Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Reginald Barker

Civilization (1916)

This big-budget release from Thomas Ince is a famous anti-war spectacle, which reproduces the horrors of the First World War in a plea for brotherly love. While it is big on message and visual drama, it is relatively short on plot and character development.

civilization_posterThe story takes place in the fictional country of “Wredpryd,” with much of the action in the capitol, “Nurma.” These places look extremely Central European, so that audiences can be forgiven for misting them for Germany. The King of Wredpryd (Herschel Mayall) believes that war makes a nation great and strong, and his military advisers are urging him into belligerence. Parliament takes up the question for debate, and one man, “an ardent follower of Christ,” dares to oppose war on humanitarian grounds. Onlookers boo his cowardice and throw things, and the Ministers override him and pass articles of war. The King accepts these with pleasure, and calls for Count Ferdinand (Howard C. Hickman), “an inventor in the service of the King.” It is never entirely clear what Count Ferdinand invented, but later we get the sense that it has to do with submarine warfare. Count Ferdinand is in love with a common woman (Enid Markey), so the King promises him dispensation to marry whomever he likes, so long as he devotes his services to the war effort. The Count eagerly agrees. Soldiers parade proudly through the city to the universal acclaim of the populace, but the member of parliament who spoke out against war is present, and decries the sacrifice of young men. This arouses the crowd, and soon there is a riot as he is attacked for his unpatriotic sentiments.

civilization_1916_film_stillThe war begins! We see lots of cannon fire, explosions, men running across smoke-covered fields, and more explosions. What we don’t see is an enemy. We also don’t get any human-level story for to connect us to these images, so they might as well be stock footage (some of it is, I think, but actually relatively little). Losses are heavy, and so it becomes necessary to begin aggressively recruiting new soldiers, taking able-bodied young men away from their homes and farms. We see wives, mothers, and children crying as they are separated from the men they love. In one case, an invalid mother is left to die with no one to take care of her. There is a lingering close-up on an aged woman watching the draft process in horror. Meanwhile, Enid (her character is supposedly named “Katheryn,” but so far as I could tell it never appears in an Intertitle) discovers that her mother has a cross painted on an undergarment. It is the emblem of “the invisible army of women” who oppose all war. Enid is convinced, and tells Count Ferdinand that he is being sent on “a mission of death.”

civilization_still_2The Count is torn between his love for Enid and his sense of duty. He takes command of a submarine and spends his days vacillating while his second-in-command does all the work. One day an order arrives to sink a ship – “The Propatria” – which is carrying passengers but is suspected of taking ammunition to the enemy. The Count stands stunned, while the second-in-command takes over as usual, ordering the boat to surface and prepare a torpedo for the attack. The Count fantasizes the destruction of the ship, seeing women and children being dumped out of lifeboats into the cruel ocean waves. Finally, the Count springs into action, countermanding the order and saying “no torpedoes against children.” He exposes a cross on his undergarment and the men realize that he has become a pacifist. They move to mutiny against him, but he pulls out his sidearm and holds them at bay, shooting two of them when they move to disarm him. Now he opens a torpedo valve and water rushes into the submarine, which sinks and then explodes, killing everyone on board except for him. Sailors from the Propatria row out to rescue him.

civilizationThe war rages on and somehow he is returned home unconscious (this is never clear). The King sits at his bedside, waiting to see whether he will recover. Meanwhile, the Count is experiencing a lengthy religious vision, that involves going to Hell and meeting Jesus Christ. Apparently, he is forgiven for killing dozens of the men under his command, since he did it to save children. Christ now takes possession of his body and heals it so that he can spread the message of peace on Earth. Soon after his miraculous recovery, the King starts receiving reports that Ferdinand is inciting riots and stirring up trouble in the city. Each time he speaks, angry citizens attack him. The King has him arrested and condemns him for treason. On the day of his execution, the “invisible army” of women, which now includes a phalanx of nuns, marches on the city, led by Enid. They fill the square and demand peace at any price. The King discovers that the Count has died in the night, cheating the hangman, and goes to visit his cell. There, the vision of Christ comes to him and shows him the horrors of war, that he has brought upon his people. He sees men dying in the mud, devastated fields and cities, children without fathers, women without husbands. Then, Jesus shows him the book in which his name is written – “on a page stained with the blood of your people,” and the King realizes the evil he has caused.

civilization2The King returns to his courtroom and orders an immediate armistice. The people are joyous, and soldiers march back to their homes to be reunited with their families. The old woman from the opening looks on as better times come to her village. We see a shepherd in a field and the Intertitles tells us that “the blare of the war bugle has died and in its place we hear the shepherd’s horn.”

