Monthly Archives: December 2012

Christ on the Battlefield: Thomas Ince’s Civilization

These past two weeks I’ve been flat on my back recuperating from Civilizationone of those viruses that just won’t leave. That means I’ve had plenty of time to catch up on some reading and movies I’ve been meaning to see. One of the films is Thomas H. Ince’s Civilization (1916). With a nearly century-old movie on my to-see list, I may seem a bit behind the times, but hold on, there’s method in my madness.

Ince was an innovative movie-maker whose creativity and drive rivaled those of his better-known contemporary D.W. Griffith. If his life had not been cut short tragically at age 42, Ince might have become one of the industry’s most powerful figures. Sadly, in film classes, Civilization is often eclipsed by Griffith’s Intolerance, released the same year. Both films share a similar pacifist theme, exposing the evils of war, as well as the greed and religious hypocrisy that make it all possible.

In 1916 war in Europe was entering its second bloody year, and America was glad to remain well out of it. Popular sentiment was still against entering the great conflict. That year Woodrow Wilson campaigned for re-election and won on the slogan “He kept us out of war.” The hit song the previous year was “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier.”

With many Americans still making up their minds about the war, filmmakers seemed to be in a race to back either the non-interventionist or war horses—the former showing their audiences the grimmest realities of modern warfare; the latter, the necessity of all civilized people to fight against tyrants. One film, calling for peace through preparedness (The Battle Cry of Peace–1915), even brought to the screen a terrifying scenario depicting what would happen if America herself were invaded—millions fleeing New York City, the US capital in ruins. Meanwhile, Ince’s and Griffith’s films depict  war as the greatest visitation of man’s inhumanity to man.

Most early cinema suffers from an acutely 19th-century form of pantomime that makes contemporary audiences giggle. Civilization is no different in that respect. (Fans of the Authorized Version of the Bible will also be glad to know that in the film Jesus speaks perfect King James English—a habit filmmakers would not be able to break for the next 50 years.)

Yet the film is notable for its many technical achievements, lavish spectacle, and artistic set designs (many have likened its bucolic scenes and characters to the paintings of 19th-century French artist Jean-François Millet). Even more significant for today, however, is the film’s courageous pacifist theme, which makes Civilization as powerful as it was nearly a century ago. For it addresses the question, What if? What would happen if Christians really took their Master’s teaching of non-violence and peacemaking seriously and rose up en masse to pray and demand an end to wars? What if soldiers found they could no longer follow their king’s commands because of their allegiance to a Greater King?

The work is also compelling for another reason, a bit shocking, even today: It was the first to depict Jesus Christ, not merely as the main figure in the dramatization of the Gospel narrative, as others would do after him, but as a central character who actually advances the plot in a modern, albeit allegorical, drama.

The story takes place in a peaceful Ruritanian kingdom (Wredpryd), ruled by a Kaiser-like monarch. War hawks in the parliament pressure the king to declare war, bringing indescribable misery and disaster upon the poor populace. An organization of Christians, mostly mothers of drafted soldiers, is formed to protest the war and pray for peace. Their identifying badge is a simple sash bearing the symbol of a cross.

The young Count Ferdinand, the inventor of a new kind of submarine, is ordered by the king to command this vessel in the service of his country. Before he goes to sea, however, his fiancée reveals that she has just joined the new Christian order and she warns him that he, too, must choose which master he will serve. At first he chooses patriotism. Yet once aboard his sub, the first order he receives is to sink an enemy passenger liner believed to be carrying military contraband. Although normally passenger vessels would be off-limits, the Count is commanded to “reject sentiment” because of the military cargo. (The situation is meant to be reminiscent of the Lusitania, a British liner sunk by a German U-boat in 1915, with great loss of life.)

Ferdinand sees a vision of what will happen if he carries out this order—chaos aboard the passenger liner, women and children scrambling for the few lifeboats, with disastrous consequences. He finds he cannot obey the order and, now a Christian, he must follow the commands of a “Higher Power.” When his crew threatens to mutiny, he manages momentarily to hold them at bay but quickly sees the only option open to him is to sink the sub with all hands on board.

As the war continues to go badly for Wredpryd, the army is ordered to comb the countryside for new conscripts; even shepherds, the elderly, the very young, and the only son of an infirm mother are impressed into service. “But he belongs to me!” protests one mother as she clings to her boy. “He belongs to his country!” the soldiers shout as they shove her aside. The scene reminds us of the lyrics to the popular song:

I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier,

I brought him up to be my pride and joy.

Who dares to place a musket on his shoulder,

To shoot some other mother’s darling boy?

Let nations arbitrate their future troubles,

It’s time to lay the sword and gun away.

There’d be no war today,

If mothers all would say,

“I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier.”

What victory can cheer a mother’s heart,

When she looks at her blighted home?

