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Film / Civilization

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Civilization is a 1916 silent film produced and directed by Thomas Harper Ince. It is an anti-war film meant to discourage American involvement in World War I.

The imaginary nation of Wredpryd, which is obviously supposed to be Germany, goes to war. The common people of the pastoral village of Nurma can't believe it, but the king and his ministers are caught up in war fever. The voices for peace are hooted down—a lone protester in Parliament has garbage thrown at him, an anti-war cynic on the streets is attacked—and the nation goes off to war. The men of Nurma are dragged away from their homes and their jobs as the war drags on; fathers are taken away from their children, a son is taken away from his infirm mother, the blacksmith's forge goes quiet, and the sheep are left untended in the field.

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Meanwhile, Count Ferdinand (Howard C. Hickman), an inventor, has devised a new type of submarine. With the king's approval, he is designated commander of the submarine when it goes off to war. However, Ferdinand's girlfriend Katheryn has joined a Christian anti-war secret society and pleads with him not to fight. At sea, Ferdinand gets to chance to sink an enemy passenger ship. He refuses, and holds off his own crew at gunpoint until he opens the sea valves, sinking his own submarine, which explodes.

Ferdinand is fished unconscious out of the water. Meanwhile, his soul goes to Hell, where Jesus finds him and tells Ferdinand that he, Jesus, will take earthly form again using Ferdinand's body. A revived Ferdinand, speaking as Jesus, speaks in the capital for peace. He is heckled and stoned by protesters, and then arrested, but Katheryn's Christian peace group, now numbering in the thousands, marches on the capital.

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The king, rattled by the anti-war protests at his gates, goes to see Ferdinand. Jesus leaves the body of Ferdinand and takes the spirit of the king on a Christmas Carol-style tour of the carnage of the war. The king, repentant, makes peace. Ferdinand appears to be dead, but the men of Nurma come home to their wives and families.

A century later, Civilization presents a weird mish-mash of tones and style, whipsawing between thudding Anviliciousness, hokey literalism, chilling battle sequences, and moments of powerful emotion. It has a place on the National Film Registry.

Not to be confused with the video game.


Tropes:

  • An Aesop: War is bad. No really, war is bad, and it is not Christian. No viewer of Civilization will leave the film unsure of Thomas Harper Ince's attitude towards war.
  • Battle in the Rain: One of the combat sequences is a scene of brutal, bloody trench warfare in the rain.
  • Call-Back: Early in the film a line of soldiers is silhouetted against the horizon as they march off to war. Later in the film a very similar shot shows the women of the Christian pacifist group marching to the capital to protest the war.
  • Came Back Wrong: This is a lot more benevolent than most instances of this trope, but to come back to life as basically an empty shell possessed by Jesus has to qualify.
  • Demonic Possession: The exact opposite, really—possession by Jesus.
  • Dramatic Unmask: Sort of. When the order comes to sink the Pro Patria, Count Ferdinand opens his shirt to reveal the cross, symbol of the secret Christian peace organization. He then refuses to attack.
  • Establishing Character Moment: How to establish that Katheryn is sweet and innocent? Have her frolicking around with a cute dog in her first scene.
  • Holy Halo: Ferdinand-Jesus actually develops a literal halo as he preaches to the king and his ministers of the error of their ways.
  • Imagine Spot: Count Ferdinand visualizes the destruction of the Pro Patria and all the innocents that will die if he torpedoes it.
  • Messianic Archetype: Although given that Ferdinand has been possessed by Jesus, he might not be an archetype.
  • The Mutiny: By the captain, no less, as Count Ferdinand disobeys his orders and refuses to fire on the passenger liner.
  • One-Word Title
  • Patriotic Fervor: The mindless, aggressive kind, as everybody cheers the country to war, and the few voices of dissent are smothered.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: The submarine's mission to sink the SS Pro Patria is clearly inspired by the sinking of the Lusitania, which turned American popular opinion against the Germans.
  • Ruritania: Mustaches, spiked helmets, reliance on submarines, torpedoing passenger ships—it's called "Wredpryd" but is clearly supposed to be Germany. Interestingly, "Wredpryd" only appears in the cast list, identifying who the king is king of. Within the film itself, the country isn't named.
  • Sub Story: Count Ferdinand is given command of the submarine he designed, and sent out to attack an enemy passenger liner. This may be the first feature film ever made to include scenes involving a submarine in combat.
  • Uptown Girl: Ferdinand is a count, but Katheryn is a commoner. The king promises that if Ferdinand can make that submarine happen, he can marry her.
  • War Is Hell: While some of this film dates very badly, the war scenes still pack a punch. The film depicts war in all its violence and horror, with savage hand-to-hand combat, civilians dying in the crossfire, and dogs rooting among the corpses.
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