The Last Cartridge (Vitagraph, 1908)
A sepoy, during the British rule of India, was a term for a native Indian solider. In 1857, there was a large scale mutiny of sepoys, called by some the First War of Indian Independence. I don’t believe that the “incident” portrayed in The Last Cartridge is any particular real-life event — it’s vaguely similar to the Siege of Cawnpore, but if that’s what they were going for, the ending is entirely ahistoric.
We start with a group of British officers and their wives having a party in front of a grass hut. Another officer runs into the shot and raises the alarm. The soldiers retreat inside the fortress, where they’re laid siege to by the mutineers.
A cartoonish round bomb with a burning fuse rolls onto set. One of the British soldiers, who I’m going to call “Tom” just to make things easier, picks it up and tosses it into a bucket of water. “Bob”, the major, commends Tom for his valor and sends him on a mission to go get reinforcements. “Sally”, Bob’s wife, is in fits of histrionic terror. (The BFI says Sally is Florence Turner, but I don’t think so — there’s a resemblance, but the nose is wrong.)
The mutineers raise the white flag. Sally is overjoyed, but not everyone is so easily misled. One man peeks over the gate and sees that it was only a ruse and that an ambush is waiting for them.
The siege continues for two days. The British force is severely depleted and even Sally has been called on to take up a gun. The mutineers start a fire in front of the gate, and since it’s only made of painted canvas, it’s now a matter of time for the British. Bob takes his pistol and readies to shoot his wife lest the mutineers take her, but just then, Tom triumphantly returns — presumably with the reinforcements, although we never see them.
I generally give films of this vintage a lot more leeway than those even a few years younger, but even by the loosest standard, The Last Cartridge is still a bit lacking. It’s not that it’s badly written — it’s got a strong scenario. The cinematography and editing are also very good, with an advanced use of crosscutting between both sides of the gate that shows the invaders’ and the defenders’ actions while maintaining a sense of separation between them. I joke about the unconvincing sets, but honestly, they were nicely constructed, even if of canvas. No, it’s main failing was in the acting. There’s no real main character, but Sally has the most screentime, and 90% of the time she’s flailing her arms in the air and running in circles — screaming, I’m sure. It’s hard to get a count, but there can’t be more than fifteen extras on either side of the conflict. There was precisely one horse. It looks absolutely barren, particularly when we cut to the more spacious shots given to the invaders away from the fortress.
But cast aside, I liked the film more than I didn’t, mostly for its technical proficiency, but also because I thought it was an entertaining and exciting story.
My rating: I like it.
After rewatching the film, I realize that I’ve got some things wrong in this review. In my defense, I wrote it directly after my first screening of the print, which I had only just acquired. I of course went through it on the rewinds to make sure it was in projectable condition, but still, I keep a close eye on film I’ve never projected before to make sure it’s running smoothly. Although this print isn’t particularly old (struck in 1972) and there was no reason to suspect a shrinkage issue, I was nevertheless paying more attention to the loop than the screen for the first minute or so and I missed a crucial bit of the plot: Sally isn’t Bob’s wife, she’s his daughter. She’s in love with Tom, but Bob disapproves of him for whatever reason. Tom’s ride for reinforcements isn’t just to save the regiment, but to save his chances with Sally. I missed the love story angle, which is almost identical to the one Vitagraph would later use in the war drama The Victoria Cross (1912).
Also, Bob is played by Charles Kent. I noticed that the first time around, but I neglected to mention it. I still strongly doubt that Sally is Florence Turner.
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