What victory can bring her back

All she cared to call her own?

Let each mother answer

In the years to be,

Remember that my boy belongs to me!

Meanwhile, the Count, the sole survivor, has been found floating amid the wreckage of the sub and brought barely alive to the king’s palace. At this point the film takes a remarkable turn. On the brink of death, Ferdinand finds himself in a kind of purgatory, amid the other wretched casualties of civilization. Christ visits him there and tells him, “In your love for humanity lies your salvation.” “Many evils are being done in my name,” says the Lord. The Count must return to earth and with Christ’s Spirit within him, preach the gospel of peace and repentance. Through trick photography we see Jesus actually entering the man’s body.

Now miraculously recovered, Count Ferdinand begins preaching boldly in the streets against murder and bloodshed. His activities are brought to the attention of the king, who outraged, demands his arrest. The subsequent scenes are meant to track with the biblical Passion Narrative, as the preacher is first stoned by a patriotic mob, then arrested and beaten, and brought before the king. He is found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. While praying in his cell, a Bethlehem-like star shines upon the Count, and the heavenly phenomenon acts like a call to thousands of Christians to gather at the palace to pray and demand peace. Thus surrounded, like a lion in a sea of Daniels, the king is at a loss what to do.

The next morning, however, guards inform him that the Count has died in his cell before the execution could be carried out. Wondering and afraid, the king goes to see for himself. As he approaches the body, Christ’s Spirit emerges from it and confronts the frightened monarch, taking him on a Scrooge-like journey, where he sees the evil he has wrought: corpses littering the streets and battlefields, houses burning, women and children starving. At last, Christ shows him the Book of Judgment, where the king’s sins are listed. Grief-stricken and terrified, the king repents, and returning to his palace, signs a peace treaty, declaring that from now on, under his reign, all his people will enjoy peace. News of the peace spreads through the streets and countryside, where all the people, young and old, rejoice.

Reaction to the film was mostly enthusiastic, not surprising given the largely isolationist climate of the country at the time. The Democrats credited the film with almost single-handedly winning re-election for Wilson. Ince was even invited to the White House to shake the President’s hand. (Unfortunately, after only one month into his second term, Wilson signed a declaration of war against Germany.) Critics who panned the film cited its shocking “poor taste” in daring to use the Lord as a character in a photoplay. If the idea of Christ touring a modern battlefield was intended to make people uncomfortable, it certainly did.

Ince’s film was released in June 1916; Griffith’s in September. Intolerance runs a notorious 197 minutes, compared to Civilization’s 86. Both films broke records for production costs (Griffith’s ran over 2 million; Ince’s over 1 million), with the erection of huge sets and battle sequences.

Although today hailed as one of the greatest films ever made, Intolerance did not receive the same immediate acclaim as Civilization. While they praised Ince,* critics complained of Griffith’s overly ambitious plot, which interwove four stories, cross-cutting back and forth over 2,500 years. Audiences could not keep up. By January 1917 war sentiment had also begun to change, so that Intolerance’s pacifist message did not click as well with the American public.

Ironically, as his project grew, Griffith had probably not intended his to be an anti-war film as much as a personal vindication, after his earlier film The Birth of a Nation (1915) had sparked outrage and riots over its racist portrayal of African-Americans (ironically, “intolerance” over Griffith’s intolerance gave birth to Intolerance). (Birth is rightly blamed for reviving the then defunct Ku Klux Klan.) Since D.W. had spent twice as much on his film, he could not recoup his losses fast enough and went bankrupt. Genius or no genius, timing is everything in Hollywood, where money is king.

By 1919 Griffith was up and running again, although he would never again achieve his previous success. By 1924 Ince was dead. Sadly, the scandalous rumors surrounding his death, none of which has ever been substantiated, have cast a shadow over his significant accomplishments as an actor, writer, director and producer. Ince was the first to use a shooting script and to develop what we know today as the assembly-line studio structure for making films.

Though it may suffer in comparison with Griffith’s more monumental epic (what film wouldn’t?), Civilization is nonetheless a remarkable achievement in both film technique and propaganda. Yet for followers of Christ, it holds much more. It remains a question, a challenge, and even an aspiration. What if?

Have we become so cozy with the thought of war, and with the greed and goals of empire, that we cannot hear the Master’s voice calling us to a higher, though thornier, path? Some, like St. Augustine, would argue that there is such a thing as a “just war.” President Wilson endeavored to enlist Christian support in WWI, claiming that this would be an opportunity, in H.G. Wells’ words, a “war to end wars.” Since then America has engaged in numerous wars, turning Wells’ phrase into a cynical platitude. How many of these wars could be called “justifiable”?

So-called “good people” may find themselves on different sides of this issue, but until those who claim to follow the words of Christ become obedient to the same, realizing who we are and the awesome power with which we have been entrusted, we shall continue to have even more wars—most of them unjust, bloody, and sadly unnecessary, but sacrilegiously blessed by holy water from the sacred font. Thus it has always been when church and empire unite.

