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This early effort by Vitagraph in the way of a feature film -- the
surviving print times in at three-quarters of an hour, immensely long
for the era -- fails because it relies far too much on titles to tell
its story -- it uses the even then antiquated techniques of
'illustrated text'. While the photography is as good as anything in the
period, the actors have little more to do than pose, and the entire
piece is framed as a troop of boy scouts sit around a camp fire and
listen to one of their number read the story from a book.
Director/writer/costar Hal Reid would eventually learn to do better and Wallace Reid, who plays Chingachcook, would eventually become a leading star for Paramount, but this early effort at greater lengths merely highlights how far the industry had to go.
There is a persistent and pernicious myth about the length of US films
at this period (originally constructed as part of the critical attempt
to give an absolute primacy to the first features of D W Griffith and
subserve what remains the orthodox (but false) US view of cinema
history. For decades the films that would enable one to contradict such
myths were simply not available but there is longer any excuse.
It is true that the US was slow in making full-length features (strongly resisted by the MPPC/"Edison Trust") and that most the full-length films that appeared in 1913 were European but there were at least four very well-known full-length films made that year - Olcott's From the Manger to the Cross (known perhaps better for the fact that it was partly filmed on location in Palestine than for the quality of the film) and Ince's hugely popular (but now alas lost) The Battle of Gettysburg and Vitagraph's very prestigious version of Pickwick Papers with John Bunny(which again alas does not survive in anything approaching its entirety) and the notorious Traffic in Souls (nowsemingly only available in an abridged version) and at least one lesser known example (Hiawatha with an entirely native American cast) and I am quite sure that list can be, and will be, extended.
As for medium length films like this one (35-45 mins), there were plenty - including The Trap (Powers),Ivanhoe (IMP), Streets of New York (Pilot) and King Rene's Daughter (Thanhouser). Again we can confidently expect many more to become available.
This is a fine film that deserves to be better known. Vitagraph was the most admired US company internationally at this period and this, with its excellent location shooting, is a good example of why (cf the very studio-made and stagey Biograph films with their constant editing because in part at least of poor mise en scène and makeshift sets and their standard band of obviously fake "extras" - man at party, woman at party etc all played by the same group of actors). The frame-narration, revealed only gradually in the course of the film, is also innovative and interesting.
Wallace Reid was not strictly speaking the first screen Hawkeye (there had been two films of Last of the Mohicans in 1911) but he makes a rather good fist of portraying the archetypical solitary pioneer-hero, adrift between two cultures.
They are a bit reliant on intertitles (the "literary" side of Vitagraph) but this was a constant with US films virtually throughout the silent era, at least until the influence of European directors like Lubitsch and Murnau began to be felt (see for instance Maurice Tourneur's 1917 Victory which is as talkative as any sound picture). The tendency in European films was generally the reverse (fewer and fewer intertitles) - one of the reasons why, when it came, the US directors had to change relatively little to adapt to the sound era while many European directors experimented with what I have called elsewhere "the mixed form", using sound but with little dialogue, trying to preserve the higher visual values of the silent era (and in the process producing some of the greatest classics of cinema and some of the finest films ever made).
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