The House With Closed Shutters (1910)
The House With Closed Shutters (1910)
Director: D. W. Griffith
Cast: Henry B. Walthall, Grace Henderson, Dorothy West
Synopsis: During the Civil War a young soldier loses his nerve in battle and runs away to his home to hide…
In a tone that vacillates from rabid flag-waving to over-theatrical melodrama, D. W. Griffith’s 1910 Civil War drama The House with Closed Shutters explores the tragic toll that a young man’s cowardice takes on both him and his family. Henry B. Walthall (The Cabin in the Cotton, 42nd Street) plays a cowardly Confederate recruit with a weakness for the bottle whose nerve fails him when he runs into a two-man Union patrol while delivering a vital message for Robert E. Lee. Instead of finding another route around the patrol, our panicked anti-hero nervously drains his hip flask before galloping home to mum (Grace Henderson – A Dash Through the Clouds) who, it has to be said, isn’t too thrilled to see him. Understandable, really, considering that the information he was carrying is vital to the war effort – and therefore the Southern way of life.
The coward’s despairing little sister (Dorothy West – The Unchanging Sea, In the Border States) takes it upon herself to don her brother’s uniform and ride off to the battlefront to deliver the message. While she succeeds in delivering the message, she loses her life by foolishly trying to retrieve and raise a fallen Confederate flag (a cliched act of bravery that may well have been brand new back in 1910). And, presumably because she’d hacked off her hair before climbing into her brother’s perfectly-fitting uniform, her body is mistaken for that of her sibling, which leaves him in something of a quandary as he’s posthumously credited with his sister’s act of courage. To prevent the shameful truth from bringing disgrace upon the family, his mother, decrees that he will spend the rest of his life in the house, hidden from the world behind the closed window shutters…
The Civil War proved fertile ground for Griffith, culminating in the gargantuan battle scenes in his ground-breaking epic The Birth of a Nation (1915), and while most other aspects of The House with Closed Shutters prove to have dated almost beyond redemption, it’s the film’s battle scenes which still impress. More modestly staged than those of The Birth of a Nation, they nevertheless convincingly (for the time) place the audience in the thick of the battle. Unfortunately, these brief scenes provide the film’s only high points.
Particularly contentious to the modern viewer is the horribly hammy style of acting practised by the leads: Walthall holds extravagantly trembling hands to his bug-eyed face to project drunken cowardice and throws his head into his arms with inappropriate gusto whenever the wrath of his screen mother is directed his way. Henderson, as the mother, is no better, repeatedly striking (and holding) dramatic poses, presumably in the mistaken belief that she is emphasising the depth of her emotions, while West, as the spirited girl, throws her arms skyward at every opportunity as if her character has assumed for herself the role of unofficial Confederate cheerleader. It’s no wonder she ends up with a Union bullet inside her when you think about it.
Ironically, Griffith is known for the naturalistic performances he drew from his actors, and it’s clear that The House with Closed Shutters serves as a kind of bridge between the rudimentary quality of his earlier work and his eventual mastery of the art. The film is primitive in many respects, but at least some thought has gone into how the film would be staged, demonstrating, perhaps, Griffith’s growing ambition as a filmmaker. The impressive staging of the battle scenes is too often tempered by poor use of space and location in other scenes, however, meaning that both Union and Confederate soldiers appear to be freely roaming the same small stretch of land. An interesting step forward for Griffith, then, but one to which time has been noticeably unkind.
(Reviewed 16th February 2015)