CIVIL WAR FILMS OF THE SILENT ERA
Review by Michael Jacobson
Keenan, Charles Ray
Director: Thomas H. Ince
Audio: Dolby Digital Stereo
Video: Standard 1.33:1
Studio: Image Entertainment
Length (total): 134 Minutes
Release Date: December 19, 2000
Itís easy to recognize what makes a great filmmaker
memorable; itís more challenging to discern what makes a great one forgotten.
Thomas H. Ince was one of the most successful and renowned movie makers
in his day. As a contemporary to D.
W. Griffith, he too became one of the first directors and producers to have his
name above the movie title, and be as recognized as the stars who appeared in
front of his cameras. His
masterpiece, Civilization, has managed to stand the test of time with its
earnest pleas for peace. True, you
could say that some of his work was preachy and pompous, and filled with
self-importance, but what film student over the years hasnít drawn the same
conclusions about Griffith?
Yet today, we remember and revere the one name as a
revolutionary and pioneering spirit in the art of cinema, and the other seems to
have fallen through most cultural cracks, save for the true silent film
enthusiasts. Even this latest DVD
package offering from Image, Civil War Films of the Silent Era, curiously
neglects to mention the name of Thomas H. Ince in the title.
Somebody probably assumed the name wouldnít mean anything to most fans.
He or she was probably right.
Consider the central feature on this disc, The Coward.
It was a Civil War themed film released in 1915, the same year
Griffith release his Birth of a Nation.
Both are good films, though markedly different in styles and
approaches. Yet Birth went
on to become the biggest grossing movie in cinemaís brief history, earned a
spot on the AFI Top 100 list, and is considered one of the art formís most
influential entries. Yet film
historians like Kevin Brownlow never forget to mention The Coward, which,
in sharp contrast to Birth was a film that largely forwent spectacle and
historical detail in favor of capturing and preserving real human emotion and
drama on celluloid. It boasts
perhaps two of the silent era's best performances by Frank Keenan and Charles
Ray respectively as a father and son torn apart by the conflicts of war.
Colonel Jefferson Beverly Winslow (Keenan) is a retired
southern military man, who lives by a strict code of honor and service to
country. Heís fought before, and
is willing to do so again with the outbreak of the Civil War, but is told his
services wonít be necessary. His
son, Frank, like all of the other young southern men, is expected to enlist.
Most of the men were eager to serve:
Frank is not. He shamefully admits to being afraid. He walks away from the enlisting line, but a life of peace is
not to be for him.
When his father finds out, a slow building scene of
terrific tension plays out. ďYou
are going to enlist,Ē he tells his son, and despite being silent, you can
almost here each word being pronounced with distinction and finality. Cowardice will not be tolerated.
The son, with father behind, returns and reluctantly enlists.
We next see him suiting up in gray as the call to arms sounds outside.
The father offers a cool, civil handshake.
ďRemember, suh,Ē he tells Frank, ďyou are a Winslow.Ē
When Frankís fear sends him into desertion, the
distraught and angry father dons his old uniform to take his place on the line,
so that someone would answer to the name Private Winslow. In the meantime, a Yankee camp sets up in their home.
Frank, hiding in the attic, overhears their plans for a crucial attack.
Realizing for the first time the importance of his actions, he begins to
find his courage. He sneaks out,
dons a Yankee uniform to get through the northern occupied area, and heads
towards the Rebel front.
His father, mistaking him for the enemy, shoots and wounds
him. But Frank makes it to the
Southern camp and reveals his information.
The battle is a huge triumph. Later,
the father and son are reconciled when the father learns of his boyís heroic
deeds. Weíre not quite sure if he
ever learns he shot his own son. But
the finale is emotional and potent just the same.
One can see why the film may have lost luster in
juxtaposition with Birth of a Nation. While
Griffith created spectacle, large scale drama, and suspense in proportions never
before brought to the screen, Inceís aspirations were more modest.
