Saturday, March 21, 2009

Western: In the Border States (1910, D.W. Griffith)

In the Border States (1910)
USA, 17 min
Directed by: D.W. Griffith
Written by: Stanner E.V. Taylor
Starring: Charles West, Charles Arling, William J. Butler, Verner Clarges, Edward Dillon, John T. Dillon, Gladys Egan

In 1910, America was preparing to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of the Civil War, and the gradual development of cinema made it possible to convincingly recreate the events of decades past. While many of these Civil War films were dispensable and quickly forgotten, at least one director knew exactly what he was doing with the camera. D.W. Griffith became such a successful filmmaker because he could really connect with the human side of his characters. War films can very easily become a one-sided affair, showing sympathy and compassion for only one of the feuding powers, while the other one is designated to the role of the faceless enemy. Not so for Griffith, at least not in this case. In the Border States (1910) humanises both sides of the American Civil War, suggesting that there was little difference between the soldiers who fought for either the Union or the Confederacy (a sobering realisation that usually only comes years after the bloodshed of combat).

The film opens with a young father (Charles West) joining the Union army and marching off to war, leaving behind an anxious family. His daughter (Gladys Egan), collecting water at the well one day, is surprised by a Confederate soldier, who is dying of thirst and being pursued by the enemy. Despite her prejudices, the girl decides to help the poor man, a simple act of kindness that will later reward her in kind. In the Border States really captures the turmoil and confusion of the Civil War, with soldiers fighting fellow Americans at their own doorstep, and being unable to understand why they are in conflict with men who are so similar to themselves. The young girl's benevolence shows that, while loyalty to one's army is noble, this comes second to one's obligation towards his fellow man – regardless of nationality or beliefs. Griffith's action-packed Biograph short, without needing to hammer its message home, is a stirring anti-war testament; it's too bad that, within a few years, the world would be making the same mistakes all over again.

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