His Last Game (1909)
This short film from Independent Moving Pictures (the I.M.P.) has many elements that would appear in later films by D.W. Griffith, but with a somewhat surprising ending. It uses baseball to tell a story of honor and racial strife.
The movie opens by telling us that the last game of the year is impending, with the Choctaw team facing the team from Jimtown. Bill Going, an Indian, is the star pitcher for Choctaw. We see Bill standing in front of the town bar and a large sign announcing the game. His teammates, most of whom appear to be white, come up and invite him to go drinking but he refuses, perhaps wanting to stay clear for the game. Another man in Indian garb with elaborate war feathers comes up and stands in the background as the team leaves for their drinks. Now, two gamblers in traditional Western clothing come up and offer Bill a generous pile of coins in order to throw the game. Bill counts out the coins several times, only to finally refuse. The gamblers go off to the bar together, and we see them spiking a drink in an insert shot, then they come back and offer the drink to Bill, who agrees at first, but then insists on switching drinks with one of them. When that one fails to drink, Bill throws his drink at him. Now, the gambler, outraged, pulls his gun. Bill quickly disarms and shoots him. Now the sheriff suddenly comes out of the bar, to see Bill shoot down a white man. The other Indian watches as the sheriff arrests him on the spot.
The next scene is labeled “swift Western justice” by an intertitle. We see a group of grave-diggers in the background, and Bill and the sheriff in the foreground. The Indian tries to remonstrate with the sheriff to no avail, but then Bill’s team arrive and they ask the sheriff to let him live long enough to pitch for them. The sheriff agrees, but insists that the other Indian stand in his place. If Bill doesn’t come back in time, he will execute this man instead. Bill and the Indian agree to the terms. The sheriff sends a note to the judge asking for a stay of execution, if Bill keeps his word. The next sequence shows the ball game, all shot from behind the home plate. We see the Jimtown players gain several bases, but then Bill runs up and pitches a shutout. The Choctaws win. The team carries Bill back to the bar on their shoulders, then offers him a large drink to celebrate. Bill is about to drink when he remembers his promise. He throws down the bottle and runs back to the grave site. The grave diggers are now a firing squad, and are just about to shoot the Indian when Bill arrives. He takes the man’s place, but the Indian signals that he hears hoofbeats, putting his ear to the ground in cliché fashion. Intercutting shows us that the messenger is indeed running back, but the sheriff doesn’t see anything in time, so the execution proceeds. The messenger rides over the hill just as Bill is shot and his body falls into the grave. The sheriff reads the note that would have saved Bill’s life, just seconds too late, and the team arrives to mourn his loss.
I.M.P. was one of the companies that later went into making Universal Pictures, and this movie was produced by Carl Laemmle, senior, the head of that operation. I.M.P. was also famous for defying the Edison Trust and operating independently, and this movie would have been shot in Fort Lee, New Jersey, the site of their operations and much of the American film industry at the time. They made movies for the burgeoning Nickelodeon market, and indeed Laemmle and his partners had started out as Nickelodeon theater owners. This movie demonstrates that concepts of editing which are often attributed to a later period had already come into use, if in rather primitive form, at the time. The inter-cutting between the messenger and the execution scene is reminiscent of Griffith’s 1911 film, “The Lonedale Operator,” although here the hero is unable to save the day in time. I found myself reflecting that if Bill had been white, the story probably would not have ended the same way. The “noble savage” story almost always had a tragic ending, however, and here Bill is killed by “swift Western justice” that has no sympathy for his situation or ethical behavior. Bill’s relationship with alcohol is also interesting – he never actually drinks, but is repeatedly tempted by drink and appears eager to do so, each time realizing just in time that it would be a mistake. Also interesting was the decision to shoot the entire ball game from a single angle, one in which the players frequently obscure the action from the camera. Showing baseball to audiences was still a new thing at the time, and more sophisticated ways to demonstrate it were yet to be developed. Note that the scene of the two gamblers drinking shows the I.M.P. logo prominently – still a common practice at the time to discourage film piracy.
Director: Unknown, possibly Harry Solter
Run Time: 12 Min
I have been unable to find this film for free on the Internet. You can see a brief segment here.