The Gray Sentinel (1913)
Battle of Gettysburg (1913)
Drummer Boy of the 8th (1913)
The Coward (1915)
Directed by Thomas Ince
Although D.W. Griffith is the acknowledged master of the silent film genre in the United States, his colleague and competitor Thomas Harper Ince—the man who practically invented the Hollywood studio system—is recognized today by only the most serious students of American cinema history. Nevertheless, between 1911 and 1924, Ince wrote, produced or directed more than 300 films.
From 1911 to 1915, Hollywood helped commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Civil War by producing a plethora of shorts and feature-length films with Civil War themes. Already the acknowledged master of one- and two-reel Westerns and sentimental melodramas, Ince produced his first Civil War short, The Gray Sentinel, in 1913. It is the story of a fisherman with decidedly Southern sympathies who unmasks a Yankee spy, sends him to his just reward and wins the hand of a lighthouse keeper’s daughter.
Ince made his directorial debut in The Battle of Gettysburg (1913), a five-reel epic that ran nearly 90 minutes. There is a love story in the film, with the heroine, played by Anna Little, sending her two suitors off to battle, one wearing Yankee blue and the other clad in Confederate gray. But most of the scenes depict terrible battles similar to those D.W. Griffith would make famous two years later in Birth of a Nation. The film ends with a horrifying scene of carnage in the moonlight, an event wholly invented to add cinematic drama to the film. Ince used carefully preplanned scenarios to create his realistically detailed scenes. To plan scenes ahead of time was unheard of in this era, but eventually all filmmakers began using the technique.
Another 1913 Civil War short is Granddad. It is the story of Jabez Burr, the titular granddad played by William Desmond Taylor, and his relationship with granddaughter Mildred, played by Mildred Harris. When Burr’s son marries a virtuous Southern belle, Granddad’s drinking proclivities are no longer tolerated and he is sent away. Granddad unhappily ends up at the local poorhouse, where Mildred rediscovers him. Meanwhile, a former Confederate officer, played by Ince regular Frank Borzage, appears and relates a story, via a short flashback, of how Burr, while a Union soldier, had saved his life. Although Granddad’s heroism is now clear to the younger generations, his life is almost over. But the film concludes on a hopeful note. Ince includes docu-mentary foot age of 1913 Decoration Day festivities to remind viewers that it’s not too late to appreciate the many veterans still among them.
Ince eschewed the stock Hollywood happy ending in Drummer Boy of the 8th (1913), the story of 14-yearold Billy who wants to join the Union Army despite his parents’ refusal. Undaunted, the lad runs away and joins a regiment as a drummer boy under an assumed name. His regiment is captured, but Billy overhears the Confederates’ plans and escapes to notify the Union forces, though he is gravely wounded in the process. Fearing their plans have been compromised, his captors make new ones, and in the climactic albeit brief battle sequence, the Union camp is wiped out and Billy is killed.
Ince plumbed murky psychological depths in 1915’s The Coward. The film stands in stark contrast to Griffith’s broadly conceived and wildly popular epic released the same year in that it forgoes spectacle in favor of capturing emotion and drama on the screen. Indeed, some film historians argue that The Coward boasts two of the silent era’s best performances, by Frank Keenan and Charles Ray, as a father and son torn apart by the war.
Colonel Jefferson Beverly Winslow (Keenan) is a retired Southern military man, who lives by a strict code of honor and service. He is willing to fight, but is told his services won’t be needed because of his age. Nevertheless, he expects his son to rally ’round the flag. Most of the men were eager to serve, but Frank admits to being afraid and walks away from the enlistment line.
In a scene of terrific tension, Colonel Winslow finds out. “You are going to enlist,” he tells his son. With father in tow, Frank returns and reluctantly enlists. We next see him in his gray uniform as the call to arms sounds outside. The father offers a cool, civil handshake. “Remember, suh,” he tells Frank, “you are a Winslow.”
But Frank deserts. To maintain the family’s honor, the distraught and angry father dons his old uniform and takes his son’s place as a private so that there will be someone answering “here” when the Winslow name is called. In the meantime, the Yankees have set up camp in and around the Winslow home. Frank, hiding in the attic, overhears their plans for a crucial attack. Realizing for the first time that his actions can have important consequences, he begins to find his courage.
He sneaks out, dons a Yankee uniform as a disguise, and heads for the Rebel lines. In a scene of high irony, Colonel Winslow mistakes his son for the enemy and shoots him. But Frank makes it to the Southern camp and discloses his information. The battle is a huge triumph for the Confederates. Later, in keeping with the best of Hollywood traditions, the Winslows are reconciled when the father learns of his boy’s heroic deeds.
Ince continued to make films until 1924, when he died under mysterious circumstances aboard the yacht of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst. Peter Bogdanovich used Ince’s death as the plot for his 2001 movie The Cat’s Meow.
Originally published in the November 2008 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.