Saturday, 23 May 2015

Fear itself… The Coward (1915)


The Coward was one of a number of films made to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the American Civil War’s nominal ending. It tells a much smaller story than Mr Griffiths’ well-known epic from earlier in the year and focuses in on the more human reaction to war: the question of will I be able to fight?

Too often physical bravery is taken for granted and instinctive fear is treated as momentary doubt to be blown away by a sudden onrush of heroism or as a weakness to be pitied or laughed at. In The Coward the “hero” suffers deep shame and is only able to enlist under threat of being shot by his father… all armies need men like him: happy to slaughter those who run the wrong way.

Fearsome Frank Keenan
It’s not necessarily that this film won’t witness the ultimate triumph of heroism but the sympathetic way it deals with its counter-point that marks it out. The performance of the titular non-hero, Frank Winslow from baby-faced Charles Ray is naturalistic and convincing as the young man runs as terrified by his own perceived inadequacy as impending oblivion after all his letting not only his family and girl down, he’s letting himself down.

Written and produced by Thomas H. Ince and directed by Reginald Barker, The Coward starts off in the sunny South just as war breaks out. Frank’s father, retired Colonel Jefferson Beverly Winslow (Frank Keenan) sits reading a letter from Southern military command rejecting his offer to –re-enlist on account of age. Meanwhile Frank is out admiring peaceful nature with his sweetheart Amy (Margaret Gibson) but when they return to town, the declaration has been made and young men are falling over themselves to join up.

Margaret Gibson and Charles Ray
Frank’s worst fears have been realised and he is terrified of being a coward which seems distinct from being frightened for his own demise: is that a comment on societal indifference to the actuality of military conflict resolution at a time when Europe was ripping itself to shreds and America was seeing films showing the horror of its own war as never before?

Frank flees from the recruitment office
Frank enters the recruitment office, encouraged by the general hysteria and Amy’s pride, and almost manages it before, sickened with fear, he makes a break for home. He falls upon his mother (Gertrude Claire) and looks for some comfort but once his father hears we begin to understand why he’s more frightened of failure than death. The old man expects nothing but self-sacrifice and he treats his son as he would treat any other deserter by getting his gun and offering him the choice between a bullet sooner rather than later.

Frank joins up
Duly incentivised, Junior signs up with Dad in close attendance just in case and you have to say that theatre veteran Keenan is superb as the unbending force of Colonel Past: he may be unyielding but that look in his eye is not anger so much as deep regret and sadness… he knows all about war and he, unlike the thousands of ever-ready recruits, knows just what is going to happen to them.

So off goes Frank to serve the South but his involvement is short-lived as he runs back home after his first night watch: scared by the trees, the breeze and his own shadow. Father is disgusted and decides to take his son’s place in the war – off he goes, rifle in hand; back in the business.

Frank's disgrace is almost complete
But the Northern advance is swift and their home town is suddenly over-run forcing Frank to hide from the Yankees as they avail themselves of the Winslow house. As mother and the family servants – white actors Nick Cogley and Minnie Provost both in sad blackface – look after the intruders, Frank overhears their plans: they are exposed at the rear until reinforcements can arrive the following day… if the Confederates knew this they would be over-run...

Excellent battle scenes
OK… now the film changes tack as you might expect but it’s not without a twist in its final sequence. It’s also now that the war really starts and there are some well-realised scenes of battle from Barker and his cameramen Joseph H. August and Robert S. Newhard. After Birth the bar has been raised and after the slow pace and emotional intricacies of the film to this point, the action is now thick and fast.

If you look carefully you might even spot John Gilbert as “a young Virginian” although I missed him: these Yankees, they all look the same…

One of these men could be John Gilbert...
It’s not a major film but The Coward is none-the-less an interesting and entertaining one from a time of national self-reflection when the war was still in living memory and with some combatants still around to re-tell the tale.  As Birth also showed, some of the war’s issues were also still very much alive and kicking  but War never really grows old and Frank’s fears are as relevant and real today as they were a century ago.

War is hell
The Coward is available on Image Entertainment's Civil War Films of the Silent Era DVD from Amazon and probably elsewhere too.

2 comments:

  1. I haven't seen this film, but I enjoyed reading your commentary - it looks like really quite a sensitive treatment of this issue. Interesting (and telling) that Frank was more afraid of the social stigma than the actual combat.

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    1. It does take an unusual course as you'd normally expect the coward to be either "bad" or physically afraid. Maybe Frank is scared - isn't everyone in war- but his father frightens him more.

      Thanks for reading SP!

      Paul

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