CIVILIZATION (Reginald/Thomas H. Ince / Raymond B. West Barker, 1916, USA, 78m, BW)
Directed by Reginald Barker
Thomas H. Ince
Raymond B. West
Produced by Thomas H. Ince
Written by C. Gardner Sullivan
Starring Howard C. Hickman
Music by Hugo Riesenfeld
Cinematography Joseph H. August
Clyde De Vinna
Otis M. Gove
Charles E. Kaufman
Edited by Thomas H. Ince
Hal C. Kern
Distributed by Triangle Film Corporation
Country United States
Language Silent film
Howard C. Hickman ..... Count Ferdinand
Herschel Mayall ..... The King of Wredpryd
George Fisher ..... The Christ
Enid Markey ..... Katheryn Haldemann
Lola May ..... Queen Engenie
J. Frank Burke ..... Luther Rolf, the peace advocate
Charles K. French ..... The Prime Minister
J. Barney Sherry ..... The Blacksmith
Jerome Storm ..... The Blacksmith's Son
Ethel Ullman ..... The Blacksmith's Daughter
Kate Bruce ..... A Mother
Civilization is a 1916 American pacifist allegorical drama film produced by Thomas H. Ince, written by C. Gardner Sullivan, and directed by Ince, Reginald Barker and Raymond B. West. The story involves a submarine commander who refuses to fire at a civilian ocean liner supposedly carrying ammunition for his country's enemies. The film was a big-budget spectacle that was compared to both Birth of a Nation and the paintings of Jean-François Millet.
The film was a popular success and was credited by the Democratic National Committee with helping to re-elect Woodrow Wilson as the U.S. President in 1916. The film was also one of the first to depict Jesus Christ as a character in a motion picture, leading some to criticize the depiction as in "poor taste." Civilization is sometimes viewed as one of the first anti-war films. In 1999, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
The film opens with the outbreak of a war in the previously peaceful kingdom of Wredpryd. Count Ferdinand is the inventor of a new submarine who is assigned to command the new ship in battle. The King of Wredpryd orders the Count to sink the "ProPatria" ("for my country"), a civilian ship that is believed to be carrying munitions as well as civilian passengers. In his mind's eye, the Count sees a vision of what would happen if he sent a torpedo crashing into the liner, and he recoils. He refuses to follow his orders, saying he is "obeying orders -- from a Higher Power." Realizing his crew will carry out the orders, the Count fights with the crew and blows up his submarine, sending it to the bottom of the sea.
The Count's soul descends into purgatory, where he encounters Jesus. Jesus announces that the Count can find redemption by returning to the living world as a voice for peace. Jesus tells the Count, "Peace to thee, child, for in thy love for humanity is thy redemption. In thy earthly body will I return, and with thy voice plead for peace. Much evil is being wrought in my name."
The Count returns to life and is stoned and reviled by his countrymen. He is put on trial by the king, a modern Pontius Pilate, and is sentenced to death. Five thousand women gather at the palace singing a song of peace and pleading with the king to end the war. The mothers' plea inspires the king to visit the cell of the condemned Count. The Count is found dead in his cell, and Jesus emerges from the Count's body and takes the king on a tour of the battlefields. Jesus asks, "See here thy handiwork? Under thy reign, thy domain hath become a raging hell!" In the film's most famous scene, Jesus walks through the battlefields amid the carnage of war. The signing of a peace treaty follows, and the closing scenes depicts the happiness in store for the returning soldiers.
The king of a mythical country declares war to further his ambitions. The war devastates the country until a Count, in limbo between life and death, meets Jesus Christ, who takes over the Count's body to bring peace. This movie was apparently inspired by the phrase that was crucial to Woodrow Wilson's presidency campaign of 1916, "He kept us out of war." It's a message movie that wears its message on its sleeve, which is simply that we can't really call ourselves civilized while we still wage war.
It takes place in what is probably a mythical country, but given the costume designs, I suspect that it's a stand-in for Germany; the subplot about the use of submarines to wage war further backs this up. Though the movie is technically well made, it is naive and rather threadbare in terms of character and plot; it's too busy trying to preach to come up with either interesting characters or a compelling story. In fact, the movie is ultimately a variation on the Scrooge story, only it takes three-quarters of its running time before the King is finally visited by this movie's version of that story's ghosts. As a result, the movie gets rather dull and predictable. And, given what happened in history after the movie was made, it wasn't particularly effectual in preaching its message.
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.
Echoes of Biblical teachings were prominent in Thomas Ince's filmmaking, as I outline in my biography of the producer. Civilization (initially titled He Who Returned), had a simple but sweeping purpose; as one newspaper notice headlined, "Aims Film to Shorten Life of War—Thomas Ince Contends Great Movie Spectacle 'Civilization' Is Excellent Peace Argument." Shot in 1915, it was released in April 1916. Even before the public saw it, Ince arranged a viewing by President Wilson and his cabinet, and sent another print to the Pope.
While achieving recognition, Civilization has often been derided in subsequent years for such sentiments as the king's conclusion, "During my reign it is my command that my subjects enjoy peace and good will." However, Civilization must be considered in the context of the time in which it was made. Even as Americans were dismayed at the war's slaughter on all sides, the sinking of the British passenger liner Lusitania, in which over 100 Americans drowned, nearly goaded the United States into participation. Less than a year into the conflict, the event signaled the increasingly antagonistic attitude toward Germany for adopting submarine warfare. This innovation which was to become a popular motion picture topic, appearing in other Ince productions in the next few years. Civilization accurately portrays the German motivation, knowing such ships carried war supplies, as well the appalling consequences of their tactics.
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