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Silent Westerns
Page 1Page 2Page 3Page 4Page 5Page 6Page 7Page 8    by Peter Flynn -- page 4 of 8

Griffith, Ince and the Western as Art and Commerce

While "Broncho Billy" Anderson proved himself the most significant performer of the period, establishing the look, mannerisms and, most importantly, the thematics of the screen cowboy, laudits for direction must go to David Wark Griffith. To be known later as the father of the American studio picture, Griffith directed many notable 1-reel Westerns between 1908 and 1913 while working at Biograph. Of these perhaps The Last Drop of Water (1911), Fighting Blood (1911), and The Battle of Elderbush Gulch (1913) remain most exemplary. Superior productions all, they were well-edited, exciting genre pieces with panoramic scope and more than a sprinkling of thematic depth or poetry.

As with the Anderson films, many of Griffithís productions were more than adamant in their vilification of the Native American. The Last Drop of Water, which details the trek westwards of a lonely wagon train and its members, climaxes with an attack by a ruthless band of Indians, a device that became increasingly more common to the genre. Repeated again in Fighting Blood, the climax is here replete with a last minute rescue by the dashing cavalry. The Battle of Elderbush Gulch has Eastern innocents Mae Marsh and Lillian Gish fall foul of a marauding tribe of Indians who threaten to eat their dog! As with Fighting Blood, order is restored with the climatic arrival of the cavalry.

While it is tempting to see in the early Westerns of Griffith a bigotry later confirmed by his landmark production Birth of a Nation (1915), it is important to note that Griffith was one of the first directors to openly sympathize with the Native American. Films such as The Indian Runnerís Romance (1909), The Redmanís View (1909), and A Pueblo Legend (1912) explicitly deal with the suffering wrought by white-invaders on Indian tribes, reversing the established myth of Manifest Destiny.

Thomas H. Ince and Indian star William Eagleshirt.

Thomas H. Ince, though less a creative/artistic force than his contemporary Griffith, nevertheless maintained an important role in early film history as one of the first filmmakers to successfully realize an ordered system of labor division within the industry. Working initially as a Western director for Bison 101, Ince moved on to the supervisory role of "director general," overseeing the production of many quality genre entries shot on location in Southern California. As director, his Westerns are marked by a certain off-beat quality, perfectly illustrating the elasticity of the genre and its ability to revise or invert the "official history" of the migration west. In The Heart of an Indian (1912), for example, the cold-blooded massacre of an Indian encampment by white settlers precedes the revisionism of The Searchers (1956) by more than four decades. However, the sentiments of the above film -- and others such as The Invaders (1912) -- are contradicted by many other Ince pictures, including Custerís Last Raid (1912) and The Battle of Gettysburg (1913), which offer more conformist versions of American history.

Like Griffith, Ince too failed to offer a cohesive view of the American west and its taming. But what both filmmakers offered was the full realization of the richness of the myth, its mutable and volatile nature, its ability to channel a variety of views and politics to suit a particular taste or audience requirement. Whether it was the artistry of Griffith or the mercantile acumen of Ince, the result was the same -- the genreís dramatic and commercial potential, as well as its natural plasticity, was firmly established by the early teens.

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Page 1 The Myth and Pre-History of the Silent Western

Page 2 Prospecting: The Edison Co. and Edwin S. Porter

Page 3 Trail-Blazing: Broncho Billy Anderson, the Genre's First Cowboy

Page 4 Pioneering: Griffith, Ince and the Western as Art and Commerce

Page 5 Frontiersman: William S. Hart and Western Realism

Page 6 Showmanship: Fairbanks, Mix and Jazz Age Cowboy

Page 7 Epic Mythmaking: Cruze and Ford and the End of the Silent Era

Page 8 Conclusion

[Works Cited]



Other Western articles in this issue:

The Western Menu Page

The Western: An Overview

The Silent Western as Mythmaker

Spaghetti Westerns

Western Web Links


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