Early & Silent Film

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Beginnings of the Western – Indian Pictures

Posted by keith1942 on August 17, 2017

 

Filmmaker James Young Deer onscreen.

One programme in the series of screenings of early westerns at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in 2016 was devoted to the representation of Native-Americans. The Festival Catalogue noted:

“The third programme is devoted to Indian pictures, which continued to attract audiences. Pathé’s short film is a good example of the titles produced by James Young Deer, while the Vitagraph film is an anomaly from its western unit. The three longer films come from Thomas Ince and Francis Ford’s BISON 101 company and a later offshoot or rival, Broncho and Universal’s 101 Bison Films, all shot on location in California.” (Richard Abel).

The programmer also demonstrated the changing face of the Indian character in the western; the sort of sympathetic portrayal found in films by James Young Deer are replaced by the more stereotypical ‘other’ in films by producers like Thomas Ince. And Universal’s acquisition of the Bison 101 company points to a factor in this, the development of the large film combines, controlling production  through to exhibition.  These new companies also developed new strategies:

“When the feature-length westerns began to appear in 1914, they initially tended not to follow the “tradition of earlier one-and-two-reelers, which sometimes offered roles to native Americans, but instead turned to adapting famous stage plays with white heroes, such as Jesse Lasky’s The Squaw Man, directed by Cecil B. DeMille, and Selig’s The Spoilers.” (Richard Abel).

Rather like the heroines from Programme two, but in a far more savage depiction, the Native American was badly served by the mainstream western right up until collapse of the studio system.

 

‘The Arrow of Defiance’

The Arrow of Defiance Pathé 1912.

The director and star of this one reel film was James Young Deer. Born and bought up in Washington DC, Young’s parentage was of the Nanticoke people, based in the North East of the Americas and Canada, Young supposedly worked in the Wild West circus shows. He started as a actor in films in the East Coast productions. He was then hired to work as producer, writer, director and star at the Pathe’s Edendale studio in Los Angeles. With his wife Red Wing [of the Winnebago tribe] he worked on about 30 short films between 1909 and 1915, of which only a few survive. Later he worked for a period in Britain.

In this film Young plays Dark Buffalo, chief of a camp of Indians. Sergeant [or Captain] Stewart of the US army brings an order for the Indians to move their camp. After a pow-wow and pipe Dark Buffalo refuses to move: a response symbolised by the ‘arrow of defiance’. The Indians attack settlers, an army camp and a settler wagon. The latter escapes to the safety of the Fort and the Indian attack fails. The film ends with an unusual shot, an embrace between a young Indian boy and a young white girl. Abel notes that

“Missing footage may explain that he was adopted by the girl’s white family, and both have escaped their burning farm.

Another, rather unexpected, is the shot that aligns movie spectators with a few Indian women in the foreground, as they watch the warriors burning a settler farm on a distant hill – a shot that echoes the opening shot of Stewart in the foreground looking down on the small Indian encampment in a distant valley.”

These sort of shots are enabled because the film uses relatively deep space for the settings and the action. Another has the settler wagon in the foreground with the mounted warriors deep in the field of view.

Whilst the Indians suffer defeat the imperious nature of the army settlement and control is apparent. And the shared family of Indian and settlers is a relatively unusual and becomes even more so as the feature westerns become conventional.

When the West was Young, Vitagraph 1913.

This one-reel film [12 minutes at 18 fps] was incomplete, cutting off just before the final shots. It was directed by W. J,. Bauman, an actor and director with seemingly few credits. The scenario was by W. Hanson Durham, who had quite a few credits in the teens including A Bit of Blue Ribbon.  The common element is near death  as a character saves another. In this film this is Black Hawk who, faint from hunger, is fed by the daughter of a settler. He repays the favour by warning the father and daughter of a band of Sioux warriors. Even so the father is killed and Black Hawk leads the girl to the safety of an army fort. However, he is hit in the back by an arrow. We see the girl rescued by a Calvary unit but do not learn Black Hawk’s fate. it seems that

“(as the print breaks off [- the Calvary]) keeps the warriors from scalping Black Hawk and chase them off.” (Richard Abel).

The film’s plot is fairly conventional but the treatment is good. The detail in the cabin when we meet father and daughter with the latter preparing a rabbit at the stove is well done. And after feeding the Indian the father offers him his pipe, a nice inversion of a familiar trope.

 

The Lieutenant’s Last Fight, New York Motion Picture Co, BISON 101

This film was produced by Thomas Ince, one of the key pioneers in developing what became the Hollywood studio system. The director was Francis Ford, John Ford’s eldest brother. He had a long career in Hollywood as an actor but also had a large output as director and sometime writer in Hollywood’s silent era. This tale of another heroic Indian is somewhat conventional and in its ending seems symptomatic of the changes taking place in the genre.

