Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

Fighting Blood (Biograph, 1911)

 

Gripping stuff

 

In my recent article on American Indians in the Western (click here for that) I suggested that many of the earliest silent movies were actually quite pro-Indian, and often showed peaceful Native Americans in woodland settings. But around 1910 things began to change, and hostile Indians as a danger and a threat became more the fashion, with conflict between red and white being the main theme.

 

It was certainly the case with the great film maker DW Griffith. In Griffith’s early Westerns the Indian was the hero. Angela Aleiss has calculated that in his thirty Indian-themed films, Indians were bad guys in only eight. The director’s very first film with an Indian as central character, The Redman and the Child (1908), featured a Sioux befriending a young white boy and his grandfather, and when some white villains kill the old man and take the child hostage, the hero strips off his ‘white’ clothes and pursues the wicked men, killing them and rescuing the boy. Griffith’s The Mended Lute (1909) was a pastoral idyll set among the Indians before the arrival of the whites.  Publicity made great play of the picture’s authenticity in matter of costumes and dances.

 

DW

 

But that changed. Perhaps Griffith’s most ambitious and famous Western, The Battle of Elderbush Gulch in 1913 (click for our review) had savage Indians attacking white settlers in a cabin and the US Cavalry arriving at the last moment to save the day, which was already a well-established trope (Buffalo Bill used it a lot). The 1911 one-reeler Fighting Blood, while more modest in scope, very much prefigures Elderbush Gulch.

 

Unlike so many silent Westerns, many of Griffith’s have survived, and you can watch this one on YouTube.

 

 

It was extraordinary, only eight years after the relatively crude The Great Train Robbery, how really quite sophisticated the filming was in Fighting Blood. Using his habitual cameraman the talented GW ‘Billy’ Bitzer, Griffith got movement, perspective (shots of the Indian attack from a hillside and so on), lots of smoke, action, touches of humor and more. In a mere 11 minutes, the film tells a whole story and manages to establish character. Only the lack of anything like a close-up limits the latter point.

 

DW with Billy Bitzer at the camera

 

The whole notion of Indians attacking a settlers’ cabin became standard, pretty well a cliché, but it wasn’t then, as I said. The picture must have thrilled audiences at the time.

 

The writing is attributed to Zane Grey. This is slightly odd because Grey had only written four Westerns by that time, The Last of the Plainsmen (1908), The Heritage of the Desert and The Young Forester (1910) and The Young Lion Hunter (1911), and he never wrote a novel titled Fighting Blood. But Grey may have written the screenplay expressly for the film. He was interested in early movies (it has been suggested that the Grey family moved to California to be closer to the film industry) and in fact would soon form his own company to make Westerns.

 

Grey c 1910

 

We open with a cabin in the Dakota hills and a retired army officer, ‘The Old Soldier’, a certain Tuttle (George Nichols, who worked no fewer than 127 times with Griffith, between 1908 and 1919), bringing his numerous children up with strict military discipline, drilling them every day. They all have to line up, in order of height, and march about. Some comedy is provided by the very littlest, who hasn’t quite mastered marching yet.

 

George was The Old Soldier

 

Family drill

 

The eldest son, though, Corporal Richard (Robert Harron, 18 at the time, a celebrity who died tragically young, possibly by his own hand, in 1920, reputedly after being passed over by Griffith for the lead in a big picture) has reached the bolshie teenager stage and wishes to go visit his girlfriend. His stern father forbids it and strikes the boy but the lad is determined and goes AWOL. The father bars the door and says he will not be welcome back.

 

Harron quite a star in his day

 

The father slaps his recalcitrant son

 

It’s quite amusing as we see Richard sitting beside his amour, with the girl’s mother sitting primly by as chaperone.

 

Now we see Indians on the warpath. Richard bravely rides, firing his revolver and shouting the warning, “The Sioux are coming!”

 

Brave Richard

 

There’s an exciting scene as the mounted Sioux chase a wagon, two white people escape from it and manage to reach Tuttle’s cabin.

 

The film now centers on the siege of the cabin as the Sioux attack it and Tuttle’s small but well-trained family defend. The father has single-shot rifles and the women and younger children reload them for him. But the Indians manage to set the cabin on fire, and efforts by the women to douse the flames with buckets of water are increasingly vain.

 

 

Fortunately, brave Richard has ridden like the wind to get the US Cavalry, who come to the rescue in the nick of time. Father and son are reconciled as courageous soldier Richard is welcomed back into his father’s arms. The End.

 

Reconciliation

 

It’s gripping stuff.

 

Lionel Barrymore, Alfred Paget and Mae Marsh are credited in the cast list but I didn’t spot them at all.

 

One review suggested that the character of Tuttle may have been modeled on Griffith’s own father, Colonel ‘Roaring Jake’ Griffith, an old Civil War soldier who died in 1885.

 

I’m sure that the likes of Thomas Ince and Francis Ford saw this movie; their own work in such pictures as The Invaders and Custer’s Last Fight in 1912 (see our reviews) definitely shows its influence.

 

Worth a watch!

 

 

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