Silent Films about the Civil War
Sometimes, you just have to go back, and I mean *way* back for some interesting war movie action.
Well, maybe not action so much, but the 2000 issue of Civil War Films of the Silent Era takes us back to the time before World War I, before the notion of a “war movie” had even become ingrained in our culture. These three films provide an interesting perspective but still seem to carry similar themes you’d see today. I’ll cover each of these separately, and then end with my complaints about this nearly-excellent collection….
The Drummer of the 8th (1913)
(IMDB) The Drummer is a sad story about sacrifice. A young drummer wants to join the Union army and his older brother so badly that he runs away from home. He does manage to join up, although in a different unit, and heads off to war. He writes a letter to his parents saying, “I’ll be back through that way with the regiment soon! I’ll see you then!”
What really happens is that he winds up getting himself killed. As his family, brother included, prepare a big celebration and are anxiously awaiting the return of their boy…. The Union train shows up, and the soldiers deliver instead a flag-draped casket *to their front door*
Eeek. How’s that for a statement?
The Coward (1915)
(IMDB) The Coward was the longest of the three films and, quite honestly, the best. The story follows one rich southern boy (whose father was a decorated Colonel) as he struggles with the choice between duty and sacrifice vs. self-preservation. As the Confederacy holds a recruiting drive in his town, he chickens out but is forced to enlist, nearly at gunpoint, by his father. While on patrol, he’s spooked by a rabbit and then a wandering farmer and flees back to his home and his mother’s arms.
Rather than face the shame of having a deserter and coward in the family, his father packs up and decides to return to his son’s place. “A Winslow *will* answer at roll call tomorrow!”
When the Union marches through town and occupies his home, he overhears the officers describing a weakness in the lines. With this information, he realizes that he can help the Confederate cause, and rushes off to give the information and a stolen map to the Rebel general. In the process, he winds up in Union uniform and, as irony would have it, is shot and wounded by his father.
Eventually, his father learns that he’d shot his son, and it isn’t until he learns of his heroic deed that he comes around and accepts his son back into his arms.
It’s really not a bad story, I have to admit, and particularly well-executed.
(IMDB) Granddad was the most difficult of the three to wrap my head around. Really, this film isn’t about “the war” but rather about its veterans, which is kind of a compelling theme for such an early picture. You also gain a little insight into the period….
The short version: Old whiskey-drinking Granddad (A Union vet) gets run off by his son’s new wife, one of these religious types who is fervently anti-liquor (pre-prohibition politics anyone?) He winds up in the poor house, working in the dirt.
Meanwhile, a wounded Confederate veteran comes around looking for Grandpa. It seems that during the war, “Jebus” (yeah, that’s his name!) saved his life when he was wounded rather than kill him. He’s come back to pay his respects, and he (through a flashback) tells the story to the rest of the good old boys at the local establishment.
As fate goes, Granddad is discovered by the “wife” and his doting granddaughter at the poorhouse right about the same time the old Rebel finds him. Unfortunately, he’s just suffered a heart attack (or something equally bad) and is on his deathbed.
He’s buried with full military honors, in quite an impressive display for such an old (and short) film.
The problems with this set? First off, the sound. These are silent films; as such, they would have been shown with either no accompaniment at all, a live person on piano, a phonograph recording, or maybe even a ‘player’ piano reel. Unfortunately, the producers of this compilation give the films a full-on orchestra soundtrack and at times (especially for Drummer) use an electronic-y sounding piece. Dudes! If you’re going to do this, do it right!! They even went so far as to add really bad pops and whistles as sound effects during the battle scenes. I’m no expert on silent films by any stretch, but I think that’s taking it a bit far. I’d think at best, there might have been a guy making his own sounds as the film played, but brother.
The Coward was the best of the transfers by far; it looked really spectacular. The other two… well, I noticed a lot of “color noise” in the picture, which usually indicates poor-quality digitization. One thing that struck me about these was the change in “tint” between scenes. Again, not a silent film expert.
Let me explain a bit further. During night scenes, for example, the picture would take on a bluish hue; when things were candle-lit, everything turned sort of red. I could conceivably see this happening for real, as something added during the production of the reel itself, but it looked like a digital add-on. I really can’t say because I just don’t know.
And one thing that had me scratching my head was how few “dialog” plates there were! The few silent films I’ve ever seen have had a lot of dialogue shown in between scenes, and all three of these were especially empty in that respect. The first and third had all of the scenes titled, and The Coward had some dialog, with some information on a few screens. The result is that you had to infer a lot (or read some lips) to figure out what’s happening.
So, Civil War Films of the Silent Era turned out to be an educational experience more than anything. I would highly recommend this to anyone interested in the history of war movies or a student of film history. I’d even go as far as saying you might recommend this to your school history teachers as part of the Civil War lessons.