Francis Ford plays Great Bear whose father, a Sioux chieftain (William Eagleshirt), allows him to be sent to Military school A brief scene shows Great Bear on the receiving end of prejudice and contempt from white cadets. However, he graduates as a Lieutenant and returns to his area for duty at Fort Reno.

When the admiring Chief visits his son at the Fort they are the object of ridicule by the white officers and their wives. The exception is Ethel (Ethel Grandin) daughter of the commander Colonel Garvin (Barney Sherry). Ethel’s admirer Captain Haines (William Clifford), antagonised,. insults Great Bear. In the ensuing fight Haines manages to pull out Great bear’s revolver. It is Great Bear who is accused and victimised. After a court martial he is dismissed and stripped of his epaulettes in front of the regiment. When Ethel comes to bid him farewell he sadly takes down and contemplates his officer sword.

The Sioux Chief is outraged by the treatment of his son. He threatens war and Garvin arranges for the women at the fort to be sent to safety on stagecoach. The Colonel’s letter is taken from a courier by braves and the Chief prepares a war party. Caught between his conflicting  loyalty and desire, Great Bear takes out  his uniform and army revolver from a trunk and sets off to save the white woman.

He arrives at a place overlooking the attack on the stagecoach. A trooper rides to the fort for help and to allow time for a rescue Great Bear blows the army bugle he possesses: another familiar trope. The braves withdraw as the Calvary arrive to rescue the women, but Great Bear is shot in the back and left

‘without honour, without a grave’.

 

The Struggle, Broncho 1913

This is not strictly an ‘Indian Picture’. Scott Simmon notes in the Festival Catalogue that the film

“moves closer to “classic” revenge plotting … The price paid for Ince’s move from tales of conflicts within tribes or against the Calvary is that the Indian “hostiles” now lack the slightest motivation or individuality'”

So Simmon points out to the developments in the genre that brings us to the Indian or Native American as ‘the other’. The plot of the film has Bob Worth (Elmer L. Morrow) vowing revenge when his father is shot and his mother dies of grief. Five years on Bob is an army scout. In a saloon he recognises his father’s murder by a scar. But the man flees, shooting a card player with Bob accused of the murder.

He flees. now we see his ‘gal’, daughter of an officer at the Fort. And the Indians, Apaches, appear on the scene. The Calvary ride up, but with the Sherriff who arrests Bob. The two are soon sieged in a cabin by the Indians, but also with the now-wounded murderer. He offers a death bed confession. The Calvary re-appear and drive off the Indians. bob is re-united with his love.

Not a lot for an Indian-friendly audience. In other ways the film is effective with some good staging and editing. It was directed by Thomas H. Ince. However, mis-staging or mising title cards do create a little confusion. Simmon notes

“The happy opening household appears to be a miner and his wife and their teenaged son, but the studio synopsis states that the woman is the miner’s “daughter, a girl of twenty.” The woman is never seen again so that the impression that she must be the hero’s mother in  reinforced by his later identification of the murderer:”

“he killed my father and my mother died of a broken heart.” “

Still, this would not be the first time that a studio synopsis was in error.

‘The Flaming Arrow’

The Flaming Arrow, 101 Bison Film/Universal

Happily for Native-Americans the final film was more positive. Scott Simmon writes,

The Flaming Arrow must be unique among surviving early Westerns for both beginning and ending with happy interracial love.”

The opening presents a prospector with an Indian wife and child. The prospector is killed aiding Black Eagle and his tribe against an attack by Apaches. His wife, Flying Bird, expires after chanting a death song at his grave. This leaves White Eagle as an orphan.

He is sent away to a school in the West and returns ten years later. He develops a friendship with the daughter of the commanding officer at the fort. However, a rival officer with a Mexican accomplice plot to steal a gold shipment. They sell firewater to the Indians resulting in a war party. During an attack on the fort White Eagle rescues the daughter. The y then are laid siege in a cabin [again] whilst the braves shout ‘burn the white girl.!

The Calvary arrive in ‘a nick of time’, the villainous Mexican is killed, leaving White Eagle with the girl he preferred over his own people.

Simmon comments on the overall film and generic examples,

“Moving Picture World couldn’t help but notice the racial revisionism with “the old perplexed question of blood not being raised” between the lovers. By early 1913 Indian subjects remained popular, but story innovations were evidently needed. The usual plot conventions were on display for instance, two months earlier in Ince’s The Burning Brand, a Calvary lieutenant, learning his mother was an Indian, must abandon the colonel’s daughter and die in an attempt to win her back through a tribal attack.”

Whereas in The Flaming Arrow

“In the film’s surprising closing shot, the now-heroic White Eagle and the daughter of the Calvary colonel walk arm in arm towards a tight close-up. It is implied that their marriage will follow.”

Closer to the previous film in other ways, the opening needs help to from the synopsis to be clear about relationships. But the film has definite pace and the editing between scenes as the drama increases is effective. This was another 35mm print, this time from the BFI.

And Gabriel Thibaudeau provided lyrical accompaniment on the piano.

 

 

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