Douglas Fairbanks and Peter Weir are two filmmakers who have fascinated Kansas University film studies associate professor John Tibbetts for a long time.
As a grade-schooler in Lansing in the 1950s, he says he probably saw images of Fairbanks sliding down a sail or battling musketeers long before he ever saw one of the screen legend’s silent films. Once he did — on a weekly 1960s TV show called “Silents Please!”— the fascination never let up.
While stationed at Fort Myer, Va., as a German linguist for the Army Security Agency in 1971, Tibbetts researched Fairbanks at the Library of Congress. In his bunk at Fort Riley — and at Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas — he continued his writing. By 1977, Tibbetts had published the book “His Majesty the American: The Films of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.,” with his friend James M. Walsh, a fellow film academic.
That same year, Tibbetts first saw Peter Weir’s infamous breakthrough film, “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” an unsettling tale of the disappearance of a group of schoolgirls on a field trip in rural Australia at the turn of the century. Since then, Weir has made over a dozen films, including “The Year of Living Dangerously,” “The Mosquito Coast” and “The Truman Show,” that ask a lot of questions about the world but provide few easy answers.
Fast-forward to 2014: Tibbetts has two new books, one about each filmmaker, published within four months of each other. “Peter Weir: Interviews,” released in February, is the first-ever collection of interviews with the guarded Australian director; and “Douglas Fairbanks and the American Century,” released earlier this month, is a heavily updated and revised version of the 1977 book. It turns out that his subjects have more in common with each other than one might think at first glance.
“Both Fairbanks and Weir were making films at crucial periods of time in their own countries, and making films with strong thematic ties to their respective countries,” Tibbetts says. “Both were also architects of a burgeoning film industry in their respective countries.”
Fairbanks and the American spirit
From early comedies to westerns to swashbuckling adventure films, Fairbanks was a key figure in the early silent film era of Hollywood and into the Golden Age, and was a quadruple threat: acting, writing, directing and producing. His marriage to silent film heroine Mary Pickford made the couple Hollywood royalty, and they co-founded the independent studio United Artists with Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith.
“Douglas Fairbanks and the American Century” isn’t a biography, but rather a series of essays about what the American story means seen through the prism of Fairbanks’ films. The book, which is dedicated to Walsh, who passed away late last year, says, “Fairbanks was the most vivid and strenuous exponent of what we call the American century, whose dominant mode after 1900 was the mass marketing of a burgeoning democratic optimism, at home and abroad.”
Spanning Fairbanks’ career but digging deep into key moments and films, Tibbetts and Welsh examine the different ways Fairbanks embodied and personified that unique American spirit, epitomizing the country’s struggle for legitimacy against the ways of the old world.
Weir rides the New Wave to Hollywood
Growing up in Australia, Peter Weir saw plenty of classic American films. He inherited some of Hollywood’s style and content, and keeping Fairbanks’ sense of adventure, forged new ground from it. Weir helped breathe new life into the Australian New Wave movement in the 1960s and ’70s, and by 2004 had earned best director Oscar nominations for “Witness,” “Dead Poets Society,” “The Truman Show” and “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.”
Tibbetts interviewed Weir in 1993 when “Fearless,” the director’s challenging meditation on death, was released, which led to a series of letters exchanged over the years. Two summers ago, he spent the summer in Australia interviewing Weir, his cinematographer Russell Boyd, and other luminaries who worked on his films.
“When a sabbatical opportunity came my way, I jumped at it because Mississippi University Press was looking for a volume on Peter Weir,” Tibbetts says. “It’s like the planets were aligned.”
Not coincidentally, the new demand for material on Fairbanks and Weir is because their films are still reaching new audiences. Because of video-sharing websites, new transfers and recent restorations, many of Fairbanks’ movies have recently become available for the first time to the public. Weir, although he has had a critically acclaimed career, had many of his older films languishing in obscurity for decades.
Now, Turner Classic Movies has run a series of his films concurrent with other Australian New Wave programming, and Blu-ray re-issues and Criterion releases of Weir’s work have hit the market.
Although he just started teaching a course last fall about Weir and the Australian New Wave, Tibbetts has been teaching silent film since before 1982, when he received a multi-disciplinary doctorate in theater, art, film and photography.
“The silent film series at KU are among our most popular classes,” he says. “Students love silent movies.”
With long-form essays and interviews like Tibbetts’ latest two books, that appreciation is likely to continue for years.