In the Border States (1910)
For my money, D.W. Griffith was always better at directing shorts than he was at working in the feature-length. One only has to compare this homely and touching Civil War story to the bloated and un-subtle “Birth of a Nation” for proof. Shot in Griffith’s second year working as a director at Biograph, it has all the humanity and innovation which his best work shows, even if it is at bottom a melodrama. A young father (Charles West, whose work I’ve discussed in “Enoch Arden” and “The Burglar’s Dilemma”) in a state on the border marches off to fight for the Union, leaving his family in peril as the war comes dangerously close. A band of disheveled Rebels “forages” near to the house, and is chased by Union soldiers. One of their number (Henry B. Walthall, who would later star in “Birth of a Nation” and “The Avenging Conscience”), staggers, desperate, into the family’s land just as the youngest daughter (Gladys Egan, who played the title role in “The Adventures of Dollie” and also appears in “His Trust Fulfilled”) goes out to fetch a pail of water from the well. The man begs for help, and she lets him drink and hide in the well, but refuses him a kiss in thanks. Later, the tables are turned when the father is being hunted, wounded, by this very same band of Confederates, and seeks shelter in his own home. The soldier is about to kill him when the little girl intervenes. He can’t kill the father of the child who saves him, and he convinces, or orders, the others to depart in peace (he’s the only one with Corporal’s stripes, so I guess he’s in charge). The girl and the soldier shake hands and salute one another, and she takes credit for driving the soldiers off single-handed.
For 1910, this is quite a sophisticated drama. Much of the movie is shot outside, which prevents the claustrophobia of having too many “square” compositions, as was often the case in studio productions. Billy Bitzer provides good camerawork, including a nice shot of the New Jersery Palisades that passes well for any vista in middle-southern America. Part of the pursuit of the Union soldier is shown as a night shot, by torchlight, apparently achieved by under-exposing the film, but it looks better than a lot of the “night” shots of the time. But the real key to the story is its editing. Griffith deftly cross-cuts between pursuers and pursued in both sequences to heighten tension. For the second sequence, there are two rooms in the house that each character must pass through to reach the ultimate hiding place, and Griffith keeps us aware of the situation in each as the danger develops. Each time we cut back to the wounded soldier, something in the former area has brought peril closer. Walthall’s performance is good, but Egan’s is the best in the movie. I also noticed that it was very easy to read Egan’s lips as she mouths the words “my father” to Walthall in the climactic moment. This was probably intentional, since silent filmmakers encouraged actors to enunciate lines for lip-readers, in lieu of a soundtrack.
Director: D.W. Griffith
Camera: Billy Bitzer
Run Time: 16 Min
You can watch it for free: here.