Anna Q. Nilsson plays a Northern spy who has been sent to discover the location of the South’s ironclad battleship. Miriam Cooper is the Southern railroad engineer’s daughter who must race to save the ship. Oh, yeah, there’s a guy in it too but he doesn’t do much. American Civil War adventure from Kalem.
A woman’s work is never done. Get me my gunpowder.
During the pre-WWI era, American film studios were trying their hardest to up their games. The emerging star system was pretty much an unstoppable force and there were stylish imported films from France and Italy to contend with. Feature films were emerging as the future of the art but one- and two-reelers were still the industry standard.
Kalem was one of the big players in the market and its signature flourish was location, location, location. It had recently sent a team of its best talent on a world tour to capture footage of Ireland, Egypt and even old Jerusalem but it also found plenty to do in the United States. You may know about New York City and Fort Lee, New Jersey but how does Jacksonville, Florida strike you as a filming mecca?
We’ve discussed a Jacksonville-based film before, The Flying Ace, an independent 1926 production with an all-black cast, but this is a chance to see how the location was used by a large studio during the nickelodeon era.
Lt. Yancey (Guy Coombs) is courting Rose (Miriam Cooper), the daughter of a railroad engineer. However, he quickly dumps her when Elinor (Anna Q. Nilsson) shows up from the north. Eager to impress her (and never one to split the atom), he gives her a tour of the defenses of the Confederate military, including the location of their new ironclad battleship. The ship has not yet received its powder shipment and would be a sitting duck if anybody were to attack it.
Well, Elinor is a spy for the Union and that is music to her ears. She sends word that the ironclad is vulnerable and ripe for capture. The Union attacks and Yancey races to get powder from the trainyard to the battleship. He is shot and wounded in the melee and Rose takes over as medic and engineer.
Not one to sit back and watch, Elinor responds by setting fire to the tracks, hoping to ignite the powder. Will Rose and Yancey get to the ship in time? Will Elinor succeed in her mission? Will there be massive explosions? You’ll have to see The Confederate Ironclad to find out!
Historian Scott Simmon surmises that The Confederate Ironclad was a film built around the availability of a very big prop: that massive battleship. With the half-century anniversary of the Civil War in full swing, a replica of one of the South’s armored ships would have been a likely project for a local historical society. Certainly, the ironclad looks bigger and fancier than something Kalem would have constructed for the film and the quantity and scruffiness of the extras indicate that the company was indeed cooperating with some kind of reenactment.
It has been said that the South lost the shooting war but won the propaganda war and most silent films set during the Civil War from about this point forward certainly bear that out. Why, the Confederate soldiers are like knights of old riding off to defend their homes! Slavery? What slavery? (IT IS LITERALLY IN THEIR DECLARATIONS OF SECESSION! That’s what.) The Confederate Ironclad follows this method, I don’t think I saw a single African-American in the cast and the war is played as a sort of chummy rivalry, at least among the pretty people. (Needless to say, no “Lost Cause” stuff in the comments. We are so not doing that. Shoo.)
White Southern audiences threw temper tantrums if they were not treated like the heroes of the tale and so filmmakers quickly learned to strike a balance with either Lost Cause handwringing or the kind of “Oh, you rascal!” palsy-walsiness found in The Confederate Ironclad. While the utter indulgence of the Southern apologists is infuriating (and, alas, hardly an isolated case), the film is interesting in its direction, performances and the way it showcases its leading ladies.
Director Kenean Buel has a more dynamic, exciting style than Sidney Olcott, Kalem’s top director at the time. While Olcott’s films showcase a grasp of dramatic lighting, they are staid and lack imaginative composition. Buel, on the other hand, gets the most out of his setting by mounting a camera to a moving train, bringing it close to his performers, using early special effects to mimic an explosion and crosscutting the heck out of the two leading ladies attempting to save the day for their respective sides.
I have long been an admirer of Anna Q. Nilsson’s abilities as an actress. Before Garbo and Bergman, Nilsson was the most famous Swedish leading lady in American films and her subtle touch is evident even at this early date. Miriam Cooper, who would later have a part in the infamous The Birth of a Nation, is equally excellent, eschewing Griffith-esque fluttering in favor of acting like a real, adult woman.
Guy Coombs (who was briefly Mr. Anna Q. Nilsson) is pretty bland as the hapless hero but I’m kind of okay with that as it leaves more room for the women to shine. Both are utterly convincing as the two most dangerous characters in the film. Elinor coldly sets the bridge alight while Rose crawls across a moving train to separate a powder-laden carriage from the engine. Fainting heroines in silent films? Puh-leeze!
The lush, humid Jacksonville scenery adds considerably to the tale and viewers may be tempted to swat away mosquitoes. I don’t envy the performers dashing about in giant dresses and heavy uniforms.
Spoiler: The ending is a bit silly (but then again, the whole plot was a bit silly) with Rose interceding on Elinor’s behalf and Yancey letting her go. And the people killed are still dead, so there’s that. Also, she kind of tried to blow them up. Oh well, never mind. Happy ending, whee!
This was not the first time that Kalem had made a picture about a woman spying during the Civil War. Gene Gauntier, the company’s top screenwriter and one of its most popular leading ladies at the time, had made a series of Girl Spy films in 1909 and 1910. At this point, Gauntier and director Sidney Olcott had just returned to the United States after shooting in Ireland, Egypt and the Holy Land and were locked in conflict with the Kalem bosses over credit and money for From the Manger to the Cross.
Anna Q. Nilsson had starred in The Darling of the C.S.A. for Kalem and it had been released less than a month before The Confederate Ironclad. In the earlier film, Nilsson was a spy for the Confederacy. When they get word that she is about to be shot for her activities, the soldiers of the South charge to the rescue and save her. No matter what side she’s on, it seems that Miss Nilsson is bulletproof.
Revisiting one of Gauntier’s signature roles on multiple occasions could have been a bit of nose-thumbing on the part of Kalem or maybe they just wanted to dust off a popular property. Given the bitterness of the professional breakup, my money is on the former.
The Confederate Ironclad really hasn’t a brain in its head and its message is pretty horrid but the charismatic performances of Miriam Cooper and Anna Q. Nilsson save the day. It’s no coincidence that both these nickelodeon leading ladies would enjoy popularity well into the feature era.
Where can I see it?
The Confederate Ironclad was released on DVD as part of the out of print Treasures from American Film Archives box set. That set is now out of print (grab a copy if you can find a good price) but most of the films from the box are available for free and legal streaming courtesy of the National Film Preservation Foundation, including The Confederate Ironclad.
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