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D.W. Griffith and his Biograph Studio

In the early days, the only man making Westerns rivaling Inceville is David Wark (D.W.) Griffith.  Griffith�s studio, Biograph makes 571 films, between July 1908 and November 1912.  You can classify 74 as Westerns.  New York headquarters Biograph studios; however, from 1910 Griffith regularly winters his film company in California.

One of Griffith�s most successful Westerns is The Last Drop of Water (1911), story by Bret Harte.  The Californian desert location benefits the movie.  The story entails two rivals for the heroine�s love.  Blanche Sweet plays the heroine.  She marries the one, and his liking for booze (a trademark in D.W. Griffith�s films) causes their marriage to worsen.  A year later, the couple and the former suitor join a wagon train of settlers heading west.  In the desert, Indians attack.  

They are now running out of water.  The suitor, still in love with Blanche Sweet, gallantly volunteers to search for water.  The husband eventually finds him nearly dying of thirst.  At first, the husband taunts him, but redeems himself by giving up his last drop of war.  The husband dies.  The suitor recovers and brings the cavalry, just in time (again another of Griffith trademarks).

Just like most of D.W. Griffith�s films, the crew is large and the equipment is impressive.  The wagon train scenes traveling through the desert are impressive and become classic.  Griffith's Westerns, along with his non-Western movies, offer high production values and make a visual statement.  This helps to enhance the Westerns popularity.  Griffith defined the Western by making the movie an �epic.�  This helps to increases the Western�s prestige.  The Western is the perfect vehicle for Griffith's skill in creating storyline tension using cross � cutting.  By placing innocent young women in jeopardy, this allows him to squeeze emotion from the audience.

In his most complex early Western, The Battle of Elderbush Gulch (1914), Lillian Gish and Mae Marsh play two young sisters who move out west.  The local Indians go on the warpath and attack the town.  The girls take refuge in a cabin and it looks like the Indians will break through (this is an early example of what becomes a Western standard, the women are told to save the last bullet for themselves).  Then at the last moment, the cavalry arrive to save the day.

Griffith makes both Ramona and A Squaw's Love, with sympatric and understanding Indian characters.  He makes The Battle of Elderbush Gulch that depicts Indians as savages.  The Western is schizophrenic toward Native Americans.  It treats them as noble characters in the Western drama or a savages willing to kill all whites.  Deep-seated racism is to blame for the making the Indian a faceless character.  

However, we need to look at the needs to make a drama.  The Western's legacies from 1800�s pop culture and the early success of Western movie emphasis action and spectacle.  This creates the belief that conflict is resolved through a struggle.  To be brave, you need danger.  The plot requires a threat and the American Indian provides that.  Violence occurring from racial difference is a simple trigger that requires no complex reason or motivate.


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