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During the Civil War, a father living in a border state leaves to join the Union Army. After he leaves, Confederate troops forage on his property, where a soldier encounters one of his daughters. The father himself is wounded on a hazardous mission and must run for his life, pursued by Confederate soldiers. Written by
In the Border States is one of the earlier occasions on which DW Griffith dealt with the Civil War, although unlike so many of his battle films from the Biograph period, this one is less about action and more significant for the acting, characterisation and handling of emotion.
The opening couple of shots are perfect examples of Griffith's economy of expression. There is no opening title to set the scene all you need is that first shot of the wife, children and younger man in uniform, and you immediately know this is a close-knit family, and the father is a Union officer. The second shot the army column advancing round the corner, implies that the father will soon have to leave for the battle lines. The following shots of the family's varying reactions are particularly complex and carefully composed. Of extra note is the way Griffith draws our attention to young Gladys Egan by twice placing her in the centre of the frame, putting her in a darker coloured dress and putting her actions slightly out of synch with her sisters. This is a vast improvement on many earlier Griffith shorts, in which many characters tend to look and act the same.
The action sequences are fairly brief. In a chase scene, there is a good selection of location shots, and some tense cross-cutting. There is one moment which looks very jarring to us today, and that is a mismatch between the directions people travel between shots. Charles West leaves one shot left to right, then enters the next frame right to left, which looks a little odd. To confuse things even more, one of the pursuing confederates fires his gun towards screen-right, and we then cut to West dodging the bullet from screen-right, as if he was facing the same way rather than being opposite. It was actually Charlie Chaplin who really addressed this problem of mismatching shots, and you can see the difference when he began directing his own pictures at Keystone.
The culmination of all this is a by-now familiar claustrophobic climax, in which the hero is trapped inside a room while the door is battered down. It's a fairly well constructed one, with several different strands adding extra tension secret dispatches that must be burned, a large group of soldiers on their way. There's also a great example of how Griffith punctuates action when the little girl fires her father's gun at the exact moment Henry Walthall breaks down the door. The gunshot serves no purpose to the story, since she misses, but it really gives the moment an extra impact.
In the Border States demonstrates, in a single film, the rather ambiguous attitude Griffith had towards the war. He shows heroism and nobility exists on both sides, and even draws parallels between the experiences of West, the Union officer, and Walthall, the confederate. This even-handedness, and occasional self-contradiction runs all through Griffith's work.
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