The Captive God (1916)
In a departure from his standard Western-tough-guy, William S. Hart appears as a native Mexican warrior in this tale of Meso-American star-crossed love. Unfortunately, the available print is incomplete, but we’ll do our best to make sense of the remaining plot.
At the beginning of the movie, we see a war between the “Maya” and the “Azteques” (note that all names differ from those in the original print as recorded by sources like imdb. More on that in a minute). Hart plays “Tonga,” the leader of the Maya side, but the Azteques apparently win this round. Montezuma, the Azteque chieftan (Robert McKim), offers “Matho” who led the attack (P. Dempster Tabler) any reward he names for routing the enemy. Matho requests his daughter, who is saddled with the unfortunate name “Tacki” in this version (Enid Markey), and Montezuma grudgingly agrees, although his daughter vows not to obey.
Now, for some reason we don’t really understand from this truncated print, Tonga sneaks over the wall into the Azteque city. A guard spots him and shoots him in the side with an arrow, so he leaps down from the wall into a garden, almost landing on top of Tacki! She hides him and sends the guard looking in the wrong direction, then decides to hide him in an outbuilding. They fall in love while her maid sneaks food in from the palace. Then, Matho catches on to what is up and busts into the love nest with guards. Tacki intercedes before Tonga is summarily executed and insists on hearing her father’s judgment, which, predictably, is a death sentence (this guy snuck into an enemy territory and deflowered the princess? That wasn’t going to go over well with the jury).
Tacki now makes a “stratagem,” which is basically to betray her people in the name of love. She sends the maid’s boyfriend “Cassio” off with a token from Tonga to the Maya, and, just as Tonga is led to the sacrificial altar, they attack the city in force. This is preceded by a “barbarous ceremony” in which flowers are tossed at the victim. Tonga escapes during the confusion of the attack, and then faces Matho in man-to-man knife combat while Tacki looks on in horror. Tonga defenestrates Matho, then carries Tacki outside the city walls, where the Maya are celebrating their victory. Then, presumably everyone lives happily ever after (until the Spanish arrive).
A complete print of this film apparently exists at George Eastman House, and is perhaps even screened at times, but we don’t have that to work from. What we have is a digitization of a 9.5 mm print made available by Christopher Bird thanks to the good graces of Fritzi at Movies Silently. 9.5mm was sort of the “original” home video format – it was a smaller gauge film that could be run in consumer-size projectors intended for home viewing. 9.5 mm reels were shorter than standard movie reels, so it would have taken a lot of them to show a complete feature, but shorts were OK, and features were generally edited down to the basics of the story for low-cost release. Thus, we have about nine and a half minutes of an hour+ long movie to review. However, let’s be grateful to the generosity of Christopher Bird for making that available for free on Youtube.
For some reason, the home release changed all the names of the characters from the original, which makes figuring out who’s who a bit of a challenge, since most online sources use the names from the original script. I’m still not sure who played “Cassio,” for instance. Instead of the Mayans, the Azteques in the original were fighting the Tehuan tribe, but I guess they didn’t think most home viewers would know who they were, so that name got changed as well. Without the dumb names, this movie would be less laughable. Still, there’s no getting around the fact that the white actors (some with darkened skin) look decidedly uncomfortable in the elaborate period costumes. Those costumes are really nice, but they should have found a cast who could pull it off better. The sets are also impressive, especially the tall Azteque temple and altar and the Maya ziggurat-shaped housing complex.
William Hart, in particular, is clearly out of his element. He tries hard, and hopefully some fans were pleased at him showing so much skin, but in the end, he looks like he wants to get back to his horse and his cowboy boots. Robert McKim, who was so good in “Return of Draw Egan,” is very stiff as Montezuma, and Enid Markey just stares in wide-eyed horror most of the time. It’s possible, especially in McKim’s case, that the better parts of their performances have been cut. The climactic knife-fight is well-staged and well-edited, and the battle scenes are appropriately spectacular, with dozens of extras in flashy costumes, but on the whole, the movie seems creaky and awkward, and one gets the feeling that everyone was happy to get it over and move on to other projects.
Director: Charles Swickard
Camera: Clyde DeVinna
Run Time: 9 Min, 36 secs (All we have. The Silent Era lists it as five reels).
You can watch it for free: here (no music).