The Coward (1915)
Given that this Civil War drama came out in November, 1915, it’s pretty inevitable that comparisons will be made to “The Birth of a Nation.” The Silent Era even goes so far as to say that this movie, produced by Thomas Ince and directed by Reginald Barker (the same team that gave us “The Italian” at the beginning of the year) was “made to capitalize on the success of” the better-known D.W. Griffith production. Maybe, but it’s worth noting that Ince had already produced several other Civil War movies in recent years, in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of that conflict, and that plot-wise, it owes very little to the Griffith spectacular.
The story centers around the Virginia family of one retired Col. Winslow (Frank Keenan). Winslow had sent a letter offering his own services, and that of his son, to the authorities on hearing of the outbreak of war, but receives a reply stating that they cannot accept such a sacrifice from a man of his advanced years. This leaves his son, Frank (Charles Ray), who is out in the park looking at birdies with his girlfriend when all of his friends rush off to enlist. The girl drags him to the recruiting office, but he bolts before signing up. Apparently, he has a crushing fear that he might be a coward, and so tries to avoid situations that might put his courage to the test. When his dad finds out, he is furious, and forces the boy to sign up, threatening him with a revolver and reminding him of the family name. The first night he is on patrol, Frank panics at the sound of a cow crashing through the fields, and loses his gun before almost blundering into the Union patrol. He hides in a freezing-cold river and manages to evade capture, then runs home, where his (black-face) servants feed him and put him to bed. Of course, dad finds out that he deserted his post and is deeply shamed. His response? “The name of private Winslow is on their rolls, and someone must answer,” he tells his wife before going off to take Frank’s place as a private in the Confederate Army (you’d think someone would notice that Frank got really old overnight, but whatever).
When the Union army takes over the town, they commandeer the Winslow place as a headquarters. Frank again panics and hides in the attic, while his mother and servants have to feed and otherwise serve the officers and men. The officers discuss their tactical situation while Frank listens from the attic, discovering that they have a weakness in their center which cannot be built up for at least 24 hours, but will be fine so long as the South does not attack during that time. Frank is suddenly seized with patriotism and decides to bring this information to his compatriots at arms. He attacks a guard and steals his uniform and weapons, then breaks into the conference room, taking the map and cleverly escaping by shooting out the candles, then hiding under the table while all the officers run around like ninnies in the dark. He steals a horse and makes a break for the Confederate lines, with a squad of soldiers on his heels. His father is on patrol, and, seeing a Union soldier dashing toward their lines, shoots him at a distance. He falls back into the freezing river, but makes his way in toward camp. When he is captured by Confederate soldiers (he’s still in Union Blues, remember), he insists on seeing the Commanding Officer and gives his information. An attack is ordered and a bloody battle follows, in which his father proves his courage by taking the flag when the current flag bearer runs away, continuing to fire his pistol while waving it. The battle is victorious, but Frank, wounded by his father’s bullet, lies inconsolable in bed. The officer he reported to orders “private Winslow” to come see his son, but he insists he has no son until he learns that Frank is responsible for the victory Finally, the old soldier takes his wounded son in his arms and weeps.
Now, this movie shares some of the problems of “Birth of a Nation.” For example, it is based in an understanding that its audience will sympathize with the “lost cause” of the South and romanticism of Southern concepts of honor and family duty. Modern audiences will be more alarmed by the use of blackface for the servants – the maid is passably like Hattie McDaniel, but the butler looks like Archie Bunker in the episode of “All in the Family” when he participated in a Minstrel Show. But, unlike “Birth,” this movie is not a glorification of the Southern cause nor a deliberate distortion of the history of its occupation. It is a character study of one young man’s fear – he could as easily have been fighting for the other side without making any changes in the story. The Union officers are not rapacious fiends; they treat the civilians with respect even though it is clearly a burden for them to have their house commandeered. The code of honor which requires such brutality from the father is not being held up as a noble ideal, it is rather the premise within which Frank must work out his psychological drama.
The movie is at its best dealing with these psychological questions. Barker makes frequent use of close-ups to show us the turmoil of father and son, and also intercuts with close-ups (for example on the father’s pistol when he forces his son to enlist) that escalate the drama. This is not surprising, since he made such good use of close-ups in “The Italian.” On the other hand, the battle sequences are nowhere near as effective as those in “Birth,” mostly they consist of a lot of smoke and people running around; very little of the drama is worked out in the action scenes. The pursuit of Frank on horseback is somewhat more effectively done, however. Much of the movie seemed slow to me, often when it was very obvious what the emotional moment was we had to wait for several visual exchanges between the actors and an intertitle before we could move on to the next situation. Nevertheless, perhaps in part because of the tension this generated, I did find it emotionally satisfying at the end to see the two men reconciled. I couldn’t help thinking, however, about the defeat they were bound to share in coming years, and wondering whether Frank had actually extended the bloody conflict by bravely causing the Union setback.
Director: Reginald Barker
Run Time: 1 hour, 17 Min
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