'Are We Civilised?' is one of those weird movies from the League of Nations period, when Hollywood seemed to feel it could solve all of the world's problems with the proper screenplay. Any good qualities that this film might have had are seriously undercut by the casting of William Farnum in the central role. Farnum was a successful silent-film actor, specialising in cowboy roles that weren't much of a strain on his thespic talents. Here, playing a rare lead role in a talkie, Farnum proves he was never much of an actor.
Another problem with this movie is its gutlessness. 'Are We Civilised?' wants to tackle Serious Important Issues such as totalitarianism, yet it's afraid to name names. This movie takes place in a European nation that conveniently goes unnamed. Apparently it's meant to be Nazi Germany (this is 1934), but the movie goose-steps around that issue.
Paul Franklin (Farnum) was born in this unnamed European nation, and served in her army during the Great War, but he became disillusioned and he immigrated to America. Now he has come back to his homeland, where he has run afoul of General Bockner, the head of the national censorship bureau. (It's unclear precisely who's running the country; this movie has no precise analogue for Hitler.) Allegedly Bockner is a censor, but his chief duty seems to be disseminating disinformation rather than censoring genuine information. Bockner and his staff are constantly spreading propaganda to foment racism and religious bigotry. Bockner is played by Frank McGlynn, an actor who spent most of his career playing Abraham Lincoln. Here he gets a rare chance to play an extremely un-Lincolnesque role, and he's quite good. It's interesting to see McGlynn without Lincoln's chin whiskers and facial mole.
Meanwhile, Paul's son Paul Junior wants to marry Norma, the daughter of General Bockner. Hoo boy.
At the movie's somnolent climax, Paul Senior gives a frenzied speech on behalf of the brotherhood of man. This is accompanied by a series of tableaux, depicting the great heroes of history: beginning with a caveman, then carrying on through Moses, Gautama Buddha, Confucius, Julius Caesar, Christ, Mohammed, Bonaparte and Lincoln. At least three of the people on that list (Caesar, Mohammed, and Bonaparte) were all bad guys, but here they're depicted as good guys. McGlynn ducks back into the chin whiskers and mole for a brief turn as Honest Abe in the Lincoln tableau.
Fairly frothing at the mouth, Farnum orates: 'mankind will never be truly civilised until all races become one in spirit, understanding and brotherly love'. Don't hold your breath, laddie. Farnum's performance is ludicrously inept, although admittedly he's been cast in an unplayable role. Frank McGlynn is so impressive here, I wish I'd seen him in more non-Lincoln roles. I might have respected this movie if it had explicitly condemned Hitler or Nazism. As it is, I'll rate this simple-minded rubbish 3 points out of 10.
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