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The Last Cartridge (Vitagraph, 1908)

The Last Cartridge screenshotThe Last Cartridge, an Incident of the Sepoy Rebellion in India (Vitagraph, 1908)
Directed either by J. Stuart Blackton or Albert E. Smith

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.

Available from Harpodeon

La Maison Ensorcelée (Pathé, 1908)

The Enchanted House screenshotLa Maison Ensorcelée (Pathé, 1908)
Directed by Segundo de Chomón

To begin with, Segundo de Chomón’s La Maison Ensorcelée (1908), or “The Enchanted House”, is a beat-for-beat rip-off of J. Stuart Blackton’s The Haunted Hotel (1907). There’s long been confusion about who was stealing from whom, as the film is often misidentified as La Maison Hantée (“The Haunted House”), which Chomón made two years before in 1906. Hantée is presumed to be lost — however, reading its plot synopsis or just looking at the recorded run time will tell you that Hantée had to be an entirely unrelated work.

Three people, evidently traveling across the countryside, are caught in the rain. They spot a house that, frankly, doesn’t look too inviting. Between bolts of lightning, a trio of witches can be seen flying through the sky. One bolt strikes the house and it’s transformed into a googly-eyed face.

Inside, the travelers are immediately taunted by spectral beings of various sorts — finding their belongings moving around on their own, and their coats and hats standing up and walking away. They sit down to a meal. A knife lifts itself and slices the sausage and bread. The cups slide into place and an invisible hand pours out the coffee and drops sugar cubes into each.

It turns ugly when the house starts spinning and the travelers are flung to the ground. They seek shelter under the covers of the bed, but the back wall fades away and a giant demon appears that sweeps them up in one hand. In the forest, he leaves them dangling from a high tree branch.

The only significant change in the story between La Maison Ensorcelée and The Haunted Hotel is that, in the latter, there is only one traveler rather than three. The plot and visuals used are otherwise near identical. With that said, Ensorcelée is an enormous technical achievement that surpasses Haunted Hotel in almost every aspect.

To give only one example: In Haunted Hotel, the stop-motion animated food sequence (which the film is most known for) is one, uninterrupted medium-shot of the table. When it’s over, it pans to the traveler, who we can only assume was watching. Ensorcelée cuts to a reaction shot partway through the sequence, and at the end, the travelers lean into the frame in the same arrangement they were in previously, letting us know that they were there the whole time and saw all that we saw. It’s really not much at all, but it’s a little touch that makes the film play so much better.

I liked La Maison Ensorcelée (1908). It’s a flagrant rip-off of Blackton’s film, but it’s hardly the only example of one filmmaker mimicking another’s success in the early silent era, and unlike, say, Lubin’s Great Train Robbery (1904), I think this one actually improves on his model.

My rating: I like it.