Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Review – The Unbeliever

December 31, 2008

The Unbeliever – U.S., 1918

The Unbeliever is a movie that is both daring and predictable, an odd combination to say the least. It is a film that dares to say that classism is wrong, and while this message is not surprising today, bear in mind that the film was made at a time when the world was recovering from World War I, when the 19th Amendment had yet to be passed, and when African-Americans were still fighting for civil rights. The Unbeliever is also a film that has the courage to say not only that God exists but also that God forgives the sin of murder during wartime. On the other hand, The Unbeliever is also a film that contains forced dialogue, impersonal communication at inopportune moments, and a certain level of predictability.

The Unbeliever is about a man named Philip Landicutt (Raymond McKee), a man who was born into the upper class and who according to his mother Margaret (Kate Lester) is “firm in his unbelief.” While she worries about this, her local pastor does not. With a smile, he assures her that Philip will one day be a believer. He tells her, “At twenty we don’t believe; at thirty we don’t know, but faith comes when we need it.” What the pastor doesn’t know is that Philip also does not believe in equality either. He believes that those who were born wealthy are naturally superior and that it is natural that work be done by “commoners”; in addition, he has no sympathy for those he views as enemies to his country. His contempt for those fighting against the United States even extends to the family’s long-time German gardener Hoffman (Lew Hart). After Hoffman receives word that his son Hans has died in the First World War, Philip is unsympathetic, describing the death as justified simply because Hans fought for the enemy. However, Philip is also a patriot, and after seeing some marine corp. recruits training, he expresses his desire to enlist, adding that he doesn’t believe that the Kaiser will stop his advance at the Atlantic Ocean. At first unwilling to part with the person she describes as her entire world, Margaret eventually relents. In a poignant moment, Philip is congratulated by his uncle Jemmy (Frank DeVernon), a veteran of the American Civil War, as tears begin to fall on his mother’s cheeks. Soon Philip is in a dangerous area of Holland, in the trenches referred to as No Man’s Land.

The war changes Philip, but not necessarily for the reasons one might expect. Philip does not grow to despise war or mourn those that he kills in battle. Rather, he changes because of those he meets during the war. First, there’s Lefty (Darwin Karr), a man whom Philip befriends but has a hard time accepting completely due to the fact that Lefty is “of lower class.” Then there’s Albert Mullins (Moss Gill), who brings a Bible in the trenches and when he’s not shooting enemy soldiers cites relevant passages aloud. Of course, every war film needs a damsel in distress, and The Unbeliever is no exception. In a town called Dixmude, Philip meets a beautiful young woman named Virginie Harbrok (Marguerite Courtot), although the circumstances under which they meet are hardly what one would traditionally call romantic. At one point, she even asks Philip to shoot her instead of letting her be taken captive. Two other characters are worth mentioning, but these are characters who directly affect Virginie, not Philip. The first one is a ruthless German lieutenant named Karl von Schnieditz (Erich von Stroheim). Schnieditz thinks nothing of shooting children or the elderly; he is also not opposed to using sexual assault against young women that he captures. The second character is Schnieditz’s opposite, a sympathetic conscript musician named Emanuel Muller (Earl Schenck). He is appalled by Schnieditz’s inhumane actions, and it is through him that we see the evidence that will eventually change Philip’s opinion of the Germans fighting on the other side.

The Unbeliever ends on both a religious note and a romantic one. The first seems appropriate given the film’s focus on the differences between mother and son. The second seems both rushed and improbable. However, love during wartime is usually presented this way, so it’s hard to fault the film too much for including what is now – and possibly even then - a bit of a cliché. Another part of the film that drew my attention was the sense of honor with which the characters who are veterans of war talk about their wartime experiences. Characters seem excited and happy as they recount their tales of evading gunfire and death, sentiments contrary to those I had expected them to express.

All in all, The Unbeliever remains interesting despite its somewhat formulaic structure. The performances in the film are effective, in particular those of von Stroheim, Courtot, McKee, Hart, and Schench. Also worth mentioning are the film’s battle scenes. They are well shot and have a degree of tension to them that is sometimes missing in today’s war films, which occasionally emphasize spectacle over the personal involvement that comes with being invested in the safety of individual characters. Watching The Unbeliever, I felt concern for its characters, and I was grateful for it. (on DVD as part of the Edison: The Invention of the Movies box set – a must-have for people interested in film history)

3 stars

*The Unbeliever was directed by Alan Crosland, who would later direct Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer.
*The film was the last film produced by Thomas Edison’s film studio.

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