“Honor” has become a foreign term to us today. The idea of defending one’s honor seems quaint, and even funny–think of Oliver Hardy in Tit for Tat (1935), accused of fooling around with a man’s wife. Indignant over this smear, he declares dramatically: “My character. It has been ‘smirched. Ruthlessly dragged through the mud and mired…Never let it be said that a Hardy’s spotless reputation should be so maliciously trodden upon!”
We of course laugh at Ollie’s melodrama. But there was a time when honor did indeed have the utmost importance in many people’s lives. It was the backbone of numerous old families, the foundation of their day-to-day routines, and was expected to be defended quite literally to the point of death. Can we even wrap our minds around a time when parents would be crushed by the idea of their son not volunteering to go to war? I can’t think of a better illustration of this seemingly inscrutable mindset than The Coward (1915), one of the most riveting Civil War dramas of the silent period.
If you mention Behind the Door to a silent film fan, they’ll react in one of two ways: the blank, racking-their-brains-have-they-heard-of-it-maybe-actually-nope-never-heard-of-it look, or a sudden widening of the eyes and a little gasp: “You’ve seen it?!”
Because it’s that kind of film, my friend. Its notoriety precedes it, and once you watch it you’ll know why. The screen doesn’t show anything graphic, but the implications are crystal clear…and stomach-churning.