He was not interested in action scenes with hundreds of extras, but
rather, a few very carefully constructed scenes with a son, a mother and a
father, using the power of the motion picture camera to capture and express
their emotion for all it was worth. Iíve
been a silent film enthusiast for more than a decade, and I can say Iíve never
seen true feelings captured so well. This
isnít typical melodrama or contrived expressiveness at work.
The camera gets close enough to these characters to almost see whatís
inside their very souls.
A collection like this one is a good ideaÖthe Civil War
has produced many of the eraís most memorable films, from this one and Birth
to Buster Keatonís The GeneralÖand the early masters like
Griffith and Ince were drawing inspiration from the great conflict even in the
pre-feature days of short two reelers. As
example, this disc is packaged with two Ince short films from 1913, Granddad and
The Drummer of the 8th. The
former is a tale about an old Union Civil War veteran, who leaves his sonís
home because his new religious wife disapproves of his drinking, and ends up
reunited with a Confederate soldier whose life he had saved during the war.
And if you donít like neatly packaged Hollywood happy endings, you
definitely have to check out Drummer, where a young boy runs away to
enlist as a Union drummer. He overhears some secret Confederate plans, and makes it back
to camp with the info, but not before getting shot. He reveals his knowledge, but the Southern army, fearing
discovery, changes plans. The end
result: the Union camp is wiped
out, and the boy dies!
Neither of these films bear Thomas H. Inceís later famous
trademark of repeating his name in every aspect, i.e., Thomas H. Ince presents a
Thomas H. Ince film, written and directed by Thomas H. Ince (a trait comic
Buster Keaton would later ridicule in his short The Playhouse, where he
became all the actors, musicians, and audience members at the same time!).
Itís not without irony that a man so particular about his name, and so
well-know in his day, would later find himself one of the more forgotten men of
that pioneering era. Like Salieri
to Mozart, Ince would find history not allowing him to escape from the shadow of
his more famous and influential contemporary.
Yet, there is a unique voice and purpose to the works of Thomas H. Ince
that make them stand apart, and though he would eventually make pictures of
greater scope than The Coward, it was his ability to find drama, suspense
and power in the quiet moments of peopleís relationships that served as his
particular niche in cinema history. That
may be something far less memorable than the galloping Klan riders, but it is
definitely something worth taking the time to go back and explore.
To summarize the capsule on the back of the box, the two short films are in pristine condition, but the feature, The Coward, suffers from projection scars. That is an accurate description. As a silent film buff, Iíve seen numerous prints from the teens, and these two shorts are by far the best looking pieces of film Iíve seen out of that time period! Both show surprising little in the way of wear and tear, and feature strong sharp images presented in original black and white with color tinting. The Coward looks more akin to what Iím used to from those years, suffering more from spots, deep scratches and miscellaneous debris.
Two things I always keep in mind, though: these early films that managed to survive were transferred at some point from flammable and deterioration-prone nitrate stock to modern safety stock. In essence, we end up looking at a copy of a copy, and damage to the film before the transfer will be impossible to get rid of through normal restoration efforts (digital restoration would work, but is often too expensive and too detailed for films of that age).
And second, it is believed that some 90 percent of movies
from the silent era have been lost for good because of that nitrate stock.
I had tried to find a copy of The Coward for years, and believed
it to be one of the films that didnít survive, until I saw this DVD.
Such factors reduce image complaintsí merits considerably.
These films are accompanied by a charming and well-synched
orchestra score, which is presented in a lively and bright stereo mix that will
sound as good (or better) than any instrumental CDs in your collection.
Features (zero stars)
He once had his name plastered all over his successful films, and now the first DVD collection of his works bears the title Civil War Films of the Silent Era without mentioning the moniker of the man who made them, Thomas H. Ince. Still, this is a quality disc presentation of a once important filmmaker, and by packaging The Coward with two earlier shorts, makes for an excellent reference tool for the cinema student, whose education would not be complete without a look into the career of the once proud but historically humbled Ince.