The Victoria Cross (Vitagraph, 1912)
Lieutenant Cholmodeley (Wallace Reid) is in love with the Colonel’s daughter, Ellen (Edith Storey), and wants to marry her, but her father (Tefft Johnson) won’t allow it until Cholmodeley has “earned his spurs”. War has just been declared between Britain and Russia and the Lieutenant and Colonel are called to the Crimea. To be nearer her love, Ellen joins Florence Nightingale (Julia Swayne Gordon) and follows the troops as a front-line nurse. There, she witnesses the charge of the Light Brigade, where Cholmodeley distinguishes himself by rescuing a fallen comrade and fighting off several Russians in the process. Back in England, he’s awarded the Victoria Cross by the Queen (Rose Tapley) and the Colonel gives him his consent to marry Ellen.
The Victoria Cross (1912) is an excellent example of a “quality film”, a curious genre that emerged and disappeared in the early 1910s. Describing what a quality film is and why they came into being could fill whole books (and, indeed, it has), but in the briefest terms, a quality film is a movie with a historical, biographical, or literary nature viewed through an American moral lens intended to be watched by recent “undesirable” immigrants (Jews, Italians, Poles, etc.) as a means of uplifting and Americanizing them. Further, although they were never the target audience, the mere existence of quality films acted to legitimize motion pictures in the eyes of the upper classes, who until that time looked at them with xenophobic suspicion (cinema tickets were affordable even for the lowest rungs of society and the silent drama does not require one to understand English, you see). Nearly all the major studios made at least a couple, but Vitagraph was the undisputed champion of the quality film. The Victoria Cross ticks all the right boxes and would have met with the approval of the “uplifters”, but what’s slightly unusual for the genre, it’s a pretty well-made and entertaining film, too.
One thing that impressed me was how it handled the charge of the Light Brigade itself. Rather than portray the charge directly, it’s shown from Ellen’s perspective, back at camp through binoculars. It’s a novel device that allows the film to focus on individual snapshots of the battle, making it seem like they must be taken from a much larger picture. The film already has a large cast, with 80-100 extras and half as many horses, but only seeing them in close-up through the binoculars, it seems truly massive. It’s easy to believe that you’re actually watching 600 mounted men charge against the cannons. Compare The Victoria Cross to something more conventionally staged, like The Battle (1911), and you’ll see what I mean.
And it’s just super fun in an action movie sort of way. When Cholmodeley charges in to save his fallen comrade on the field, he’s rushed by three enemy soldiers that he fights off with his sword. The last he lifts up in the air, over his head, and then slams into the ground. We cut back to Ellen, and when we return, there’s a whole pile of bodies at his feet. I will say that the film starts off a bit slow, but once the battle is underway, it’s incredibly entertaining.
My rating: I like it.
Available from Harpodeon