Out of the Vaults: “Civilization”, 1916

by Meher Tatna November 16, 2020
Scene from “Civilization” (1916)

Scene from Civilization (1916)

On October 21, 1916, the La Crosse Tribune carried a full-page advertisement for the next day’s release of Thomas Ince’s epic silent movie Civilization. Under a black and white picture of a listing ship going down in a storm as a lifeboat full of people foundered nearby, the breathless headline proclaimed:

Thos. H. Ince’s $1,000,000.00 SPECTACLE

Vividly Pictures the Modern Menace of SUBMARINE WARFARE

A Masterpiece that throws a glaring light on the world’s flaunting boast of a higher progress.

Below that are the following details:

Actual Sinking of an Ocean Liner.Two Battleships Sunk by United States Navy.$18,000 Used for Ammunition in One Battle.40,000 People Employed.10,000 Horses in Thrilling Cavalry Charges.40 Aeroplanes in Great Air Battle.Every Death-dealing Device Known to Modern War in Operation.One Year in the Making.Cost $1,000,000.00.Entire Cities Built and Destroyed.An Awe-inspiring Spectacle that one minute makes your blood run cold and another thrills you with its touches of human gentleness.The Story of the Greatest Love of the Ages – the Love of Humanity.

Promising a “Prologue by Flesh and Blood Actors,” the shows were priced at 50¢, 75¢ and $1; 25¢ for bargain matinees.

The film actually only cost $100,000 according to film archivist Brian Taves in his book Thomas Ince: Hollywood's Independent Pioneer, and earned $800,000 at the box office. It opened in Los Angeles in April 1916, then was recut with additional scenes for its New York premiere later that year.

Ince, the producer of about 800 films, who was the first to build his own studio, Inceville, with an assembly line system of filmmaking, is best known nowadays as the man who met a mysterious death at age 44 aboard the Oneida, William Randolph Hearst’s yacht, on which Ince was a guest. Rumors circulated about how he was shot in the head by Hearst, though officially he was reported to have died of a heart attack. Gossip columnist Louella Parsons who had been on the yacht was supposedly paid off by Hearst with a lifetime contract to syndicate her column in his newspapers in exchange for her silence.

Ince was also a director on Civilization, along with Reginald Barker and Raymond B. West, a film which is considered one of the first anti-war films. In 1916, the US had not yet joined WWI. The Democratic National Committee claimed that this was the film that helped Woodrow Wilson regain the presidency in 1916; his slogan “He Kept Us Out of War,” inspired Ince to make the film. Wilson was shown the film before its release and a print was even sent to the Pope. Nevertheless, the US did eventually join the war in 1917, whereupon the film was yanked out of theaters.

Originally titled He Who Returned, the film is a Christian allegory written by C. Gardner Sullivan and was the first one in which an actor (George Fisher) portrays Christ, billed as “the Christus” in the opening credits. The film is set in a peaceful European country whose king Wredpryd (Herschell Mayall in full army regalia) decides to start a war to increase his power. The male populace is conscripted by force, the women start a movement called Mothers of Men, and one of the king’s courtiers, Count Ferdinand (Howard Hickman) is ordered to combat because he invented a submarine that could torpedo enemy ships. But when faced with sinking a ship carrying not only ammunition but innocent passengers, he refuses and sinks his own ship instead. His change of heart is because of the influence of the pacifist fiancée (Enid Markey) he left behind.

Gravely injured, Ferdinand is rescued but descends into some sort of purgatory where the spirit of Christ inhabits him. Once back in Wredpryd, the king – “a modern Pontius Pilate” according to the supertitle – orders his execution, but Christ emerges from the Count’s body and takes the king to the battlefields to show him the havoc he has wreaked. The king repents and peace returns to the land.

The battle scenes are quite spectacular, with three cameramen credited. Considering that cameras were immovable back then, what Ince has achieved is impressive, wrangling the ships and seas as well as the hundreds of extras in the land battle scenes. Like most silent movies, the acting is declamatory and overly theatrical, and the supertitles veer into the banal. Variety’s reviewer was moved to say, “In his effort to project pathos, he slops over into bathos.” The religious messages are unrelenting as well, but given the time and circumstances of the film’s release, it was a great success and received very good notices, some reviewers comparing it favorably to D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. It was re-released several times, the last time in 1931.

However, the Los Angeles Times reviewer ignored the pacifist message, dismissed the poster’s breathless dedication to “that vast army whose tears have girdled the universe – the Mothers of the Dead,” and wrote that the depiction of Christ was “…not daring, it is only poor taste.” He went on to damn the film further: “Realizing the vast sum of money and the huge investment of talent and good faith that have been expended in this pretentious film, it is with deep regret that I am compelled to report it as a disappointment.” He was unmoved by the interview that Fisher, the actor playing Christ, had given to his paper, explaining that he lived the life of a recluse, spending his time in study and meditation in preparation for the role. “I can say in truth that the playing of this part has affected my whole life and the impressions will never leave me,” he told the Times.

Civilization was restored by The Museum of Modern Art with funding provided by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and The Film Foundation. The source material was a shortened version that was used as the basis from a 1931 re-issue; it was all that survived of the film.