Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Battle at Elderbush Gulch (1913)

In this two-reeler, expansive, action-packed western, Griffith is moving closer and closer to the grand sprawl that he will present in just two years’ time. By the production’s standards of the time, this film is extremely large - it almost could be called enormous, even a blockbuster. I wonder what its response was in its day.

Here and everywhere, we find Griffith pushing the fabric of what could be put on screen. What we have here is essentially: an all-star cast, dozens of extras, dramatic action, two stories - a plot and subplot that interleave at the end, very large, controlled battle scenes, innovative point of view shots, particularly from very high angles, and a storming momentum throughout most of the entire 29 minutes of screen time. Shortly stated, this has to be one of the very most ambitious films ever undertaken to this point in time.

To a large degree, Griffith manages to pull off this audacity of spectacle. If the final result is less than impressive today, here is one movie that one must see with backward-looking eyes to imagine just how powerful such a vast and violent epic might have appeared to audiences in 1914.

As a western - that is as an early contributor to one of the major genres in American film history - The Battle at Elderbush Gulch is difficult to judge. Its western setting seems more an excuse for filming action rather than an exploration of any of the basic mythic elements of the genre. We have white settlers, we have Indians - and yes, we have violent conflict, ending with the arrival of the U.S. Cavalry.

But it is difficult to assign any true perspective upon the myth of conquest from this film. As for the Indians, Griffith depicts them very simply, as savages, sleeping out in the open, eating dogs, and jumping around maniacally - is this supposed to be a ritual war dance? - before attacking the white settlers. But Griffith gives them an undeniably excellent reason for the attack. The Chief’s son has been shot to death by one of the white men. The tribe is naturally enraged, and they come on horseback, guns blazing, to exact revenge.

The white settlers, on the other hand, are simply going about their daily business. The ranch upon which most of the action takes place has now become the home for two female "waifs" - orphans, who are now staying with their cowpoke uncle. This good man’s boss won’t allow any dogs in his house, thus setting up the problem that the girls’ little puppies will cause when two young Indians wander back late for a doggy feast.

Soon, it’s all-out war between the two peoples. The Indians invade the ranch and storm the town. The subplot - the "town plot" deals with a mother (Lillian Gish) and her baby, who has disappeared and become a potential victim for the marauders. So essentially we have the same situation as in Griffith’s first film, The Adventures of Dollie (1908) - a helpless child is threatened by ethnically different people.

I don’t want to go too deeply into the racial implications of this film, except to note that Griffith’s decision necessarily implies a white perspective. If "different" in his world does not equal "evil," it at least conjures up "other." We can’t imagine the movie showing an Indian child in danger from the white settlers.

Hollywood’s myopia concerning Native Americans begins early in its history - but that was merely an extension of the prevailing views of the time, as close as they were (in 1914) to actual skirmishes out west and on the plains. It is the same carry over as in Griffith’s "southern" attitude towards Blacks. All Hollywood will do is solidify and codify the myths about savage Indians for another forty years or so, until these assumptions will begin to be challenged in the 1950s and 60s.

The production and acting of Elderbush Gulch is superb. The performances are thoroughly professional throughout: featuring Gish, newcomer Mae Marsh, Alfred Paget, Robert Harron, along with small cameos from Griffith’s other stock players. It is a film that is perhaps more impressive for what it achieves than it is enjoyable to watch, however. At least from my perspective, the near-century of repetition has almost completely worn down any residual power that the film once had. But there is no question that it is a technical triumph and another important giant step forward towards the establishment of cinema as a major art form from its most important early master.

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