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Confederate soldier Frank Winslow is terrified of the war and eventually runs away from battle. But when he finds himself behind enemy lines with vital information, he must decide between his fear and his conscience. Written by
Jim Beaver <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Interesting Civil War melodrama that helped inspire Keaton
The DVD "Civil War Films of the Silent Era" has three Thomas Ince productions on it-- the highly successful 1915 feature The Coward, starring Charles Ray and Frank Keenan (Keenan Wynn's grandfather, incidentally, and at times you can definitely tell), plus two shorts from 1913, Granddad and The Drummer of the 8th. The former is directed by Reginald Barker, who I daresay is the only director most of us could associate with Triangle (he directed The Italian, Civilization, several Hart westerns, etc.)
It's pretty tough not to compare a 1915 film about the South to a certain D.W. Griffith film, and on the evidence Barker was highly capable and in some ways more fluid in his storytelling than Griffith, but didn't have Griffith's eye for the iconic actorly gesture that summed up character in a flash. There's nothing flashy about the on-screen agonizing that represents the delineation of character here, which is well acted for the period but takes literally a third of the movie to get across a fairly simple setup-- Dad (Keenan) is a proud Suthanah and gennelmun, Son (Ray) is a weakling who runs away from the enlisting office, and Dad orders Son to sign up and remembah that he is a Winslow, suh. There's a lot of knuckle-biting to get to that point.
Once Ray deserts the movie picks up noticeably, and the action scenes are very nicely handled-- the manner in which Ray eludes capture in his own house is ingenious and nicely in character for someone who was a boy in the home, for instance. Watching it there are enough echoes of The General-- the enlistment opening, spying from beneath a table, etc.-- that you have to think that Keaton was drawing on memories of it, even if unconsciously. The battle scenes are fairly brief but impressively scaled (especially next to those in the shorts-- it's much like the difference in scale between the battle in The Battle of Elderbush Gulch and The Birth).
But perhaps most interesting is what's missing-- The Birth's racial attitudes. This is much closer to Gone With the Wind's benevolent-paternalist view of master-slave relations, and while a definite air of Old South nostalgia/apologia fills the film, it feels right, for instance, that when Ray first sneaks into his home as a deserter, it's the servants who probably really raised him who take him in and try to ease the discovery of his action by his parents. (Of course, they may also have approved of desertion from the Confederate army...)
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