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No other film before "The Birth of a Nation" better shows the potential
D.W. Griffith could direct something of such scope than does "The
Battle at Elderbush Gulch". His direction of the battle scenes here are
the best precursor to those in "The Birth of a Nation", even so much as
for this website to say that the later film references this one.
Griffith's last picture for Biograph, "Judith of Bethulia", had battle
scenes, too, but nothing was added to the grammar. It was a larger
battle than the one in this film, yet Griffith didn't have the budget
or time to make it grand. He was going over-budget and making a
feature-length film without permission from studio-heads.
The battle scenes in this film are on a smaller scale. Within that battle, there's focus on small skirmishes via extensive crosscutting. It's brutal--an infant is tossed around at one point, which I hope was a trick-shot of some sort. There's lots of smoke. There are multiple plot lines throughout, which are interlinked fluently in the climax.
All of this creates an omniscient, unrestricted narrative. The bird's eye views of the fighting are a style still used today, although the irises aren't. Griffith and Billy Bitzer further display their mastering of camera distance with frequent use of medium shots. They hadn't figured out how to do an onrush shot yet, though, as the camera position of the cavalry is boring; they'd correct that in "The Birth of a Nation". There's the missing wall in interior shots; they'd never correct that.
As fellow posters have condemned, this film is a precursor of "The Birth of a Nation" in another way: racism. Although I suppose it is racism either way, I doubt that Griffith intended to portray Native Americans ridiculously (he clearly stated that he considered Blacks to be childlike, although he didn't agree that was racist), but rather it was the result of his lack of understanding any particular tribal culture or fully understanding film representation. Bad acting didn't help, either. Only Lillian Gish and Mae Marsh really knew what they're doing. Anyhow, Griffith's earlier short film, "The Redman's View" was an attempt to be respectful of the Native-American population, even though it's a boring movie.
(Note: This is one of three short films by D.W. Griffith that I've commented on, with some arrangement in mind. The other films are "A Corner in Wheat" and "The Girl and Her Trust".)
Given the limited cinematic methods available in 1913, this is an
impressive achievement, and it still makes for pretty good viewing
today. It's also interesting in that its perspective is largely
morally-neutral (except perhaps from what today's viewers might read
into it), so that the excitement comes mostly from the danger of the
situation, rather than from one side being entirely right and the other
being entirely wrong.
The build-up to the battle is done rather well, enabling you to identify with the characters, while making some points of its own. Neither side in the confrontation is really in the right, yet Griffith's technique arouses your keen interest in the events to come.
But it is the filming of the actual "Battle at Elderbush Gulch" that is so noteworthy. To create such a sensation of action, turmoil, and emotion using the limited camera field of the times is remarkable. There are a lot of carefully chosen and composed shots, and Griffith also adds in some techniques that were new or relatively new at the time. There are several well-chosen 'iris' shots, and a variety of close-in and distant camera fields that pull you in and out of the action as the director wishes.
It's a fine achievement for its time, at the very least in technical terms, and would probably be well worth a look today for those with an interest in silent movies.
While I score the movie a 7, I also should point out that it is both
interesting historically (as it stars Mae Marsh, Lillian Gish and
Lionel Barrymore when they were all younger and less well-known) and
features pretty exciting action for its day.
The plot is odd for a Western, in that all the trouble with the Indians begins for the weirdest reason I have ever seen! The Indians decide to have a giant dog banquet (no, they are not feeding dogs, but feeding ON dogs) and when two Indians arrive late, there are not pooches left! So, they steal two dogs belonging to two orphans from the nearby White settlement and this actually touches off an all-out war!!!! Not only is this silly, but seems to play on the prejudices of audiences. I don't know if American Indians actually ate dog, but it sounds like the sort of stereotype that later was applied to other ethnic groups. All this over dogs! The movie has some excellent battle scenes and exciting moments--such as when Ms. Marsh crawls across the battlefield to save a baby! Exciting stuff! But, STRANGE, too!
There are several story lines in this film and shows some of the
techniques that D.W. Griffith would be famous for (iris, capturing
action up close and from a distance, etc.). This film has a few names
that would become well-known, Mae Marsh, Lillian Gish, and Lionel
Barrymore. Sally (IMDb has her as "Hattie" (Marsh) and her sister are
sent to join their uncles on the "frontier" - taking with them two
One of the uncles won't allow the puppies to stay in the cabin. Meanwhile, at the Native American village, the natives are celebrating "The Feast of the Dog", which is apparently, the day they all eat dogs. I don't know if any tribes were eating dogs, some cultures do, and the Indian tribe of Griffith's imagination ate dogs - at least once (you don't actually see any dogs being killed, cooked, or eaten). Part of this celebration apparently is the stereotypical dancing (hiring a choreographer seems to never entered the discussions). The chief's son and his friend arrive late and try to find some dogs to eat. They soon come upon Sally's puppies, she tries to save them, and gunfire soon starts up.
