Forgiven in Death (1911)
This early western from G.M. Anderson depicts honor and male bonding in uncivilized conditions, a trope that the genre will frequently return to in future decades. It also uses Native Americans as generic un-motivated villains, another aspect that would persist.
The intertitles do much of the heavy lifting in the first act, as we learn that Ned (Brinsley Shaw) and Jack (Anderson) are in love with the daughter of their employer (Gladys Field) and that she has a hard time deciding between them. She chooses Jack, but they keep the wedding secret to avoid hurting Ned, and the two men go off together on a prospecting venture, living in a small shack on the plains. Ned insists on picking up their mail every day, and he stashes all of Gladys’s letters to Jack under the floorboards, resulting in Jack being mopey and depressed. One day, on the way to the post office, he encounters an Indian war party, who are hiding in the grasses and immediately pursue him when he turns his horse back. There’s a long chase back to the shack, and then Jack and Ned try to fight off the attackers with their pistols. There are no further intertitles at this point, with the drama now playing out entirely through the action on the screen.
There are far too many Indians (and they have rifles, so should be able to hit at a greater distance, but these Indians insist on getting as close as possible and standing up to shoot so they lose a lot of men), and Jack is hit. He tries to stand once or twice, then seems to collapse in pain and despair. Ned now runs to get all the letters and starts to read one to his friend, trying to raise his spirits, and learns as a result that Gladys and Jack are married. Jack raises his pistol, and Ned holds up his hands in fear, but at the last moment, Jack shoots an Indian who was pointing his gun through the window. The two men are reconciled, but moments later Ned is hit also, and they reach out to hold hands as they both expire. We see a final shot of the warriors celebrating their victory and breaking into the shack to see their dead enemies.
The key to this movie is the gun battle, which is adequately staged for its purpose, but lacks the dynamics of later films like “The Battle at Elderbush Gulch.” The chase is typical for the period, with the camera locked down in one position as the pursued, and then all of the pursuers, race towards it and right past, then cutting to the next shot of pretty much the same thing again. The camera moves very slightly to follow the action, probably panning less than ten degrees so that it could almost be accidental. The gunfight is intercut between shots outside and those inside, showing simultaneous action but never really connecting the two locations. The “outside” action is all but forgotten while Ned and Jack have their interior confrontation, with only the resolution bringing in the Indians at all during that scene. Later film makers would probably at least shown bullets zipping around the shack to remind us that the attackers are still there. But, this is a pretty early effort, and at least the tension of “will Jack shoot Ned?” is held effectively, though the title kind of gives away the ending.
Finally, I mentioned the use of Native Americans as generic bad guys in this film. We never get any sense of why they attack our heroes – presumably they are threatened by the proximity of prospectors in their territory, possibly Ned and Jack (and their employer) are in violation of treaty agreements. But, their side is not part of the drama, so they wind up as one-dimensional villains, with rather poor tactics as well.
Director: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson
Run Time: 15 Min, 40 secs
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