Made in 1917–the year the U.S. plunged into “The Great War”–Bud’s Recruit gives us the King at his callowest. Financed and written by “Boy City” impresario Judge Willis Brown (sort of the poor man’s Father Flanagan), and certainly circumscribed by that stodgy gavel-wielder’s point of view, this flag-waving short nevertheless manages to ring up the curtain on its 23-year old director’s master subject in a very interesting way. For Hollywood’s premiere Transcendentalist, the eternal conflict (and the strange interdependence) between individual will and collective action is the source of ALL drama. Bud’s Recruit reduces the paradox-ridden drive to simultaneously make and break society’s rules to its purest (and most naive) terms.
A very precisely structured two-reeler, the film begins by introducing us to Bud at play with his disturbingly well-equipped little pals:
While performing mock-maneuvers in the idyllic countryside, the youngest member of the group falls behind and pretty much gives up:
That pup is sympathetic, but the tyke’s human comrades are less forgiving.
“What’s the penalty for desertion?” Bud asks.
Why, “Death!” of course…
Fortunately, this particular slacker’s mom happens onto the scene just as the mob closes in upon him with their toy bayonets. In another director’s film, this little vignette might serve as an indictment of the untrammeled will.
Mom doesn’t stoop to moral suasion. She pumps her fists until they run away, then smacks the hell out of a scarecrow/tackling dummy version of the Kaiser–just to drive home the point that violence, when directed against the proper target, is as American as apple pie.
High spirited kids (and kids at heart), playing deadly serious games–that’s what King Vidor’s all about.
Thwarted in the attempt to bring his battlefield of dreams to life, Bud Gilbert heads home for dinner. There, we meet Mom (a leading light in the pacifist movement), the family’s Black butler, and effete brother “Reggie”–a real lawn-chair lizard:
We are quickly informed that Reggie has drawn a lucky number in the draft lottery, and can look forward to at least two more years of the free and easy civilian life. This pleases Reggie, who has a lot of tennis-playing and cardigan-wearing that he needs to do. Mrs. Gilbert is, of course, equally pleased–her motto is “Peace at any Price”. Reggie’s girlfriend Eliza is torn. She wants him to be safe, but she doesn’t like thinking about the “yellower” implications of his behaviour. Bud–like all good Vidor protagonists–has no doubts at all: Reggie is the scum of the earth. When he realizes that the dinner is to be “meatless” (thanks to rationing demands) as well as spineless, he goes up to his room doubly disgusted.
We catch a glimpse of Vidor’s progressive (by 1917/1918 standards) racial attitudes in the relationships he establishes between the respective bothers and their butler. Reggie takes the manservant completely for granted, never looking him in the eye or engaging him in unnecessary conversation. Bud, on the other hand, enjoys a fun, bantering camaraderie with the distinguished older man, who takes pity on his young charge and sneaks a steak up to him:
The remainder of the plot is quite bizarre, but has a beautifully mechanistic logic to it.
The “pacifists” are exposed as small-minded–even querulous–old biddies:
Reggie’s despicable nature reaches its apotheosis in this mocking salute to all that is foppish and ungallant:
Eliza sprouts a conspicuously star spangled appendage:
And Bud decides to save the family honour by stealing his brother’s draft card, donning a fake moustache and reporting (as Reggie) as a voluntary recruit:
When the local paper lists Reggie on its “Honor Roll” of boys who’ve done the right thing by their country, the real elder Gilbert has a big decision to make. Bud, never doubting his brother’s incapacity to be a mensch, lays it all out for us: “you’ll have to leave town immediately!”
But then the movie throws us kind of a curve, via an expertly Griffithian cross-cut sequence that alternates between a dejected Reggie (surrounded by train station propaganda posters) and an exultant Bud (preparing to become the army’s first felt-moustached doughboy). Finally, Reggie mans up and cries “Uncle Sam”:
The really amazing thing about all of this is that Bud’s Recruit is NOT about Reggie’s gradual progression from hopelessly self-centered wuss to champion of the democratic freedoms. If it was, would our last shot of “Bud’s Recruit” (i.e. Reggie) look like this?
I think not.
The film’s true subject is Bud’s quest to become (in Shelleyan terms) the unacknowledged legislator of his little world. Vidor is Hollywood’s supreme poet of the Will–with all of the exciting and disturbing implications that come along with that title. In later years, the director’s protagonists will generally have far more complex aims–and more nebulous foes than “The Kaiser” (culminating in a series of extraordinary melodramas that stage and re-stage the battle between One Strong Woman and Patriarchy Itself–but those are a long way off). For now though, we have a young man and his (technically not) technicolor dreams:
I’ll close with the movie’s moving final image–and its dialect-diminished final tribute to…whom?
An astonishing statement to be attributed to a person living under the Apartheid conditions of the 1910s–but then, King Vidor’s America has never been any more grounded in reality than Bud’s. However–also like Bud–this director is destined to become a master of marshaling the trappings and surfaces of the social and material worlds into the cinematic service of the Emersonian Self.
See you soon friends!