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Although publicized as a dramatization of Custer's Last Stand, this
bears little relation to the events as known. It is a story of....
well, it is one of the most morally ambiguous pieces of Griffith's that
I have seen. Griffith spent most of his career using his serious pieces
to dramatize society's problems, even when he had no solution to offer,
from WHAT WILL WE DO WITH OUR OLD to his last credited directorial job,
THE STRUGGLE. I think Griffith meant to raise questions and tell an
exciting story, as he always did.
The first question is: which massacre? After some setting scenes, we witness a massacre as a cavalry unit attacks an Indian village. We are not told why they are attacking it. Then, when that is over, we see a wagon train moving west. Was the massacre of the Indians intended to leave their lands empty for settlers? The camera pulls back, and we see a wolf watching the wagon train, then a bear appears and drives off the wolf. Then the bear is driven off by an Indian scout in a bearskin.... and he brings the Indian forces that massacre the wagon train, leaving only Blanche Sweet and her baby alive.
To which massacre does the film's title refer? Who is to blame? Who began this cycle of massacres? Who benefits? Was there no beginning and can there be no end?
Although Griffith directed more than five hundred pictures, almost all of which survive, he has a vast corpus of works that are rarely seen, because so many people concentrate on his best features and perhaps a dozen of his best-known shorts. Kino is to be applauded for including a sizable number of his lesser-known, but equally powerful shorts in their most recent compilation, and for hiring John Mirsalis to do scores.
One of D.W. Griffith's earlier attempts at making a feature longer than
on or two reels, this has well-crafted action scenes, and while some of
it is surprisingly morally ambiguous, it also effectively communicates
an anti-violence message. It's similar to the better-known "Battle at
Elderbush Gulch" in following the build-up to a battle between Indians
and settlers, and in focusing on the individuals caught up in the
ensuing violence. Although the action and human drama are probably not
quite as good in this one, of the two features this one takes an
especially even-handed approach to the conflict.
The story starts with a Griffith standby, a woman choosing between two suitors, who are then both part of a wagon train heading west, with the rejected suitor now a scout with the wagon train's military escort. The main story shows a brutal cavalry raid on a nearly defenseless Indian village, followed by the revenge attack on the wagon train. The latter attack is an extended sequence that fills up an entire reel or so of film. The scenario is supposed to have been based on events connected with General Custer's final defeat, but as it stands, there are no direct references to the specific historical events, so that is either a misconception or else an advertising technique.
Whatever other views Griffith had (and is often deservedly criticized for), he was always effective in communicating the horrifying effects of war and armed conflicts, especially on families. In both attack sequences, he takes pains to depict the ways that the unarmed, especially women and children, are senselessly killed and maimed. He also has some memorable shots of individuals and their actions when they are under attack.
In this particular feature, although more screen time is devoted to the attack on the wagon train, both attacks are treated in the same manner. In each case, he does not lay blame on the individuals involved in the attack, instead concentrating on the sufferings that they inflict, suggesting perhaps that if they stopped to realize what they were doing, things might be a lot different.
The clear-cut message overshadows somewhat the technical accomplishments of the movie. Griffith would soon do even better from the technical viewpoint, but even this feature already succeeds well in depicting a chaotic battle for an extended period.
DW Griffith films are like proverbs. For every one preaching one point
of view, you can find another stating the opposite. The Massacre is,
perhaps, the "Too many cooks spoil the broth" to The Battle of
Elderbrush Gulch's "Many hands make light work".
Although the framing story is that of a family of white settlers, the central segment showing a seemingly unprovoked raid on an Indian village (an equally viable candidate for the titular massacre) is a different matter. The camera is literally on the side of the Indians, joining them on the hillside as they flee. The cavalry charge is not exciting (and Griffith was more than capable of making it so had he wished), and in both this and the final massacre the mid-shots are mostly of victims being gunned down, whereas the attackers are only shown in distant "god" shots.
The Massacre was Griffith's last two-reeler before he moved onto features (which Judith of Bethulia could be counted as), and there are some good examples of how he is now adept at balancing out a longer story. While the opening scenes are fairly inconsequential, there is a single close-up of Blanche Sweet's baby which not only elicits an emotional response, but also helps us remember the child later on. Later, there is a short scene of some of the settlers playing cards, which seems superfluous at the time, but it pays off towards the end when one of the men is killed, the cards spilling from his hand as he falls. Perhaps most significant of all are the couple of brief family shots from the Indian village shortly before the first massacre, neatly echoing the scenes with the settler family.
Another shot, not as effective but nevertheless remarkable, is of a wolf being frightened off by a bear, just before the Indians attack. It's a rare bit of symbolism from Griffith and while not particularly subtle it was quite a novelty for the time. And it does sum up the message of the picture, the same as that of Fort Apache; that Native Americans, while being traditional antagonists of the Western genre, should never be underestimated.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Important early film, directed by D.W. Griffith. Stephen (Wilfred
Lucas) wants to marry his young ward Blanche Sweet and raise a family.
She thinks it's a good idea - until she meets young Charles West. Of
course, Mr. Lucas wants to kill Mr. West for coming between he and Ms.
Sweet. Lucas, however, decides her happiness is more important; he
gives the couple his blessing (and home); then, he re-joins the Army.
Years pass. Sweet, West, and baby join a Wagon Train. When the Wagon
train is attacked by Indians (Native Americans), Lucas arrives to serve
as its military escort.
Watch for some great shots - like, the distant Wagon Train moving along with a bear in the foreground. The battle scenes are as exciting as you'd expect them to be in a Griffith production. In fact, the battles in "The Massacre" look more realistically fought than in thousands of subsequent westerns.
Also noteworthy is Griffith's presentation of the "Indians". Watch some of the Indians' body movements, and the way the camera lingers over some of their dead bodies - characters previously introduced sympathetically. Griffith presents Native American characters in a far more sympathetic manner than is usual for the time (and director). The film loses this characterization as the film progresses. The Indians' point-of-view is dropped. The "love triangle" of characters from the beginning end up only remotely involved in each others' lives; and, "The Massacre" misses out on some obvious dramatic possibilities for Sweet, Lucas, and West.
******* The Massacre (2/26/14) D.W. Griffith ~ Blanche Sweet, Wilfred Lucas, Charles West
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is the very last film included with the GRIFFITH'S MASTERWORKS DVD
set from Kino Video. And, after seeing 22 other shorts, I noticed a lot
of the previous films in this 30 minute film (that's very long for one
of these shorts, by the way). It was highly reminiscent of both THE
BATTLE OF ELDERBUSH GULCH and THE LAST DROP OF WATER--two other Western
shorts he made in 1913 and 1911--as they were all about Indian
massacres of White settlers. Plus, like both these two films and
DEATH'S MARATHON and THE MOTHERING HEART, it's about what happens AFTER
a woman is pursued by two suitors and marries one of them.
In this film, we are treated to the obligatory "will you marry me scene" with the two male leads. And, after choosing one, the other becomes a Cavalry scout who just happens to be involved in a raid on an Indian village. The Indians are understandably ticked and attack the nearby settlers--and guess who is among them?! Yep, the lady and her new hubby. While a very derivative film, it's final scene in which practically everyone is massacred is very unique and worth seeing. Not a great film, but still pretty good.
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