The War as class war--and as the First War, between God and Satan: The Unbeliever, "produced with the cooperation of the United States Marine Corps" by Edison (and I'm surprised he's still making films), sees the battlefield as a forge to hammer shining souls--and to overcome barriers between the hoitytoity and the hoipalloi. A mother-and-son-and-fiend tale, it details the transformation of aristocratic Phil, "firm in his unbelief"--in direct contrast to his mother, whose "kindly feelings for 'the masses'" lead her to disdain all war--as does her German gardener, who loses a son--whom Phil does not mourn: "a nation of vulgarians glorified by brains."
So the young man, inspired by his father--who fondly remembers the Civil War (ah, the romance of dismemberment)--goes off to war himself--and is brutally educated, slowly casting off his class-prejudices--and his unbelief:
The sharpshooter fires, hits home, then turn to his Bible.
The Germans, fearing their inspectors, send a message to the enemy: Bomb us to keep the inspectors away!
A vulture pecks at a corpse.
A rabbi ventures into open terrain to fetch a soldier's Bible--and they are both killed.
The camera flashes from the hesitating firing squad to its victims to the villain.
The night-time cannon-fire bursts like electric concussions, almost audible in their bright flash.
The old woman's face is beatific, ready to be a martyr for Belgium.
The Iron Cross is cast down and the Crucifix uplifted.
And then the villain: Erich von Stroheim as Lieutenant Kurt von Schnieditz, happily smashing a conscripted man's violin, manhandling the grandmother and her little grandson--and then more: having them shot, the little boy saluting ("Vive la Belgique!"). And the granddaughter, mourning, excites him. And of course he is dealt his comeuppance--but not before various heroes, military and civilian--and Jesus Himself--do their part.
And Phil, wounded and bent in humility, seemingly approaching reconciliation, limps home with faith and resolve.
It is almost a great picture in its manipulations. I was moved by its urge to find virtue--and taken aback by its relentlessness, its insistence that the mother's pacifism is beautiful but a luxury, its assertion that it must become a love story, its easy acceptance of the terms of belief. Unanswered questions do remain; the picture is impressive in the sheer bulk of issues it considers. But it seems almost too ambitious, as though Edison were gasping his last, and wanted to ensure nothing was better left unsaid. As so often, the War imposes the proper response--and dizzies one with contradictions that course just below the surface, in private doubt and hidden sentiment--late at night, when no one else can hear you.