The Silent Command is a 1923 American silent drama film directed by J. Gordon Edwards featuring Bela Lugosi as a foreign saboteur in his American film debut. The film, written by Anthony Paul Kelly and Rufus King, also stars Edmund Lowe, Alma Tell, and Martha Mansfield. The film depicts the story of Benedict Hisston (Lugosi), who is part of a plot to destroy the Panama Canal. Initially unable to obtain necessarily intelligence from Richard Decatur (Lowe), a captain in the United States Navy, he enlists the aid of femme fatale Peg Williams (Mansfield). Decatur pretends to be seduced into the conspiracy, costing him his career and estranging him from his wife (Tell), but he ultimately betrays the saboteurs in Panama and stops their plan. He returns home to the Navy and his wife, and to popular acclaim for his heroics.
The film was produced in cooperation with the Navy and was intended as a propaganda film to encourage support for a larger navy. The Silent Command was shown at the opening of several Fox Theatres locations and was sometimes marketed in conjunction with naval recruitment efforts. It received generally positive reviews from contemporary film critics, although modern appraisals consider the film mediocre.
The Silent Command began Lugosi’s career in the American film industry. The film’s focus on his eyes, at times in extreme close-up, helped to establish his image for later roles. Unlike most Fox Film productions of the silent era, several copies of The Silent Command have survived. It has been released in multiple home video formats, and is now in the public domain and available online.
The Silent Command was Lugosi’s first American film, and influenced the direction of his career in cinema. Lugosi had expressed an interest in playing Latin lover characters in the model of Rudolph Valentino, but his performance as Hisston revealed him to be convincing in more villainous roles.
Benedict Hisston is a foreign agent, part of a conspiracy to destroy the Panama Canal and the United States Navy’s Atlantic Fleet. He attempts to acquire information about mine placement in the Canal Zone from Captain Richard Decatur, but fails. With that information essential to the conspiracy’s success, he then hires vamp Peg Williams to obtain the intelligence through seduction.
Decatur is not fooled, and obeys the “silent command” of the Chief of Naval Intelligence to play along with the spies without revealing his purpose to friends or family. He is court-martialed, stripped of rank, and dismissed from the Navy after he strikes an admiral. His association with Williams estranges him from his wife, but earns him the trust of Hisston and the other spies. When the conspirators are ready to enact their plan, he travels to Panama with them. He thwarts their attempt at sabotage, saving the canal and the fleet. He is reinstated into the Navy, reunited with his wife, and honored by the nation for his heroism.
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