American Indians in early Westerns
Today, something a bit different: two Westerns for the price of one.
The two greatest pioneer artists of the early motion picture, Thomas H Ince and DW Griffith (Edison was also a great pioneer but he was interested in the technical and commercial possibilities of the form, not the artistry) both made a two-reel film in 1912 about an Indian massacre. The pictures are similar enough to warrant comparison – happily, they still exist, unlike many silent Westerns of this time, which have perished.
Actually, not only do they still exist, they have, thanks to the admirable efforts of people who care about motion picture history, been skillfully restored. So we can watch them in good picture quality today.
The motion pictures are also interesting as examples of how early film makers portrayed American Indians. It is sometimes thought that ground-breaking pictures of the early 1950s such as Anthony Mann’s Devil’s Doorway and Delmer Daves’s Broken Arrow were the first ‘pro-Indian’ movies and that before that, Native Americans had been portrayed only as whooping savages who stood in the way of (white) civilization and were there to be shot down. In fact, this was not the case, and early silent Westerns, notably by Griffith and Ince, showed a much more nuanced and sympathetic view of the indigenous inhabitants of the West.
Both Ince and Griffith did make ‘whooping savage’ Indian movies. Ince’s War on the Plains, for example, a copy of which survives in the UCLA Film Archives, and which was made the same year as The Indian Massacre, has this plot summary:
The emigrants are seen fighting the hordes of redskins. The hero rides to the settlement for help and engages in a thrilling duel with pursuing Indians. The settlers swoop down on the unprotected Indian village and burn it up. The savages, seeing the flames, hurry back and fall into an ambush. They are attacked from the rear by the emigrants and from the front by the settlers. In a wild scene of carnage the surprised Indians are mowed down by the hail of bullets, horses and riders falling in tangled masses.
And the year before, Griffith made Fighting Blood, which also still exists, in which the heroes are settlers who enthusiastically mow down bloodthirsty ‘redskins’ (seemingly played by pre-professional stuntmen extras who were not too good at falling off horses or staying ‘dead’). And in Griffith’s The Battle of Elderbush Gulch of 1913 (see our review in the index) the fact that barbaric Indians are eating sweet little puppies causes ferocious fighting between the ‘redskins’ and the heroic white settlers, who are saved at the last moment by the US Cavalry – which of course became a standard trope of the genre.
Nevertheless, both producer-directors also made significantly ‘pro-Indian’ or at the very least balanced pictures. Ince’s The Winning of Wonega (1911) was an all-Indian tale (unknown cast), a Crow love story, while his An Indian Martyr the same year, starring Francis Ford, was a kind of American-Indian Romeo and Juliet with a Crow maid in love with a Sioux brave. As for Griffith, Richard Schikel in his biography of the film maker wrote that many of Griffith’s Biograph shorts “were set in various vanishing American wildernesses and reflected the prevalent nostalgia … about the loss of these unspoiled lands to civilization.”
Critics have argued that these pictures, while sympathetic to the lot of the American Indian, were still made from a basic ‘white supremacist’ standpoint (and after The Birth of a Nation, few would accuse Griffith of believing in racial equality), and that may be so, but at least they portrayed Native Americans in a positive light, and as people, not nameless savages – which cannot be said for many later Westerns.
Of course the English language is a funny old bird and an “Indian massacre” could be active or passive: the Indians could be the massacrers or massacrees, if I may be allowed to coin new words. In the first of the films we are looking at today there’s little doubt about that. The whites are massacring the reds. In the other, it’s more ambiguous.
Let’s start with Ince’s picture The Indian Massacre, which was released in March 1912 (Griffith’s film came out in December). Actually, its original title had been The Heart of an Indian, which was perhaps less sensational and maybe less commercial than something with the word massacre in it but was possibly more indicative of the pro-Indian stance (the notion that Indians might actually have a heart).
We open in trademark Ince terrain (it was shot at the Bison ranch in Santa Ynez Canyon just north of Santa Monica, by Ray C Smallwood, who worked on two other Thomas Ince/Francis Ford pictures, The Invaders and Custer’s Last Fight – see index) and we see a long train of Indians going, on ponies with travois and on foot, to their village.
This was enacted by members of the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West company after a deal with Adam Kessel Jr, president of the New York Motion Picture Company. 350 people had joined Bison’s sixty-person stock company to make films.
Then there’s the scene titled The Dead Papoose, in which a mother, Ravenwing, mourns the death of her infant.
This mother is played by Ann Little, most famously the love interest in Cecil B DeMIlle’s The Squaw Man in 1914, who became quite a specialist in Westerns, often playing Indians, partly because she grew up on a ranch and is said to have made “a lifelong study of Indian culture.” Ince and Griffith were certainly not averse to using genuine Native Americans in their pictures but star roles tended to be apportioned to well-known white actors. She too would be in The Invaders and Custer’s Last Fight and indeed she made no fewer than 72 films with Ince. I suppose we mustn’t be too critical of acting in these early pictures: without words, actors had to rely on gesture and there were few close-ups. Still, Ms Little really overdid it, big time, flailing her arms and such, and looking very ridiculous, to be frank. Ince should probably have told her to cool it.