civilization1I found this movie extremely heavy-handed and un-subtle in its message. It’s possible that some of it is missing, since The Silent Era claims it runs 10 reels, which would be around 2 and a half hours, depending on frame rate, but the video is only 86 minutes. Even so, it managed to be somewhat equivocal in its pacifism. The nation depicted is so clearly Germany, and the blame for war so clearly placed on that side, that it could easily be interpreted as a call to arms against Germany, rather than a call for the Allies to lay down their weapons. Indeed, according to “The Silent Era,” it was distributed in the UK under the title “What Every True Britain [sic] Is Fighting For.” The depiction of the Lusitania incident, which had increased belligerent attitudes in the USA, also does not seem calculated to promote non-interventionism. Apparently the Count can be forgiven for killing his own men, so surely an Allied craft would also be forgiven for destroying a German submarine to save the lives of children. Wikipedia claims that the Democratic National Committee credited this film in part for the re-election of Woodrow Wilson with his slogan of “He kept us out of war,” but I note that the source cited is a 1996 newspaper article, so this has to be taken with a grain of salt. It sounds like Ince-originated hype to me. Wikipedia also makes the blatantly false claim that this was “one of the first movies to depict Jesus Christ as a character.” Apart from Alice Guy’sThe Birth, The Life, and the Death of Christ,” Charles Musser has traced the history of Passion Plays in the pre-Nickelodeon era in “The Emergence of Cinema.” One thing that is true is that such depictions have tended to be controversial in the United States in all eras.

civilization3All that aside, what the story is really lacking is human interest. The battles are large-scale and epic, but not tied to the characters in such a way as to make us really care what’s going on. Our main characters spend a lot of the movie in a beatific trance. Even when they aren’t, they are given to rather broad pantomiming, as when the King tells the Count that he will be allowed to marry his love, and the Count immediately spreads his arms wide and stares up in rapture. The effects, editing, and production design are all good quality, certainly compared to the average Thomas Ince production, but since this came out shortly after “Intolerance,” it’s hard not to compare it unfavorably to D.W. Griffith’s lavish production values. In no way does it measure up, even the battle scenes are frankly weak just in comparison to the previous year’s “The Birth of a Nation.” While it’s realistic that there’s a lot of smoke on the battlefield, so much is used that it tends to obscure the action, and you can’t really make a good battle scene just showing one side of the fight. Apparently a success in its day, “Civilization” came off to me as too clumsy and blunt in its message, and not really a great example of film technique of the period.

Director: Raymond B. West, Reginald Barker, and Thomas H. Ince

Camera: Joseph H. August, Irvin Willat, Clyde de Vinna

Starring: Howard C. Hickman, Herschel Mayall, Enid Markey, Kate Bruce, George Fisher

Run Time: 86 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Best Editing 1915

When you come right down to it, a movie is like a big jigsaw puzzle that only makes sense if you have all the pieces in the right place. Beyond building the narrative, a good editor can heighten emotion, create tension, or point out key aspects of the story to the audience which are invisible to the characters. While the basics of editing were already in place, the flowering of the feature film in 1915 gave editors a chance to really show their stuff – producers and directors finally began to learn that no one wanted to sit still for 90 minutes while a series of un-edited scenes were displayed by a static camera.

The candidates this year are among the best of this new breed. In “The Coward,” editing is used to complicate the story of a young man who flees from battle and later redeems himself, one tense scene inter-cutting as he hides in a box while enemy officers discuss battle plans. “The Italian,” which came out at the beginning of the year, already used editing to show tension as the main character runs home to try to save his baby while the wife cradles his sick child. “Hypocrites” edits between dual plotlines to show the cruelty of self-serving and dishonest people. In “The Golden Chance” we see several complex sequences in which Cecil B. DeMille brings out his characters’ conflicts and motivations. Finally, “Alias Jimmy Valentine” uses established techniques of editing to produce a tense crime drama with a race-to-save-a-life at the ending.

The nominees for Best Editing in 1915 are…

  1. The Coward
  2. The Italian
  3. Hypocrites
  4. Golden Chance
  5. Alias Jimmy Valentine

And the winner is… “The Italian!”

George_Beban_(The_Italian)It surprised me to find after a year of great editing that I returned to a movie I watched back in 2014 for this award, but I feel that the editing of this movie contributes greatly to its success. George Beban’s close-up symbolizes the drama and how dynamically it unfolds – but it would be meaningless without all the other shots before and after that make up a story.

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.

cowardThe 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).

Coward_(1915_film)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.

Shuddup, Meathead!

Shuddup, Meathead!

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.

Coward2The 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

Camera: Joseph H. August, Robert S. Newhard

Cast: Frank Keenan, Charles Ray, Gertrude Claire, Nick Cogley

Run Time: 1 hour, 17 Min

I cannot find this movie for free on the Internet, if you find it, please let us know in the comments.

Italian, The (1915)

George_Beban_(The_Italian)

OK, I admit, I goofed and watched this one a little early. Some source I read referred to this as a 1914 film, probably because it was shot in November, 1914, but it wasn’t actually in theaters until January, 1915 (hence, it would not qualify for a Century Award until next year). I have to say, though, this has me excitedly anticipating next year, because the technical sophistication of this film is far above anything I’ve reviewed so far. It’s also a powerful tear-jerker, telling the story of a hopeful young immigrant whose dreams are thwarted in the New World, and his determination to take revenge on the family of the man he thinks has wronged him. George Beban apparently had a previous successful career playing “ethnic” characters on stage, but this was his first break into movies. His portrayal is ultimately a caricature (emphasized by intertitles with typical Italian broken English), but it is sympathetic almost to a fault. No doubt producers at Paramount were aware that much of the audience for silent films came from immigrant groups, including many Italians, and a hateful portrayal would have worked against them. If you stop to think about it, the portrayal of Italians in later films, including “Marty” and “The Godfather” would be similarly stereotypical, but would nevertheless appeal to Italian Americans’ sense of identity.

Director: Reginald Barker

Starring: George Beban, Clara Williams

Run Time: 74 Min

You can watch it for free: here.