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CIVIL WAR FILMS OF THE SILENT ERA

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Frank Keenan, Charles Ray
Director:  Thomas H. Ince
Audio:  Dolby Digital Stereo
Video:  Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  Image Entertainment
Features:  None
Length (total):  134 Minutes
Release Date:  December 19, 2000

Film ***

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.

Video **1/2

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.

Audio ***

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)

Nothing.

Summary:

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.