The Native Americans start a war dance - this time they seem to be a bit more coordinated. A war party rides toward the whites' settlement.
Meanwhile, back at the cabin, Lillian Gish's husband (Robert Herron) takes their baby to show him or her off to some of the other settlers.
The Natives ride into town firing rifles (this is where some of Griffith's more interesting shots come in to play - capturing what looks like a much larger battle taking place). There is some hand-to-hand combat taking place in the small town. When the people at the cabin hear about the attack, Gish becomes hysterical and tries to find her baby. The men who have the baby try to take shelter in a barn and "a Mexican" (William A. Carroll) rides to the nearby fort. He also appears to mount a horse and ride off in less than a second - it's either bad editing or a few frames of the film is lost.
The Natives set the barn on fire, forcing the people inside to flee. The man holding the baby is killed just outside the cabin. In the midst of a lot of smoke and confusion, Sally (aka Hattie) sneaks out of the cabin to try to save the baby.
Will the cavalry get to the cabin in time to save the remaining settlers? Will the Natives scalp anyone? You'll have to watch to find out!
The Battle at Elderbrush Gulch was Griffith's longest and most
expensive short he had made up to that point. In it we see him trying
to perfect the large-scale action scene that would be necessary in his
full-length features, packing in all the elements that had made his
previous action shorts successful.
Griffith uses the western format already the ideal backdrop for pure, straight-ahead action set pieces as the setting for his first epic battle. Like many westerns of the 1910s, the starting point is a character from the east heading out west a device which perhaps helped ease the audience into the wilderness, and here those easterners are a pair of children, which was important for the type of picture this develops into. For Griffith, you couldn't have action without a sense of vulnerability and here he crams it in, with the kids from back east, Lillian Gish as the distraught mother of "the only baby in town" and even some puppies that are at risk of ending up on the Indians' menu.
All this paves the way for an exceedingly complex and layered action sequence, blending the trapped heroine scenario and the ride-to-the-rescue with the battles that Griffith had been depicting since his earliest Civil War pictures in 1909. There is a phenomenal amount going on here, and Griffith does very well at maintaining the exhilarating pace throughout and keeping everything coherent and logical. However, juggling x amount of elements in an action sequence does not necessarily make it that many times more exciting, no matter how skilfully they are balanced, and Griffith did create better tension-soaked finales before and after this one.
But even a Griffith picture so heavily focused on action would not be without its drama, characterisation and atmospherics. In The Battle at Elderbrush Gulch, the emotional set-up is dealt with briefly but economically. First, we have the scene in which the waifs leave their home. The cart they travel on heads away from the camera, making use of depth and distance to express their moving away from safety and civilization. An equally effective scene is the one in which we are introduced to the young family of Gish, Bobby Harron and their baby. The people of the town coo over the precious tot, then saunter off screen, revealing that two Indians were watching them from the background, adding a sinister little note of danger.
Of course, many viewers today have pointed out The Battle at Elderbrush Gulch's offensive portrayal of Native Americans (in contrast with the more sympathetic Red Man's View), but perhaps all is not what it seems. First of all, take a look at the Indian Chief's son's waistcoat it's black and covered in shiny white dots. It looks to me like a pearly king's jacket, perhaps modified slightly for the warmer climate. Now have a look at the "war dance" they perform later on it has a certain "knees-up Mother Brown" air to it. These aren't Indians, they're cockneys! So it shouldn't be offensive to Native Americans. Just cockneys.
Epic early film, directed by D.W. Griffith. Mae Marsh, her little
sister, and their dogs are orphaned - they must go to live with an
uncle. Aboard their coach is young couple Lillian Gish and Robert
Harron, celebrating the birth of their first child. The coach arrives
in Elderbush Gluch. Marsh's uncle tells her she can't keep the dogs,
and they are put out. There are Indians (Native Americans) nearby; and,
Indians love to eat dog meat (no kidding?). These Indians are hungry!
Lionel Barrymore is sympathetic to Ms. Marsh, desiring to help her
recover the runaway dogs. While rescuing the puppies, an Indian is shot
- resulting in a "Cowboys vs. Indians" confrontation.
This "Saga of the American West" is certainly an important film; however, the reliable Griffith performers begin to overplay their hands, and the story is too contrived. Many of the Griffith elements are in place - some good, and a few bad. "The Battle at Elderbush Gluch" foreshadows the later epic, "Birth of a Nation".
