Shots fired, I think.
The main character is Paterson, who becomes involved in the Panama business when he courts Berta, the daughter of a Colombian consulate employee. Paterson falls into the clutches of a spy named Ketty but hopes to redeem himself by uncovering evidence that will clear James Moore, a publisher who is being charged with libel after publishing evidence of Teddy Roosevelt’s malfeasance. (While most of the players in the story are given pseudonyms, T.R. is identified by name.)
Off to Colombia we go and once there, Paterson must deal with spies and thieves who mean to stop the truth from getting out. Also, there is a dance sequence because, politics or no politics, we’ve got a movie to sell.
In real life, Joseph Pulitzer was indicted for libel. In order to craft a defense, he sent reporters hither and yon to gather every scrap of evidence related to the Panama Canal hanky-panky. This event is clearly the inspiration for Paterson’s journey south.
If I don’t mention the names of any performers, it is because we simply do not know. Whether by accident or design, the cast list is absent in the surviving print. We do know that it was directed by Alfonso Martínez Velasco under the pseudonym P. P. Jambrina and that the cameramen were Arnaldo Ricotti and Arrigo Cinotti. (Note the Italian names of the cameramen, that becomes important later.) Newspaper accounts also name Italian actress Lucia Zanussi and Colombian actor Jorge de Hoyos.
Authorship was claimed by José Vicente Navia, who stated that the producers of Claws of Gold plagiarized his work and he backed up his complaint with a lawsuit. Whatever the outcome of the suit, Navia tattled on Claws of Gold to the Americans and offered his rights to the film to the U.S. government to aid in the suppression effort.
U.S. officials were interested to learn of this political film and agreed that it did pose a threat to American interests (“A sort of history of the Panama canal and as most objectionable propaganda against the United States and Panama” per a 1927 telegram sent to the Secretary of State). Claws of Gold ended up hidden away inside a movie theater and was thought lost until its recovery in the 1980s. Ironically, the censorship campaign helped create evidence of the film’s existence.
And here’s where things get really crazy. You see, there is debate as to whether the picture was even made in Colombia at all, if it was shot in Italy or if it was an amalgamation of footage from various sources that was assembled into a Colombian product. It should be noted that none of the sets are so sumptuous as to be beyond the reach of any filmmaker with a bit of money or friends with fine houses.
On the other side of the coin, there is a definite, subtle touch of Feuillade in the film. Maybe it’s Ketty, our beautiful dancing spy. Maybe it’s the chaotic plot packed full of characters. Whatever it is, there is a French crime serial element to the picture. Of course, Feuillade was widely mimicked and what really matters is that this picture was conceived by Colombians to voice Colombian concerns.
Claws of Gold features a brief sequence of hand-coloring when the Colombian flag flies. National flags were a popular subject for film color from the very beginning and, needless to say, were valuable for emotional impact, as was the case with the hand-colored red flag in Battleship Potemkin. Patriotic fervor is definitely the goal in Claws of Gold but rather than fluttering triumphantly, as was the case in Potemkin, the flag of Colombia is being lowered from its rightful place before being returned to dignity in the film’s conclusion.
The hand-coloring lacks the sophistication of the stencil color process that was prevalent in western Europe at the time (films like Cyrano de Bergerac, a French and Italian co-production, showcase its precision) but makes up for it with a charming sincerity. I should also note that the lack of stencil color is a point in favor of Claws of Gold being a Colombian shoot, if you’re keeping score at home.
The film’s technique is pretty much on par with the more artistically conservative productions of the mid-1920s. (A common mistake in critiquing silent film is to assume that just because Abel Gance and A.E. Dupont were getting crazy with their cameras, everybody was doing it. While Hollywood filmmaking was more homogenized than it had been in the 1910s, there was still wide variation in exactly how many fireworks filmmakers would include. Also note that lack of fireworks does not necessarily make a film less worthy. We can’t all be acrobats.)
That being said, the overt propagandistic elements have a definite 1910s flavor, at least in my opinion. The opening and closing shots of Uncle Sam’s clawed fingers stealing Panama and laying cash on the scales of justice would both be quite at home in a WWI-era film.
Claws of Gold has been described as an outlier or orphan among Colombian silent films. That may be so but it has whetted my appetite to see more silent cinema from this country. This film also offers a perspective that would be impossible to find in Hollywood pictures of the period and that in itself is enormously valuable. Come for the history, stay for the point of view.
Where can I see it?
Claws of Gold was released on DVD by the Fundación Patrimonio Fílmico Colombiano as part of their Cine Silente Colombiano set. It is accompanied by a score by Marco Ruiz. You can learn more and request to purchase a copy here.
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