The Unknown Soldier (1926)

The latest silent film to be rescued from the legion of the lost by the admirable  Grapevine Video is The Unknown Soldier (directed by Renaud Hoffman, 1926). It’s an oddity, but a very watchable one.

Warning: This account contains some spoilers.

A prologue shows a montage of warfare between 1914 and 1917, and then a scene in which Woodrow Wilson momentously signs America’s declaration of war. Some of this is archive documentary footage, some not. There are standard scenes of long lines of soldiers marching to battle, but also some impressive sequences of horse-drawn vehicles charging through shellfire.

Then we meet the main characters.

Fred Williams works in John Phillips’s factory, and has a soft spot for Mary, the boss’s daughter. On the day that war is declared, he enlists, and she goes big-eyed at his courage.

We follow him and some fellow recruits through training (by a bull-necked British sergeant, ‘a veteran of Mons, Ypres and the shambles of Vimy Ridge’).

The soldiers are an ethnic cross-section of white American society – including Corporal Fogarty ‘defending America in France with an Irish map’ and ‘Mike’ Ginsberg, whose ‘ancestry was no cross-word puzzle’, a title tells us.

Fred is delighted when Mary arrives in France as a dancer entertaining the troops. (She is played by Margaret de la Motte, who had trained as a ballerina under Pavlova, and is rather good in this film; she is one of the actresses whose careers vanished with the advent of sound.)

Deeply in love, the two decide to marry without any delay. Fred finds an army chaplain who will perform the ceremony. After the briefest of honeymoons, Fred is called away to battle, and immediately Mary discovers that the man who married them was not an approved minister, but a deserter posing as a chaplain. She runs after Fred to tell him, but too late.

Nine months later (Were newly-recruited Americans actually engaged in active combat for as long as that? The film’s time-scheme is dubious.) she has not managed to communicate the news to Fred, who has presumably been engaged in battle all of this time, not receiving any mail from his new wife. She gives birth to a (technically illegitimate) son in a French hospital at Flore. Just at that moment, Fred finally gets a letter explaining the situation. He is given the chance to volunteer for a dangerous mission in the region of Flore. and shows immense courage, but is missing in action.

Mary has been evacuated in an ambulance without him, and goes home to a disapproving father who refuses to have the child in the house. Seeing the cortege of the Unknown Soldier heading towards Arlington Cemetery makes him have a change of heart, however.

Thematically the film has something in common with the (superior) British film Blighty (directed by Adrian Brunel, 1927). In both films the War creates a democratic spirit that means that love can transcend the barriers of class, and in each a father-figure is reconciled to an unsuitable wartime marriage by witnessing a ceremony of Remembrance.

The marriage by a fake chaplain, I think, is a way of tackling the theme of illegitimate war babies without offending the moral code of the censor. The Hitchcock/Cutts Woman to Woman gets round the problem in an equally ingenious way, using amnesia – which also crops up usefully towards the end of this film..

It’s one of those films where the melodrama is absurd when you stop to think about it, but the direction is rather good, and the acting carries conviction.

As I watched, though, I was  interested to note something of an insistent homoerotic subtext. There is a troupe of male dancers who dress up as women to entertain their fellow-soldiers.

And there is enough touching and intimacy between soldiers to give the admirable Santanu Das material for at least a chapter or two.

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