Silent Reflections – “Civil War Films of the Silent Era” Collection

by HELEN GEIB

The collection “Civil War Films of the Silent Era” from Image Entertainment includes three early features by Thomas Ince’s production company. The Drummer of the 8th and Granddad are three reelers made in 1913 and directed by Ince. The feature length Coward starring Charles Ray was made in 1915 and directed by Reginald Barker from an Ince scenario.

The pick of the collection is the two 1913 features. The films demonstrate an impressive command of visual storytelling, are well paced, and have unusual and interesting plots. Though at their best in the intimately scaled domestic scenes, these are big productions that also boast elaborately staged battle sequences (two in Drummer, one in Granddad). Coward is of interest to dedicated silent film buffs for its early starring performance by Ray and the representation of the slave characters, but is not recommended beyond the specialty audience.

[Please note the reviews describe the scenarios in detail, particularly the reviews of Drummer and Granddad.]

The Drummer of the 8th

The Drummer of the 8th is a tragedy about a young boy who runs away from home to enlist in the Union Army. Billy is aged 12 years old or so and lives with his parents and older brother Jack. Their neighbors are sisters, the older about Jack’s age and his sweetheart, the younger Billy’s age and his friend and playmate. Jack enlists at the start of the war and Billy is determined to follow suit.

A potent and revealing scene follows Billy’s announcement to his parents that he wishes to enlist as a drummer boy. Jack has just told his sweetheart he has enlisted; she is crying and holding onto him. The film cuts from the older pair to the younger. Billy runs out of the house in a huff at his parents’ adamant refusal of his request to enlist. The younger sister is outside cradling a doll and playacting being a mother. She is lively and admiring as Billy shows off his drum and talks of going to war.

At this point, the film jumps ahead two years. Jack’s enlistment is up; he is one of the lucky ones from the town who makes it home alive and unhurt. Billy is wounded in battle and captured. In another revealing juxtaposition of images, he is shown with the other prisoners sitting next to a gaunt old man with a long white beard.

His small size allows him to escape and he makes it back to the Union encampment with intelligence about the Confederate battle plan. The army re-deploys on the basis of that intelligence, but it proves worse than useless when the Confederates change their plan because they rightly suspect it has been compromised. Billy dies of his wounds in the field hospital after writing his mother a letter telling her he has been slightly wounded and will be home soon. War is an ugly business best left to men.

Granddad

Granddad is about a Union Army veteran at the end of his life, nearly fifty years after the end of the war. The old man lives with his son and young granddaughter. He dotes on the little girl and she is devoted to him in return. His son re-marries and the new daughter-in-law proves to be an unpleasant woman. The main point of contention in the house is liquor. She is an adamant teetotaler and the old man likes a drink at home now and again and to have a few in the evening down at the Soldier’s Rest, the local saloon where the town’s veterans gather to socialize beneath a picture of Lincoln. In the end, he moves to the county poor house after she convinces him he’s a bad influence on his granddaughter.

While more conventional and sentimental than Drummer, Granddad is equally well made and enjoyable. The heart of the story is the tender relationship between the veteran and his granddaughter and it invests the film with emotional weight. All of the performances are restrained and convincing and the family dynamics credible. The film is of interest as well for the time capsule quality of its depiction of the last survivors of the “Civil War generation.” The film ends with a family visit to a military cemetery on the contemporary equivalent of Memorial Day, a scene that incorporates some documentary footage of an observance ceremony.

Coward

Unlike the earlier films, Coward holds little interest aside from its value to students of film history. The titular coward is the scion of a wealthy Virginia plantation family, a charming if rather high strung young man. When the town is swept with enlistment hysteria (the scene in The General where Buster Keaton’s character attempts to enlist in is a spot-on parody of this and like sequences), his very natural fear of going into battle makes him reluctant to join the crowd. His horrid father, an honor-obsessed retired Colonel, reacts in the worst possible way – by cowing his son into signing up by threatening to shoot him!

I emphasize that there is no issue of principled objection to war in either the abstract or the specific. The boy is simply afraid and ill-equipped by nature and nurture to deal with his fear. This is no The Red Badge of Courage, however. The dramatic potential of the scenario is submerged beneath a sea of clichés in the final two reels. The hero undergoes a literally instantaneous transformation from coward to hero (announced by a title card extolling the fighting blood of his forefathers), and the ludicrous plot developments that follow were old when this film was new.

The film is slow-moving for most of its running time, and the performances by the actors playing the hero’s parents, the most significant supporting parts, are stage bound. The film’s artistic bright spot is the performance by Charles Ray in the lead, and the film is a rare chance to see one of the major stars of Ince’s company in an early starring role. The main point in common among the three films is the staging of their battle scenes; the demolition of a covered bridge in Coward is the action highlight of the collection.

The only appearance slavery makes in Coward is the inclusion in the cast of two house slaves of the family. They are fully formed examples of the character types identified by film scholars as a “mammy” and an “uncle Tom.” The nadir of the representation – and the film – comes when the man, as a testament of his wholehearted devotion to his master, actually kisses the old colonel’s hand when he departs to fight the hated Yankees.

Note: The print quality of the 1913 features is excellent, exceptionally good for the vintage. The print of Coward, while perfectly watchable, has the graininess and occasional discoloration more typical of surviving films of the period. The synthesizer scores for all three films consist of a pastiche of Civil War-period songs and classical music; the music had a displeasing artificial quality to my ears. The battle scenes are seriously marred by sound effects, especially repeated use of a high pitched, comical whine that is intended to suggest, and instead caricatures, the sound of artillery shelling.

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