******* The Battle at Elderbush Gulch (3/28/14) D.W. Griffith ~ Mae Marsh, Robert Harron, Lillian Gish
Two girls (one is played by Mae Marsh) move in with their uncle.
Nearby, and Indian tribe has just concluded their dog-eating festival.
The Indian Chief's son (an unrecognizable Henry B. Walthall) arrives
too late for the feast and is angry. Now the girls just happen to have
two puppies. Now the puppies just happen to escape from the girls. Now
Walthall just happens to spot his potential meal. Now Marsh goes
looking for the puppies and accosts Walthall. Now Marsh's uncle just
happens to be looking for Marsh and shoots Walthall. Now the rest of
the tribe is angry and decides to attack the town, leading to a well
staged gunfight which is resolved once the soldiers arrive.
Lillian Gish plays the mother of a newborn, and she and her husband (Robert Harron) have just arrived in town. Gish gives the best acting performance as she almost has a nervous breakdown trying to find her baby once the shooting starts.
In one very creepy scene, during the attack, we see a gun being pointed down at Gish, but it is eventually withdrawn. I assumed this scene was meant to illustrate that being shot would be preferable to whatever these Indians would do to you. There is a scene similar to this in Birth of a Nation, but don't think this is just some thing of D.W. Griffith's. In Stagecoach, a 1939 John Ford film, the same scene is played out.
Many of the cast members were reunited for The Birth of a Nation. Harry Carey is supposed to be in this, but I couldn't spot him. I did spot Lionel Barrymore as a soldier, and he certainly has a great physique here at age 34. Recommended as a good piece of silent drama, and I usually don't even like westerns.
It's hard to imagine that "The Battle of Elderbush Gulch", directed by the
legendary D.W. Griffith, was made a way back in 1914. It is a showcase for
Griffith's emerging style.
The story centers around a group of settlers called the Cameron Brothers and their families which include a young waif (Mae Marsh) sent out from the east to live with her uncles and a young wife (Lillian Gish) who has just given birth. A group of Indians tries to capture the waif's pet dogs and are driven off by the men folk. During the confrontation the Indian Chief's son (Henry B. Wathall) is killed. The Indian chief plots his revenge and launches an attack on the small community of Elderbush Gulch.
It is this attack, which is quite brutal and graphic for this or any other time, that forms the core of the picture. The Indians slaughter the towns folk, women and children alike and drive them out of town towards the Cameron's homestead. The newborn baby becomes separated from its mother and all hell breaks loose. Someone goes for help and returns in the nick of time with the calvary.
The battle scenes contain some graphic violence. For example, we see a woman being scalped alive and there is also a sequence where we see a horse being shot down. I have never seen an animal being slain so convincingly on screen. Mr.Griffith was becoming a master of staging large scale battle scenes, a talent that he would use extensively in his epic Civil War drama, "The Birth of a Nation" released the following year.
Even though it runs a scant 29 minutes, "The Battle of Elderbush Gulch" is nonetheless an exciting and historic bit of film making. See if you can spot Lionel Barrymore and Harry Carey in bit parts.
10 years after what is, arguably, the first western of all time, "The
Great Train Robbery", D.W. Griffith (who is, perhaps, the most
important filmmaker of all time) put his own spin on the western genre
with his 30 minute masterpiece "The Battle at Elderbush Gulch".
Bullets going off! Horses running around! Cowboys and Indians in a fierce battle! This action packed western has almost everything you'd want out of an action packed western, and it is all presented in an only 30 minute runtime!
However, the plot, itself is really flawed, mainly because of how weird it is. It portrays Native Americans in a horribly stereotypical and downright offensive light (like how the African Americans are portrayed in Griffith's controversial epic "The Birth of a Nation"). They literally feast upon dogs, which triggers the whole battle. It is really weird and, overall, possibly the worst movie plot I've ever seen be paired with such an exciting and great movie!
While it is a bit racist, it is still engaging, entertaining, and historically important! Possibly Griffith's best short film.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"The Battle at Elderbush Gulch" is a 29-minute movie from over 100 years ago. As this was made back in 1913, it obviously still has no colors or sound. The director is D.W. Griffith, probably the most significant dramatic director of his era. He is fairly unknown today compared to the likes of Chaplin, but he has left us an immense body of work in terms of quantity, but also quality. Still i must say, that this half-hour movie here is not among my very favorites of his works. I checked for Elderbush Gulch, but all i found was this movie, so it's probably not a depiction of an actual battle. And even if it was, it would have been highly fictionalized with all the personal drama that goes on with the central characters. Mae Marsh and Lillian Gish were among the most known female actors from that era and both appear in this little movie. Thumbs up for the costumes and equipment they used to show this battle to audiences. Well done there, but as a whole still not recommended.
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