A Civil War tale about a little boy who runs away from home to join the Union army. This picture sets itself apart from other Civil War pictures with talented performers and intense battle scenes that lend a sense of authenticity to this short film.
To welcome home our darling boy, Hurrah! Hurrah!
The fifty-year anniversary of the American Civil War coincided with motion pictures becoming longer, more elaborate and more realistic and so it was understandable that filmmakers and studios would want to showcase their talents with the movies observances of the event.
The Drummer of the 8th was supervised by Thomas Ince and tells the story of a tweenage soldier in the Union army. Cyril Gardner plays Billy, a precocious youngster who is inspired by his older brother’s enlistment to run away from home and join up as a drummer. He leaves behind worried parents and the little girl next door (Mildred Harris), who is in love with him. (The older brother is listed as Frank Borzage but I am hopeless at identification!)
Billy disappears into the ranks of the army under an assumed name. He sees combat and is captured by the Confederacy but escapes. While hiding out, he overhears their battle plans and rushes to warn the generals of a surprise attack. As he flees, he is shot. Will Billy and his important message reach the Union in time?
(I am going to be spoiling this movie all over the place so consider this a warning.)
This film is short but well-made. The cinematography is lovely. The actors, particularly the young leads, are both believable and sympathetic. The action is directed well and is exciting. By any measure, this is a remarkably successful product.
That being said, its story has not aged well. The Victorian/Gilded Age love of portraying dead children is not extremely appealing to many modern viewers, myself included. Drummer boys were particularly popular sources of forced pathos and, in some cases, propaganda. (Never mind that some drummer “boys” were not children at all.) The idea of a spirited lad becoming the mascot of the older soldiers in the regiment was irresistible in the nineteenth century and if he died a man’s death on the field of battle, all the better.
So, not just a dead child, a dead child soldier. You can understand why this story has cracked at the seams. Actually, I am not sure it would have aged all that well past the First World War. Audiences had received an enormous dose of real war, real blood and real death and while there were certainly still “Rah Rah, go Army!” pictures in the 1920s, the portrayal of war and its aftermath took on a maturity that was rare in earlier Civil War pictures.
(And before anyone gets going with the YOU CAN’T WATCH OLD MOVIES FROM A MODERN PERSPECTIVE, I call on Oscar Wilde to enter the conversation: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.”)
Reviews of the film written during its release and after describe it as a touching war story and there’s no evidence that anyone making the picture intended it to be anything else. But in my opinion, this is one of the most accidentally pacifistic films I have ever seen.
Throughout the picture, the story focuses on Billy experiencing the full miseries of war, from seeing his friends die to harsh treatment at a POW camp to being wounded at least twice to his eventual death. And the death is not entirely glorious (putting aside the fact that he is a child) because the Confederates realize that their plan of attack has been discovered and change tactics at the last minute. Billy’s sacrifice is essentially moot.
While there are scenes of officers looking reverently at Billy as he lies dying, scenes of his comradery with the soldiers he served with for the past two years are scarce on the ground. In short, we have absolutely no idea why he stuck around so long. Perhaps Ince depended on the popular drummer boy = mascot trope to supply that emotional bond but the end result is a very gruesome production indeed.
Billy’s first, only and final letter home adds a grim and somewhat nauseating twist. He informs his family that he is injured but will recover and that they should prepare all his favorite foods for his imminent homecoming. His parents, brother and sweetheart are overjoyed but then at the grand finale are presented not with their beloved boy but instead with a tiny casket containing Billy’s body.
The officer who helped Billy write the letter had to know he was in danger of dying but he sent it anyway without some kind of cover letter to warn them that Billy’s condition was far more serious than he let on? And couldn’t they send a letter ahead of delivering the casket? At the very least to settle on transport arrangements, payment for those arrangements and such?
It’s certainly a dramatic final scene but I am not sure it accomplishes what Ince thought it would. The main lesson of the film, it seems to me, is that little boys need better locks on their windows and should not be allowed to play with drums lest they get any ideas about enlisting.
I do feel the need to swing back around and praise the performances of Cyril Gardner and Mildred Harris once again. These young actors portray their puppy love without once being obvious or cloying. The subtlety of their performances is an ideal retort to anyone who thinks silent era acting was all hamminess and flailing arms. The restraint that Gardner and Harris manage would have been the envy of some adult performers of the era.
I have long considered Harris in particular to be underrated as a performer but was impressed to see what she was capable of at such a young age. (I discuss how future husband Charlie Chaplin’s constant abuse of her, both in their marriage and in print, has damaged her reputation and denigrated her talents in my review of The Cruise of the Jasper B.)
In Drummer of the 8th, she convincingly pines for her little friend Billy and then touchingly tries to be a grownup lady when she shows up at his parents house to help prepare the food for his homecoming feast. I’m not crying, you’re crying.
Drummer of the 8th is also valuable as a demonstration of how the Union could be portrayed before the film industry was completely overrun by Confederate apologists and propagandists. And its very existence is a fairly powerful retort to anyone claiming that The Birth of a Nation can be excused if we just “look at context.” Between Drummer of the 8th and Within Our Gates, we have the cinematic context we need, thank you. That is to say, we can see that quality films were being made that portrayed Confederates as the bad guys. (I discuss the rise of Lost Cause propaganda as the default in my review of The Confederate Ironclad.)
Again, I am not sure this was entirely planned. The film carefully avoids any talk of slavery and Abolitionists but we know who the bad guys are because they spend the whole movies (checks notes) shooting at children, imprisoning children, maiming children, etc. The extras playing the soldiers, even the wounded ones, are extremely young and so the message comes across loud and clear that Billy was not the only one and war is hell.
The final act of Drummer of the 8th seems a bit disjointed. Nothing to ruin the film, just… off. It’s not unknown for surviving copies of silent films to have different continuity than what was perhaps intended. Princess Nicotine, for example, has a brief stop motion scene that appears in different places. In the case of Drummer of the 8th, Photoplay Productions undertook a recut of the picture in an attempt to make the jumble a bit clearer and easier to understand.
For example, in the original cut, the discovery of Billy’s espionage and the final battle scenes are just sort of cluttered together near the end of the picture but the new continuity cross-cuts these scenes with Billy arriving at the Union camp, telling what he knows and receiving medical attention.
The original cut and recut side-by-side provide a nice little class in the power of editing and how small changes can make a big difference to the smoothness and enjoyability of the narrative. The editing is period correct and follows the pattern set out earlier in the film, it is not jarring in any way but there is a noticeable improvement.
Oh, one more matter to clear up: Thomas Ince is the credited director but producing and directing credits were often mixed up during this era and I have found a few sources that list the director as Francis Ford. I have not yet found anything definitive but given the fact that producers were sometimes called directors and the fact that Ince tended to be something of a credit hog, I am inclined to believe Ford was the real director here.
Drummer of the 8th is a very skillful film filled with sophisticated flourishes and touching performances and I hope to never, ever see it again. I think we can all thank the powers that be in pop culture that Oscar Wilde’s opinion won the day and dead children are no longer a staple of mainstream entertainment.
Where can I see it?
The old continuity is available in the DVD collection Civil War Films of the Silent Era. A new HD transfer that includes both the new and old continuity is available as an extra on the Twilight Time Bluray release of The Birth of a Nation.
Like what you’re reading? Please consider sponsoring me on Patreon. All patrons will get early previews of upcoming features, exclusive polls and other goodies.
Disclosure: Some links included in this post may be affiliate links to products sold by Amazon and as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.