D.W. Griffith was a cinematic pioneer who became known for his epic and historical documents that incorporated terrific elements of drama, melodrama, cliffhangers, battle sequences and well-staged crowd sequences. No less interesting are his short 2-reelers that are filled with terrific insights and filmmaking techniques that can be traced to his later works. Several of these 2-reelers were actually westerns. Of particular note is The Massacre, a masterful example of a western from this era but also one of the first examples that I can find that has a sympathetic eye toward the Native American point of view.
In the densely plotted half-hour, we meet a woman (Blanche Sweet) who is being courted by two men. She chooses one who promises to take her out west. They have a small child and embark on a covered wagon journey. The other, named Stephen (Wilfred Lucas) who had courted her but lost the courtship, becomes a scout, who leads a cavalry troop on an attack of a Native American village and where many in the tribe are slaughtered. The film comes full circle when the young family’s wagon train becomes led by the same scout who led the slaughter of the tribe. However, the remaining tribe comes back to attack the wagon train killing nearly everyone in the wagon train in revenge and retribution. Both battle sequences in the film are framed and executed with Griffith’s flair for spectacle. Not only is the violent combat filmed well at close range, but the distance shots allow for the visual of battle to unfold with its requisite confusion and paranoia.
What's most interesting about this film is the distinctive attention paid toward the Native American perspective. We see the peaceable inhabitants of the tribe, with their young babies and children living comfortably among themselves prior to the attack. These short but important images of them prior to the attack sets up the audience to understand and sympathize with them as being subject to unwarranted attack. Additionally, a very long shot of the battlefield after the attack shows Native Americans lying dead. This is perhaps the earliest example of a decidedly Native American sympathy. This image forces the viewer to look upon the dead in remorse, as is only human. But it also sets up a scenario where the Native Americans are of need to retaliate and we understand the retaliation is somewhat justified within the context of the film. We also realize, though, the anti-war message through the futility of such needless bloodshed……killing begets killing and the cycle of unrest is filled with sadness. The only people to survive the attack upon the wagon train are the woman and her young baby, as they crawl out from under the pile of dead. This allegorical portrayal of new life blooming from such bloodshed yields a thought in my mind that through learning from death and strife such as this, new ideas and ways of thinking can be born. It doesn’t have to be this way and this young baby can prove in his life to rise above this maelstrom. In Griffith’s effective final sequence, he shows a title card that says “In Memoriam”. In my mind, it is a thought applied to the whole bloody conflict…..to Native Americans, to Settlers, to all of us. His respect shown in this moment is also a reminder that the types of events portrayed in this film were in the recent memory of those who may have participated in the making of it. It was made only 22 years after The Battle of Wounded Knee. And that’s one of the key learnings from watching western films from this early era of filmmaking. The events contain an element of realism, not the usual mythmaking, because the events had occurred in the recent past.