Tuesday, May 12, 2015


The 69-minute long Are We Civilized? opens with all the hallmarks of a '30s independent production with big ideas and little money. A cast credit promising an epic (starring "Many thousands of soldiers, sailors and peasants"); a narcissist for a director whose signature takes up half the screen ("Personally Directed by Edmund Carewe" -- thanks for showing up on the set, Ed!); and a "special score" performed by The Manhattan Symphony Orchestra of New York (not to be confused with Manhattan, Kansas). 

"Say, I remember you before you were a
fascist pig!"
In an unnamed European country, newspaper publisher Paul Franklin, Jr. is visited by his father, who, since World War I, has led a successful life in the USA. Under the direction of Gen. Bockner, the head of the Censorship Bureau, Junior's home is soon ransacked both for his newspaper's insistence on publishing the truth, and Senior's incendiary radio broadcast condemning the fascist government. Senior attempts to mend Bockner's ways.

Older than the real thing.
And it's at this point Are We Civilized? starts to show its sorry budgetary restrictions. Paul Sr. gives Bockner and his stormtrooper buddies a half-hour lecture on world history, illustrated for us by old silent movie clips. (Over a decade later, this cost-cutting trick was used in The White Gorilla.) Accompanied by a score that sounds like a bad mix of "Rhapsody in Blue" and The Twilight Zone, we start with primordial ooze before claymation dinosaurs start battling it out. A caveman figuring out how to draw leads to a discussion of Moses, Buddha, Confucius, Julius Caesar, Jesus and Mohammed. (I don't know why ISIS is all in a tizzy about portraying ol' Mo, since he appears to be a good-looking rascal.) 

"Wait, don't go, I'm only up to 14th century!"
During this time, Paul Sr. is completely oblivious that his son is currently getting the shit beat out of him by an angry mob outside the front door. But no matter -- there's still Napoleon, the Civil War, steamboats and automobiles to talk about. And as for all that footage from silent movies and newsreels -- copyright, shmopyright! They've gotta do something to pad this thing out.

"Comment ai-je arrive ici?"
For its weird detour into history -- lasting almost half its running time -- Are We Civilized? is also remarkably prescient of a second world war, while Paul Sr.'s description of the Depression rings true today: "Destitute, homeless, hopeless men, women and children, bewildered in their pitiful distress," thanks to society allowing Wall Street shenanigans to run unchecked. (Former silent leading man William Farnum bellows his occasionally-overwrought dialogue as you'd expect from an actor born in 1876.) 

William Farnum (right)
with screenwriter Harold
Director Edmund Carewe and writer Harold Sherman clearly had a lot on their little plate. But they are to be honored for calling out the Nazis at a time when Hitler's personal representatives in Los Angeles had the final say over studio scripts -- Germany being a major market for American movies. (It's a practice that continues, to a lesser extent, as Hollywood movies are routinely rewritten in order to make the Chinese government look good.) Yes, the country in Are We Civilized? is anonymous, but its locale is unmistakable. Only an indie production without any desire for a German release could get away with it.

Are We Civilized?'s dialogue ranges from "what the?" (Jr. speaking of Sr.: "He's often told friends that having the top of his skull blown off in the war was a blessing in disguise") to dryly amusing (Jr., engaged to the daughter of head of the Censorship Bureau, promises to "love, honor, and suppress"). When Bockner threatens to expel the Franklins to America (where Senior already lives), you have to wonder why they don't say, "No problem, get us on the first boat outta here!" 

Carewe and Sherman apparently thought Are We Civilized? would somehow change the ways of mankind. Four years earlier, Universal Pictures thought All Quiet on the Western Front would signal the end of war for all time. In 2005, Steven Spielberg promised Time magazine that Munich, his movie about the massacre of Israeli athletes at the '68 Olympics, would lead to peace in the Middle East. No wonder so many movie-makers are good at what they do -- they live in a fantasy world 24/7.

Yet one glance at today's newspaper proves that Paul Franklin Sr.'s prediction that mankind would be in peril if we kept up our disastrous ways was all too accurate. The answer to Are We Civilized? is hardly a positive one. 


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