Her co-star, Francis Ford in redface, as Mountain Rock, the Indian Chief, the dead baby’s dad, always avoided such histrionics (he was a good actor) and looks very restrained and dignified beside Little. Frank, John Ford’s elder brother, joined Ince as an actor in the latter part of 1911, and he was soon doing other duties for his boss, scouting locations and placing the camera. Frank Ford Westerns quickly became so popular that Ince needed to expand production. In June 1912 the producer-director divided the company in two and put Frank in charge of the new unit. Click here for our article on Frank Ford.
Frank’s then lover, Grace Cunard, also appeared in the picture. She didn’t care for Ince and urged Frank to take more credit for the pictures, and in 1913 Frank would leave Ince to go work for Carl Laemmle at Universal.
Art Acord was also in the cast but uncredited.
Now we see a lone white man, a buffalo hunter (unspecified actor) sneaking up on a pair of baby bison. He’s just about to take his knife to a fallen beast when Indians arrive at the gallop and he starts shooting at them instead, killing several. He then rides off, leaving the poor panting beast suffering. The Indians hold a council of war and determine on a raid on the whites, to protect their hunting grounds.
We also meet Mr (J Barney Sherry) and Mrs (?) Brown, settlers with a fair-haired baby, but unfortunately, during the Indian raid, Mrs Brown is away taking a packed lunch to her husband, who is plowing, and while she is absent, Chief Mountain Rock and his braves come up to their cabin, see the bairn all alone, and Mountain Rock thinks this babe will do very well as a replacement for Ravenwing’s lost child, so he takes the infant away, back to the village. Mrs Brown returns and, finding her baby gone, overacts in her turn.
The Browns are indomitable, however, and follow tracks to the Indian village, where Mrs Brown is captured. There, Ravenwing will at first not surrender her new darling but eventually her Indian heart softens before the mother’s grief, she frees Mrs Brown, gives her back her baby, and shows her the way out of camp. This, then, is “the heart of the Indian.”
Unbeknownst to either Ravenwing or Mrs Brown, however, a posse of white settlers is gathering to exact what a title card calls “The White Man’s Vengeance.” Ince shows the aftermath of this vengeance, with Indian corpses littering the ground before the tepees. There is no doubt where the audience sympathies are supposed to lie. This massacre (and remember, this was hardly more than two decades after Wounded Knee) was uncalled-for, tragic and cruel.
DW Griffith’s The Massacre was probably a more sophisticated film; it looks more modern, somehow. It’s similar to Ince’s in many respects, a 30-minute-odd two-reeler centering on a massacre of Indians by whites and its tragic consequences, and featuring a young couple with a baby. But I would say you identify more with the characters in this one.
By the way, large numbers of Griffith shorts survive though most are rarely seen. This one though is available from Kino, praise be to them.
It was both written and directed by Griffith, and shot, by Griffith’s favorite cinematographer, GW Bitzer, who would be at the camera for The Birth of a Nation, in the Fort Lee, New Jersey locations which Biograph used (they hadn’t yet made the move to California).
In the opening scene Stephen, a scout back from the Plains (top-billed Wilfred Lucas, a Griffith favorite, later a director himself) tells a young woman (Blanche Sweet, considered a rival to Mary Pickford, soon to be taken up by Cecil B DeMille) of the wonders of the West. He also proposes to her and says he will take her there but unluckily for him just at that moment a handsome young man (Charles West, in one of the first of 144 films he’d do for Griffith) arrives, asking for a drink of water, and he and the girl hit it off right away. Soon the two are wed and the disappointed scout returns West to the army.
Stephen the scout now takes part in an army attack on an Indian village. This is led by a Custerish officer (unnamed actor) with long hair and noticeably dark of complexion (= evil) and though Stephen remonstrates with him, this man orders a savage and unprovoked assault on the peaceful settlement, slaughtering women and children. One reviewer said, “The camera is literally on the side of the Indians, joining them on the hillside as they flee. The cavalry charge is not exciting (and Griffith was more than capable of making it so had he wished).”
Now the young couple and their adored baby set out in a wagon train, answering the call of the West. Once on the Plains, they get a military escort, and wouldn’t you know it, Stephen the scout is in it. But the Indian chief (Alfred Paget, later to be Jim Bowie in Christy Cabanne’s Martyrs of the Alamo) is distraught at the massacre of his nearest and dearest by the vicious officer and determines on revenge – against the wagon train.
We look down on the wagons from a height and see a couple of coyotes and then a bear in the foreground. Then the bear departs and is replaced by an Indian in a bearskin.
The wagon train halts to camp, the husband departs on horseback to the nearby fort on business, and there’s celebration for the baby’s birthday. We see some of the other pioneers, Jack Pickford as a young boy, a preacher and a gambler (unknown actors), who disapprove of each other. But then the Indians launch their attack. The gambler is surprisingly brave and even heroic, but perishes trying to save a wounded man, his cards falling on his body, the last one the ace of spades. The preacher too succumbs, in fact they all do, even, we must assume young boy Jack. When the panicky husband returns, with more soldiers, he finds only a mound of bodies. So this is an Indian massacre in both senses – active and passive.
Woe is him and so on, but then a hand is seen waving from under the pile of corpses and yes, mother and babe emerge unscathed. Phew. The film ends with the somber burial of the fallen. The message seems to be that no one gains from slaughter.
The End, again.
So there we have it, two early Westerns, very similar really, both, in my view, worth a look.
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