Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Adventures in Blu-ray: The Captive (1915)

Normally I save the “silent cinema” blog entries for Thursdays…but I’m going to grant a little special dispensation to this week’s Overlooked Films on Tuesdays for a reason that I will reveal during the course of this review.  Cecil B. DeMille’s The Captive (1915) fits the “overlooked” definition to a “T,” because for many years it was believed to be a lost film.  The movie was rediscovered in the Paramount Pictures vaults in 1970 and was subsequently preserved by the Library of Congress, and with the exception of a showing here and there (it was on the menu at Cinecon 40 in 2004, for example) it’s been an unnoticed item…but starting today, that should surely change.

DeMille, who co-wrote the script with longtime collaborator Jeanie Macpherson (and I mean “collaborator” in every sense of the word—the two of them conducted a little tête-a-tête during the writing and shooting of The Captive—an affair that lasted even beyond DeMille’s eventual transition to “talking pictures”), crafts a film that tells a simple, bittersweet love story involving a peasant girl and a Turkish nobleman.  The woman is Sonya Martinovich (Blanche Sweet), who ekes out a living on a small farm in a Montenegrin village.  It’s wartime (the Balkan Wars), and Sonya has just learned that her older brother Marko (Page Peters) has been called up to the fight…which will leave only her and younger brother Milo (Gerald Ward) to run the farm.  During a skirmish known as The Battle of Lule Burgess, Marko is killed.

The nobleman of the story is Mahmud Hassan (House Peters), a Turk taken prisoner during Lule Burgess.  Hassan is bound by a village decree to assist Sonia on her spread, making good use of the prisoners of war since the Montenegrin men are off to battle.  There is a great deal of bitterness between Sonia and her “captive,” stemming from the death of her brother—though Milo and Mahmud soon become fast friends.  Difficulties also arise when it’s clear that Mahmud has never gotten his hands dirty engaged in menial labor due to his nobleman status.  In time, Sonia and Mahmud develop a mutual respect for one another…but their relationship must stand up to a test when Turkish soldiers take over the village and threaten the sanctity of the farm.

Based on a play scripted by DeMille and Macpherson (who has a small part in the film), The Captive will come as a surprise to those more familiar with the director’s “sin-and-salvation” efforts or even his later Biblical epics.  It’s sparingly told (the movie’s length is only five reels), and awards us a look at how the 34-year-old Cece is becoming more and more assured behind the motion picture camera.  According to the late Bob Birchard, author of the essential Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood, DeMille apparently took advantage of recycling the costumes used in The Unafraid (1915), another Balkan drama he directed that was released before Captive.  While DeMille would later develop a reputation in the industry for being able to masterfully control “thousands of extras,” on Captive he was still learning the ropes; his insistence on using real, loaded guns during some of the battle scenes resulted in an extra being killed.

The acting in The Captive eschews the stagy dramatics commonly witnessed in films of this era, and both Sweet and Peters share a pleasing chemistry in their scenes together (the two performers had worked with DeMille in the earlier The Warrens of Virginia [1915]).  Captive would be Blanche Sweet’s last movie collaboration with director DeMille; she didn’t particularly care for him off-screen (she thought him strange), and had a far more positive experience working for Cecil’s older brother William (making three films with Willie, all released in 1916). 

Coming off having recently revisited DeMille’s The Squaw Man (1914) a couple of weeks ago (I DVR’d it off The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™), I have to say I was much more impressed with The Captive, even though I’d readily concede it’s not “major DeMille.”  But it is well worth the time and effort to seek it out, and it makes its home video debut today on DVD and Blu-ray from Olive Films, with an exquisite score composed by Lucy Duke.  Many thanks to Olive’s Bradley Powell for providing a screener; getting the opportunity to see a rediscovered film here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear is always a delight.

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