The Captive (1915) Blu-ray Review: War, Romance, Forced Labor

Olive Films releases an obscure film from epic director Cecil B. DeMille's silent cinema days.
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The Captive is a story of war-time deprivation and how terrible circumstances can bring disparate people together. There's gun battles, and romance. It's also a thematic precursor to the Seinfeld sitcom pilot within the show, where Jerry gets a man assigned to be his butler by the courts.

Set during the Balkan Wars in 1913, The Captive is a silent film made by Cecil B. DeMille. It was one of more than a dozen films he made in 1915 in his first couple years of filmmaking, and it demonstrates the meticulous attention to detail the were a hallmark of his later famously epic films like The Ten Commandments (1923 and 1956) and Cleopatra (1934). The Captive's scope and budget are obviously much smaller than those films, but even in his early filmmaking DeMille was clearly ambitious.

The Captive tells the story of Sonia, a young woman in Montenegro who lives and cares for her two brothers on their family farm. The older brother, Markos, goes off to join the war against the Turks, while Sonia tries to keep the farm going with her little brother Milos. Markos is killed in battle, and the Turks who were taken prisoner are brought to the town to be employed as forced labor. One of these Turks, a Nobleman named Mahmud, is sent to help Sonia with the farmwork.

The setup has some obvious creepy undertones, and the other women of Montenegro seem to have more than farmwork on their mind when they collect their captive men-folk (eventually, one even tries to trade her unattractive prisoner to Sonia for the handsome Mahmud) but Sonia's mind is mostly on her grief, and fear for her and her brother's safety. She keeps a gun tucked in her waistband at all times, and threatens Mahmud with a bullwhip for good measure. Of course, feelings start to grow between the two, which are put to the test when a rapacious squad of Turks invade Montenegro and try to capture the farm and its inhabitants.

The film stars Blanche Sweet and House Peters, neither of whom had much of a career once talkies got going. Sweet's performance as Sonia is effective - she doesn't go in for the arm-waving histrionics that are the stereotype of silent movie acting, but keeps most of her performance in her face, and her posture. Peters is broader and on the whole seems to be having a great time being a prisoner. There's not a ton of chemistry between the two leads - Peters has a better rapport with the young actor playing Milos, and in particular Milos' pet goat, who's always right underfoot.

Visually, The Captive employs a number of standard tricks to keep the picture from becoming stultifying. Tinting is widely used: the indoor scenes have a light blue tint, while the outdoor scenes are practically yellow. The sets of the film are filled with detail and character, and a lot of care clearly went into the production design. The firefights are energetically staged, and the battle where Markos loses his life has a sense of scope to it that would point to DeMille's later much more elaborately staged epics. As a piece of trivia, one extra was actually shot and killed in the scene where the Turks attack the farm - for some scenes DeMille wanted real bullets instead of blanks, and between scenes someone forgot to properly reload their rifle.

At 51 minutes, The Captive is an entertaining if rather slight bit of silent movie history. I liked the staging of the first battle of the film, and it was sprightly paced, though I believe this film is more for the silent movie buff or DeMille completest than for a more casual fan. Interestingly, The Captive is one of the few films he made that he did not keep in his personal collection. Maybe the memory of the killed extra soured the experience for him. This film is available on Blu-ray by Olive Films, with a newly composed musical score by Lucy Duke as the sole piece of bonus material.

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