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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