“Lo, the poor Indian,” wrote Alexander Pope in 1733, “whose untutor’d mind/sees God in clouds, or hears him in the wind.” Thus begins the poet’s famous contribution to the 17th century notion of the Noble Savage, a creature of the European enlightenment who is at once inferior and superior to the white European; uncivilized, but also uncorrupted by civilization. The quote was so well known by the time Bret Harte wrote “In the Carquinez Woods” in the early 1880s that “Lo” had become shorthand in the American West for any Native American, and Harte’s half-white, half-Native-American hero uses it as his name—a pun on the French version of his Indian name, “L’Eau Dormante,” or “Sleeping Water.”
When Douglas Fairbanks, Allan Dwan, and Anita Loos adapted Harte’s novella as The Half-Breed in 1916, the poetic idea of the Noble Savage was perhaps less in vogue than the 19th century notion that Native Americans were just plain savage. Ishi, the last “wild” Indian died that same year after spending his last years as a living exhibit in an anthropological museum in San Francisco. The year before, Ernest Dench had published his book about the growing film industry, Making the Movies, which included a chapter on “The Dangers of Employing Redskins as Movie Actors,” warning, “the work affords them an opportunity to live their savage days over again, and they are not slow to take advantage of it.” The 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee at the close of the Indian Wars was most likely fresh in the minds of some of the Native American actors Ince employed in 1912’s War on the Plains; they were Lakota Sioux from the Pine Ridge Reservation where the massacre had taken place. Ince, in fact, had to sign a contract with the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in order to hire them; the Sioux extras camping on the Santa Monica hills of Inceville were considered wards of the state. Not until 1924 were all Native Americans granted citizenship.
While the subjugation of North America’s indigenous inhabitants was more or less complete before movies were invented, the role the Native American played on the silver screen was contested for cinema’s first few decades. As Angela Aleiss points out in her 2005 book Making the White Man’s Indian, “the Indian as a noble hero actually preceded the cowboy star.” Films like The Red Girl and The Child (1910) and A Redskin’s Bravery (1911) focused on interracial friendship, continuing the romantic tradition popularized by James Fenimore Cooper in his Leatherstocking novels. Native Americans were noble, savage, exotic, and complex in Thomas Ince’s The Invaders (1912). Even as confirmed a racist as D.W. Griffith wavered between the two poles, directing 1908’s The Redman and the Child, whose Indian hero rescues a white boy and avenges the boy’s murdered grandfather, and then following it a few years later with The Battle of Elderbush Gulch (1913), in which a villainous Indian murders an infant by crushing his skull. As far as stereotypes went, the early western (or what the trade papers labeled “Indian and western subjects”) was a wide open town.
But already critics and filmmakers were circling the wagons. Moving Picture World warned viewers away from 1911’s Red Deer’s Devotion (believed lost), because it “represents a white girl and an Indian falling in love with each other. While such a thing is possible … still there is a feeling of disgust which cannot be overcome when this sort of thing is depicted as plainly as it is here.” Possibly the movie’s gravest offense was that its heroine runs away to join her Indian lover, breaking the unspoken rule that all interracial romances end tragically. Mixing the races was still taboo, hence the western cliché of white settlers under attack reserving their last bullets to kill the womenfolk, saving them from the fate worse than death. This scene appears in countless movies from Griffith’s The Battle of Elderbush Gulch to 1950’s Winchester ’73. As Kevin Brownlow wrote, “the moment that the Noble Savage procreated with a white woman, the offspring became a vicious character.”
Given this context, The Half-Breed is a daring film. It opens with the tragic end of an interracial romance—the suicide of a Native American woman who has been seduced and abandoned by a white man. She leaves behind a son, Lo, or Sleeping Water (Douglas Fairbanks), who is raised by a white naturalist. When his adoptive father dies, white miners force Lo from his home at gunpoint. The role was a departure for Fairbanks, who reputedly wanted to stretch his acting chops with the part. “Fairbanks has infrequent opportunities here for his talented smile,” the New York Times review noted, in what is essentially a story condemning racism and hypocrisy. Early on, the viewers, although not the characters, learn the identity of Lo’s father: he is the local sheriff (played by the perennial villain of Fairbanks’s films, Sam De Grasse). The audience alone is privy to the irony of Sheriff Dunn’s contempt for Lo—and of their rivalry for the love of preacher’s daughter, Nellie Wynn.
The real story is not Lo’s parentage, but the triangle of Lo, Nellie, and Sheriff Dunn. “Although the film runs through the standard white woman-Indian man plot points, it rewrites them with sharp satire,” says scholar Scott Simmons in his 2003 history of the genre, The Invention of the Western Film. Anita Loos, who wrote Half-Breed’s scenario, might have been at least partially responsible for turning the stereotype of the virginal white woman and the rapacious redskin on its head. Nellie’s brazen pursuit of Lo seems to belong to the flapper frankness of the 1920s rather than to pre-World War I Victorian morality.
The film follows a common strategy of exposing racism and then evading a real confrontation with its consequences—in this case, by revealing Nellie to be a heartless coquette and providing Lo with a more worthy love interest, Teresa, who, as both a Mexican and an outlaw, is his social equal. Yet it’s unfair to condemn the film for its inability to transcend its time period’s prejudices. As late as 1990, cavalry refugee Kevin Costner is provided with a white captive to marry rather than a Native American bride in the Oscar-winning Dances with Wolves. The Half-Breed is still, as Frederic Lombardi writes in his 2013 book Allan Dwan and the Rise and Decline of the Hollywood Studios, “the most original and risky of Fairbanks’ Triangle features.”
Fairbanks may have been attracted to the controversial material because of his own partial Jewish heritage, which, in the context of his time, was almost as problematic as his character’s parentage (and a heritage he shared with author Bret Harte). However, Fairbanks’s departure from the effervescent persona he’d developed in previous features and his attempt to engage with more serious material was not a success. The film was a box-office disappointment, and the reviews were positive but tepid, with critics saving their enthusiasm for the scenery—the film was shot at locations in Sequoia National Park and near Santa Cruz—and the dramatically staged forest fire. “A most acceptable production,” wrote the New York Mirror’s reviewer, while Variety commented, “the wonderful forest locations used in the picture make it seem most impressive.” Writing about the film two years later in Photoplay magazine, Fairbanks admitted, “We, who had a hand in its making, regarded it as a ‘knockout’ … but the public, again using the more expressive vernacular, couldn’t see it.”
Presented at SFSFF 2013 with live music by Guenter Buchwald on the Mighty Wurlitzer