But what if?

(To view Civilization on video)

*While Ince oversaw the production, he used a band of directors to achieve his vision. The original story was by C. Gardiner Sullivan, who conceived the idea on Easter morning 1915.

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Liberty v. Liberty

At an address in Baltimore in 1864, one year before the end of the Civil War and his own death, President Abraham Lincoln discoursed on the subject of liberty. The word had had a great deal of exercise during the war, since Abolitionists in the North saw the goal of the struggle as the liberation of slaves; while the South saw it as the liberation from Northern tyranny. Lincoln here adds his own log-splitting common sense to the debate:

“The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name, liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names –liberty and tyranny.

“The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as his liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act, as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly, the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty…”

In the debate over gun legislation raging in Washington, as well as all over the country, advocates for stricter gun laws and their opponents among the gun lobbies are currently wrestling with that very issue:  what is freedom? The former would like to be able to drop their children off at school without having to furnish them with bullet-proof vests; the latter want government to get off their backs and stop restricting their “constitutional freedom.” One seeks freedom from fear; the other, freedom from Uncle Sam.

But when someone else’s definition of freedom puts us all in danger, we have every right to seek the government’s protection. When the freedom enjoyed by the few threatens the freedom enjoyed by the multitude, something must give.

A total ban on assault weapons and clips, designed for military use, is not a violation of our constitutional right to bear arms. Neither are a background check and waiting period for private gun sales.  These are hardly examples of government tyranny; they are a very rational and necessary response to a problem that has become a national nightmare, an epidemic that threatens us all. As much as they may have wished ordinary citizens to possess weapons as a check on government tyranny (at least, that was one of Mr. Madison’s arguments), the Framers of our Constitution would have been horrified at the thought of ordinary Americans’ being able to stockpile, not to mention use, weapons of mass slaughter.

Times have changed. Single-shot muskets, which took even a highly experienced soldier at least 15 seconds to reload, have given way to more rapid weapons of annihilation. New technologies create new challenges and demand new thinking, or at least, a more sane and rational approach to the old thinking.

Our children, as well as the rest of us, deserve a more sporting chance.


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America, Arsenal of Democracy

This week our household has been visited by some kind of nasty postervirus. Last night with my little daughter it began its intestinal stage. After vomiting all over the den, she was moved to her own bed, which she proceeded to render uninhabitable; then to our bed, with the same results. Our washing machine could not keep up with all the sheets, towels and blankets. Out of beds and clean sheets, we finally made a bed for her with a little mattress on the floor, and there she stayed for the night. As my wife remarked, after yesterday’s horrific events in Connecticut, we’re grateful for the petty annoyances of childrearing.

Like most Americans I feel heartsick and angry at the endless repetition of these killing sprees. Following the news and social media, one watches how such emotional events become a pivot point for just about any and every social issue, with pundits blaming the mayhem on inadequate gun control or austerity cuts to mental health programs, violent video games or movies, absence of prayer in schools or the lack of teachers who carry guns. (Only in America would you hear such sophistry that our problem is not enough guns.) I imagine somewhere someone was relating the deaths to God’s judgment for homosexuality in the military, abortion, or fluoridation of our drinking water.

Gun control advocates definitely have a point. So do mental health advocates. It would seem there are just too many guns, especially assault weapons; they’re too easy to get, and too many are in the wrong hands. Ours is also a broken society, with a high divorce rate and increasing isolation of hurting individuals. But there is a wider backdrop to this story, besides the easy access to guns, which I believe helped make the difference between a troubled adolescent and a mass murderer.

We live in a violent nation. Our history is a violent one. The American frontier was “tamed” at the end of a rifle. Much of the land we live on was taken by the same method, with its previous inhabitants eliminated or rendered helpless. If we wanted something, we took it by force. For over 200 years, much of our economy was built on the backs of slaves, who were branded, whipped or maimed if they tried to escape. When he visited this country for the first time, author and social reformer Charles Dickens noted how may column inches in the newspapers were given to runaway slaves, who could be easily identified by the marks of their masters’ cruelty. Yet the mayhem did not end there, for white-on-white violence was just as rampant: “’These are the weapons of Freedom,’” Dickens writes. “’With sharp points and edges such as these, Liberty in America hews and hacks her slaves; or, failing that pursuit, her sons devote them to a better use, and turn them on each other.’”

Four of our Presidents have been assassinated with guns, not to mention numerous other attempts. When JFK was felled by a rifle shot, Malcolm X remarked that America’s violent foreign policy had finally “come home to roost.” Violence has a way of breeding violence. We have always been a culture that likes to settle its private disputes with bullets, and its larger conflicts with bombs.

