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Cecil B. DeMille
German-American Karl and French-American Jules are in love with Angela when each returns to his country as war breaks out. She sails for France and while there is nearly raped by Karl as the Germans invade. She is later arrested for sending secret messages to Jules but Karl defends her. Both are saved from execution by the arrival of the French forces and Count Jules Written by
Ed Stephan <email@example.com>
In its own time, this effective and often compelling wartime melodrama used the talents of Mary Pickford and a young Cecil B. DeMille in support of the Allies in the first world war. It works well in itself, and it might be even more worthwhile now, for a generation that can view the events of that era more impartially, in order to draw some broader lessons from it.
Pickford plays Angela, "The Little American", a young woman courted by a German and a Frenchman who are both living in America. This familiar setup soon becomes much more serious when the war breaks out, and the two young men return to Europe and the battlefield, with Pickford's character soon joining them in the midst of the turmoil and terror of the conflict. The ensuing story occasionally has some points in common with the Valentino/Rex Ingram classic "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse", though with a generally more hopeful tone.
The first half has a particularly excellent sequence that depicts a submarine attacking a passenger liner. It works very well both dramatically and thematically. In particular, the light and motion of the sub's searchlight darting erratically through the darkness, so that its crew can survey the results of their attack, produces a chilling effect that is probably more effective than any amount of screaming could have been. The sequence works convincingly in portraying the barbarous, inhuman nature of attacks on civilian targets, and it also demonstrates the emptiness of the excuses used to justify them.
That is probably the strongest sequence, but the main story in the château also has some worthwhile material. The German soldiers are largely portrayed as subhuman, but this is balanced to a large degree by the character of Karl (Jack Holt) and his inner struggle between his sense of duty and his sense of justice. Holt and Pickford work well together, and Raymond Hatton, though not getting as much screen time, also makes good use of his opportunities.
With the delightful Pickford as the star, and DeMille already showing his ability to film set pieces effectively, this must have been very persuasive in its original purpose of strengthening support for the Allied cause. But now it can serve a different, and possibly more important, purpose. The harrowing experiences of Angela and the other characters are effective in demonstrating how quickly the fabric of human society can tear apart when military victory becomes all-important. While less ambitious and less well-known than the best-known of the classic movies that came out of the first world war, "The Little American" works well, and it is well worth the time to watch.
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