As you delve deeper into the depths of silent film, you start to follow a daisy chain of actors and directors who impress and lead you into seeking out more of their work. So it was that a film I wouldn’t have given a second thought to a couple of years back, became compelling viewing due to the presence of one of the stars of The Saga of Gosta Berling (Lars Hanson) and another from The Cameraman (Marceline Day).
Captain Salvation was released in 1927 and features Hanson as Anson Campbell a young man on the verge of priesthood and yet who is always drawn back to the sea… his sweetheart, Mary Phillips (Day), is the daughter of the local priest and she looks forward to the time when he preaches from her father’s pulpit.
Anson is not dressed in a manner befitting the clergy and clearly enjoys the sea air far too much... The small God-fearing community follows Peter's lead and generally disapproves of Anson’s resistance to the call of the cloth but Mary is head over heels and can only see the good in her man.
The two share some lovely naturalistic moments on the beach as Anson presents Mary with a ring and proposes marriage… this section looks scripted (not all silent film was...) and Day can clearly be lip-read… you can almost hear them. Day is so freshly naturalistic and counterpoints the more expressive Larson well.
The weather changes and they both know a storm is on the way. They make it back to Anson’s friends’ house in time but are called out along with the rest of the village as a ship runs aground and survivors are hauled onto land. It’s a grim scene – a foretaste of what’s to come.
One of these poor souls is that of Bess Morgan (Pauline Starke) a fallen woman who one crew mate blames for the wreck. There’s little sympathy form the locals with Uncle Peter suggesting that she recuperates in the jail “where she belongs”. This angers Anson who demands that she be treated like everyone else as a “person”.
Thus battle lines of compassion are drawn across the community as Bess stays with Anson and his reputation is ripped to shreds… even Mary cannot stand it and is finally unable to resist the pressure of her simple-minded kin.
There seems nowhere left to turn and Anson follows Bess onto a schooner and a new life beyond the poisonous village. The board and are greeted by the larger than life Captain George Fawcett (all six feet and four inches of Ernest Torrence…Clara Bow’s co-star in Manhunt and brother of City Girl’s David).
But, from the frying pan they have fallen through the fire and straight into Hell. This is a prison ship whose warders are more brutal than their inmates, each of whom is branded, brutalised and treated like animals.
Anson soon becomes dragged into the hideous depths of the Hold whilst Bess has to contend with the lecherous advances of the not so good Captain.
But Anson is paying a heavy price and his faith falls away as he sees all around him lost and without hope of charity. He is driven almost mad by the extent of the cruelty and the depths of their despair.
Spoilers… It is Bess that truly becomes the captain of their salvation. She will not succumb to the Captain’s will and ends up fatally wounding herself when left with no other option. Anson charges at Fawcett in a rage and their ensuing battle is thrillingly filmed high up amongst the rigging as they trade blows in a messy and naturalistic scuffle to the death!
The Captain topples to his fate and Anson rushes to comfort Bess in her final moments. She asks him to prey and, to his surprise he finds the will and the words to lead the liberated in a last call to save her soul. Hanson occasionally over-emotes but he’s a powerful actor and this scene left not a dry eye in the living room.
Time passes and we’re back at the village as, once again, Anson returns from the sea. He sails the schooner right up to the docks and all can see that she has a new name Bess Morgan. He addresses the entire village from on high and tells them the tale of Bess’ conversion… it is a powerful moment and he finally wins them over in recognition of the woman’s bravery and Christian charity.
Welcomed back into the fold Anson is reunited with his contrite Uncle and free to marry his true love. But he will return to the ocean as master of the first “Faith Ship”… spreading the good word amongst the shipping lanes.
Now, make what you will of the film’s Christianity but there’s no denying that Captain Salvation is a powerful and quite gritty story. It’s fairly specific on the nature of Bess’ wrong-doings and unflinching in the brutality of the prison ship. It’s one of those surprises silent film can still offer – work that is less couched in period politeness than you’d expect. They kept it reasonably real.
I watched the Warner Archives DVD which is from a decent print and features a suitably stirring new orchestral score from Philip Carli.