Directed By: D.W. Griffith
Starring: Mae Marsh, Lillian Gish, Leslie Loveridge
Tag line: "Exclusive Biograph Masterpiece"
Trivia: The film was released in Germany four and a half months before its official premiere in the US
This year marks the 100th Anniversary of D.W. Griffith’s two-reel western, The Battle at Elderbush Gulch, and while it wasn’t the first cinematic western ever made (The Great Train Robbery was already 10 years old when this movie was released), it stands as an early example of just how exciting the genre can be.
A stagecoach heads west carrying a number of passengers, including young Sally (Mae Marsh) and her sister (Leslie Loveridge), on their way to live with their uncle (Alfred Paget); and a mother (Lillian Gish) who, with her husband (Robert Harron) and infant child, is looking to start a new life in the untamed frontier. Upon their arrival, Sally is told by her uncle that the two puppies she’s brought along aren’t permitted to stay inside the house. But when a pair of hungry Native Americans decides to make a snack of the pooches, it leads to a bloody showdown that, before long, will escalate into an all-out battle between the Indians and the settlers.
Many of the usual tropes that would haunt Griffith throughout his career, notably his callous treatment of minorities (though in the case of Native Americans, it would take more than a few decades for Hollywood to finally shine a sympathetic light their way) and his penchant for heavy-handed melodrama (during the final shoot-out, Gish’s infant baby somehow ends up in the hands of the Natives) are on full display in The Battle at Elderbush Gulch. Where the film excels, however, is its convincing western locales (the movie was shot at the Biograph Ranch in San Fernando California) and some terrifically tense action scenes (in the climactic sequence, our heroes end up trapped inside a small cabin, fighting for their lives against an enemy that has them badly outnumbered).
More than anything, though, the sweeping, epic feel of The Battle at Elderbush Gulch set the stage for Griffith to attempt longer, more elaborate movies; within two years, his controversial Civil War film, The Birth of a Nation, would be released to an unsuspecting public. In essence, The Battle at Elderbush Gulch marked an ending point in the great director’s career (it was one of the last two-reel shorts he’d ever make for Biograph), while also pointing towards the future.