May 24, 2018
The Half-Breed – US, 1916
Douglas Fairbanks’ Hollywood career began in 1915, a year in which he appeared in three films. The following year he quadrupled this number, with two short films and ten feature films, one of which was D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, in which he played an uncredited role referred to as Man on White Horse on IMDB. While Fairbanks is now known mainly for his swashbuckling films from the 1920s, most of the films he made in 1916 were westerns, a genre that was thought to be an excellent format for silent films. One of these films was Allan Dwan’s rather audacious The Half-Breed.
In the film, Douglas plays Lo Dorman, the son of a Cherokee Squaw woman and a Caucasian man who didn’t stick around to take care of his son. Exiled from her tribe, Lo’s mother decides to leave him with a hermit naturist, an act which she refers to as “giving him back” to the White race. It’s a gesture that that is not appreciated, for Lo too grows up to be ostracized by both of his parents’ communities. This makes him one of those classic western characters that wander the continent in search of a place to call home and someone to love and accept him for who he is.
His journeys take him to the Township of Excelsion, a classic western town replete with sin, vice, and a few decent individuals – decent, of course, being in the eye of the beholder. We’re introduced to Pastor Winslow Wynn (Frank Brownlee), a man who reminded me of abolitionist Austin Stoneman from D.W. Griffith’s seminal film The Birth of a Nation. Like Stoneman, Wynn preaches tolerance and charity, yet may not be as free from prejudice as he would like to think he is. The preacher has a daughter named Nellie (Jewel Carmen), and she is the toast of the town. Crowds of men flock to her doorstep in hopes of being selected as the lucky one to walk with her to one of her father’s sermons. There’s also Sheriff Dunn (Sam De Grasse), another of Nellie’s suitors, and Teresa (Alma Rubens), the companion of a traveling medicine swindler. The drama comes when Nellie takes an interest in Lo, and her father, the sheriff, and, well, pretty much the rest of the town, take great umbrage.
Contemporary viewers will not be surprised at such a storyline, yet I imagine it was pretty daring in 1916, especially given the fact that the film was made a year after The Birth of a Nation. The film is also rather intrepid in its honest depiction of the dark side of the Wild West. In it, not only do we see evidence of prostitution and lawlessness, but we are also reminded of the ever-present threat of rape and of the dangers that obsession can bring. Teresa seems fully aware of this danger, and at key points she refers to men being leeches who are on the lookout for an opportunity to blackmail or ensnare a woman. In her face and reactions, we see evidence of a rather rough life, one in which men could be both guarantors of security, as well as perpetrators of injustice. As for Nellie, she seems oblivious to the dangers around her, preferring instead to bask in the adulation of her followers and judging their actions as sweet and harmless, remaining oblivious to the increasingly unhealthy fixation that some are developing for her.
The problem with the film is that it introduces so many storylines that is doesn’t have enough time to adequately wrap them all up. In fact, a key storyline involving the identity of Lo’s father is simply dropped, and the film’s love quadrangle never resonates as much as it should. Part of this is due to the film’s poor development of the relationship between Lo and Nellie, and while I was watching the film, I couldn’t help thinking that the film would have been better served by giving Teresa’s screen time to Nellie. I also couldn’t help but notice that Teresa’s rebellious spirit and her status as an outcast made her a much better match for Lo. However, I can’t fault the film for depicting Lo as being blind to that. After all, men have been drawn to the wrong women since the beginning of time.
Still, there is a lot to like about The Half-Breed. I liked Douglas’s depiction of Lo as being rather carefree on his own and extremely serious when faced with injustice and discrimination. I was also intrigued by Nellie’s rebellious nature. It’s possible to read her entire interest in Lo as being the result of her father’s disapproval of any relationship between them. The film sheds lights on the hypocrisy of some people who profess to be free of racism, only to falter when faced with the possibility of a family member actually taking their message of tolerance to heart. These are indeed imperfect people in a movie set in imperfect times. Sure, the narrative could be tighter, and with another thirty minutes, many of the film’s neglected or discarded story lines could have been more satisfactorily wrapped up. However, what we have is both fascinating and bold in parts, and that makes its faults rather easy to overlook. (on DVD and Blu-ray from Kino Classics)