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THE ENEMY would probably be regarded as a major silent film if the
final reel could be found.
Lillian Gish stars as a young German bride who endures the hardships of World War I. The film also examines the friendship of her husband (Ralph Forbes) and his English friend (Ralph Emerson) after the outbreak of war.
But this is a Gish film, and she is stunning. At age 34 she easily passes as a twenty- something bride. As always, Gish is the consummate actress, going here from blushing bride to desperate mother to sorrowful prostitute.
After the success of THE BIG PARADE, MGM was anxious for another anti-war hit. This film was based on the 1925 hit Broadway play that starred Fay Bainter.
Supporting cast is quite good here with Frank Currier solid as the professor, Karl Dane as Jan, and Polly Moran as the brusque housekeeper. Joel McCrea appears as an extra.
For those who persist in thinking that Gish only played frail virgins, this film is a real eye opener.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Following such prestige projects as LA BOHEME (1926) and THE SCARLET
LETTER (1926), THE ENEMY was Lillian Gish's fifth and final film for
MGM (it was completed after, but released before, THE WIND). Based on a
play by Channing Pollock, this is a vehemently anti-war film,
well-directed by Fred Niblo and expertly edited by Margaret Booth.
Though it is difficult to tell where Niblo's direction ends and Booth's
editing begins (or to what degree they were close collaborators), it
must be stated that the fluid, eloquent visual language of the silent
cinema is exemplified here -- as in so many other films of the late
1920s -- at its apogee. This film certainly must be counted among
Booth's finest artistic work (for film editing is indeed an art) -- and
her resumé is indeed impressive.
For some, the unrelenting pacifist message of the film may lack subtlety. Today's viewer certainly needs an appreciation for historical context in order to understand properly the impact this film would have had on contemporary audience. The time period is the Great War (WWI), and the impact of that senseless carnage on ordinary people's lives. The setting is Austria, and the main characters are Austrian (plus an Englishman who suddenly becomes "the enemy" among former friends), yet it really could take place anywhere, at any time. The ironies of propaganda, through which all parties invoke the name of God to assist their cause against "the enemy," are emphasized here, as are the absurdities of a blind nationalism which causes friends to accuse each other of being unpatriotic. Actually, the messages of this film are not so far removed from our own time as one might think.
The performers all turn in convincing portrayals. Lillian Gish and Ralph Forbes are the newlyweds whose wedding march is interrupted by the drums of war. Their last night together before he is summoned to the front is a tenderly poetic interlude, as is the scene in the train station when she narrowly misses the chance to see her husband again. Frank Currier is especially sympathetic in the role of the principled, anti-war Professor Arndt ("I shall never teach that legalized murder is a glorious thing," he says at one point); and George Fawcett even manages to instill some humanity in his war-profiteer character. Karl Dane and Polly Moran are on hand to lend their usual brand of comic relief.
It is unfortunate that the last reel to this film is apparently lost. This will probably prevent the film from being screened on television or released to DVD -- which is unfortunate, since this is a work that deserves to be seen and appreciated as a fine example not only of late-silent movie-making, but also of the anti-war film.
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