America was once called the “arsenal of democracy.” The democracy dropped out long ago; now we are simply the largest arsenal in the world, with the weapons and arms trade making up a significant portion of our economy. We spend more on “defense” (the tools of war) than all of the other world economies combined. The more weapons you have, the more likely you are to use them, and the more probable that violence will be the first response. As former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once remarked, “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”

American movies and other media celebrate this military superiority and use of violence, as well as our dangerous exceptionalism. It’s a game. Why should we be surprised that a disturbed young man thought he had the right to gun down 20 innocent children? The US and its allies, such as Israel, do that as a matter of policy. We call it “defending democracy.” The rest of the world calls it murder. Violence, even when committed 10,000 miles away, has a way of coming home to roost.

There are other countries that have higher per capita gun ownership but only a tiny sliver of the violence. The U.S. accounts for 80% of the gun deaths among the 23 most developed nations. Over 8,000 Americans are killed by guns each year (not including suicide or gun accidents). While certainly necessary, new and tighter gun legislation alone will not entirely solve the problem until we as a nation also come to terms with our culture of violence, both past and present. Until the “family values” we desperately want for ourselves are something we want for other peoples as well, we will have neither.


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Waiting on the Lord

Next to Shakespeare, John Milton (1608-1674) is probably the 512px-Eugène_Ferdinand_Victor_Delacroix_032greatest poet in the English language. Learned in classical literature and languages and brilliant in both poetry and prose, he was also a man of very deep faith.

When the Puritans seized power following the English Civil War (1642-1646), Milton was given an important post in the new government. He dreamed of building a Christian commonwealth, one of true liberty. But under the military dictatorship of Cromwell, the Puritan revolution took a darker turn; England became a repressive police state where dissent was squashed and censorship cruelly enforced.

Milton’s was a voice of reason and moderation during this upheaval, but the people groaned under the new brand of tyranny and even longed for the old monarchy. When the kingship was finally restored in 1660, Milton had to flee for his life. Heartbroken, his dream shattered, the poet had now to deal with a new enemy– his growing blindness.

For years his eyesight had been failing, until finally, he could no longer read nor write. As a man of great intellectual energy and abilities, he now found himself at the height of his powers, but helpless, having to be fed and cared for like an infant. He argued with God. Why, he asked, had the Lord allowed this to happen, on top of everything else he had to endure– the collapse of the commonwealth, his being hunted as a fugitive? He even tried to back God into a corner using scripture: “Lord, you say in your word that those who do not exercise their talents will be judged severely. Well, here I am, blind as a bat, helpless and useless. How is that going to bring you glory? I want to serve you. Why won’t you let me serve you?” (Have you even done that– used the Bible to try to force God’s hand?)

It was during one of these grief-stricken and frustrated prayers that Milton heard the gentle whisper of the Holy Spirit. The Lord’s answer, full of comfort and truth, struck its mark. In response, the old Puritan wrote the following poem, called “On His Blindness.”

WHEN I consider how my light is spent

E’re half my days, in this dark world and wide,

And that one Talent which is death to hide,

Lodg’d with me useless, though my Soul more bent

To serve therewith my Maker, and present

My true account, least he returning chide.

Doth God exact day-labour, light deny’d,

I fondly ask; But Patience to prevent

That murmur, soon replies, God doth not need

Either man’s work or his own gifts. Who best

Bear his milde yoke, they serve him best. His State

Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed

And post o’re Land and Ocean without rest;

They also serve who only stand and waite.

Have you ever been frustrated, wondering where your life is going? Wondering why you seem stuck, when all you want to do is serve Him? Have you ever felt abandoned by God, neglected, or forgotten? Looking at a dictionary definition of waiting, we find there’s more to it than just anticipation of something to come. It is more than merely enduring delay or postponement. Waiting itself is service, as in a waiter or lady in waiting. The one who waits makes himself ready for the master’s call. Whether the servant is called or not is up to the master, but the service mostly lies in making oneself ready and available, day in and day out, while listening for the call.

The Lord has millions of servants who are ready to buzz about, going here and there, in his service. But he doesn’t have many who are willing to stand in his presence and wait. If the king never asks that servant in waiting to do anything except wait, the servant is still serving; his pay is the same as the one who flies hither and yon for his master, for he is doing his lord’s will.

God is not the author of blindness, but whatever the Lord’s purpose in allowing Milton’s vision to go dark, he was certainly doing a work of humility in the poet’s life, taking him to a deeper level of surrender and perception than he could have known had he retained his sight.

However long and tedious those hours must have seemed, Milton did not have to wait much longer. Ironically, his greatest and most enduring works lay before him. A few years later he would begin dictating to his daughter his epic Paradise Lost, the greatest poem in the English language. And through that work the poet would seek to “justify the ways of God to men,” speaking comfort and truth to his nation, dazed and grieving from a generation of political and religious upheaval.


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