The Drummer of the 8th (1913)
This is another Civil War drama made during the 50th anniversary of that conflict, but pre-dates “The Birth of a Nation” by almost two years. Director Thomas Ince, working for the New York Motion Picture Company at the time, chose a decidedly “dark” message for this movie, in contrast to the usually uplifting tone of war movies at the time.
To be sure, it opens conventionally enough, showing how the advent of the war disrupts a seemingly idyllic family unit (Northern, in this case, but the sides could be changed with no particular impact on the story). In addition to the usual tearful farewell, when the eldest son Jack marches off with his infantry unit, however, we also get a secret night-time departure when the younger son Billy (played by diminutive Cyril Gardner, who was fourteen at the time, but looks younger) sneaks off to enlist as a drummer boy. The two young men serve for the next two years, separated by the circumstances of war. When Jack is due to return home, he writes of his inability to locate Billy. We then follow Billy as he bravely grabs a fallen man’s rifle during a battle, is captured and taken to a prisoner of war camp, the escapes, being wounded in the shoulder on his way out. Billy hides in the Confederate headquarters tent, and is able to overhear the plans for an attack. Of course, he rushes back to his unit (again being wounded in the leg along the way) and gives his report. Unfortunately, all the blood he left in his hiding place gives him away, so the Confederates change their plan and his intelligence causes the Union to lose the battle. Before that, he wrote home that he would be returning with honors and asked that his favorite meal be prepared for his return. His sister and brother go to meet the train, and are confused why there is no sign of him. We then see Union pallbearers unload a small coffin and bear it to the home. They knock, and Billy’s mother comes out to be confronted by the body of her long lost son.
Ince was pretty daring to put out such a dark storyline in 1913, and it’s lucky that this film has survived, because it makes such a stark contrast with the movies of D. W. Griffith and others who used the Civil War as a springboard for their ideas. It has a structural similarity to the Ince-produced feature, “The Coward,” but in that story the fearful character is redeemed by delivering covertly gained information, while in this version a brave lad is killed because of doing exactly the same thing. There are several short battle scenes in this movie, most of which rely on fairly close-angle shots to give a sense of a larger battlefield, but I found them effective if not spectacular. A similar tactic give the impression of a crowded railroad station at the end with relatively few extras. Ince makes good use of close-ups in a few places, especially to show us Billy in hiding and wounded (the clarity of the blood on his shirt is a striking contrast to the way such things would be handled in later “classic era” movies). The intercutting of the two boys’ stories, and that of the family on the homefront, is less magisterial – at times it is difficult to understand what Ince wants us to focus on – but no less innovative.
Director: Thomas H. Ince
Cast: Cyril Gardner, Mildred Harris, Frank Borzage
Run Time: 28 Min
I found two edited versions of it online: here (cut to one reel) and here (more complete, but without the original intertitles).