Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Squaw Man


There is some niggling among film historians, but this is probably the first feature-length movie to be filmed in Hollywood, beating out The Birth of a Nation by about a year. It was produced by Cecil B. DeMille, a man with zero movie-making experience. (He knew so little he filmed it with two different cameras, each of which used a different format for the sprocket holes. That cost a bundle to fix!) He, and others, were fleeing the violence of the Edison patent wars back east, and also looking for exotic locations. Before that, New Jersey had been used to stand in for everything from the bayous of Louisiana to the Alps of Switzerland. Moviemakers could find just about anything they needed in California. If not, they could build it without worrying that Edison men would burn their sets down in the night. Well, not worrying too much, though the gangsters working for Edison might show up anywhere.

Unlike D.W. Griffith’s awful masterpiece, which is terrible only in its morality, this movie is awful in pretty much every aspect. It shows none of D.W.’s mastery of storytelling, nor any great epic sweep. But worst of all is the story itself. In England, Captain James Wynnegate takes the blame for his cousin’s misfeasance in stealing money from a widow’s and orphan’s fund to cover his gambling debts. Cap’n James is in love with the cousin’s wife, so he does the noble thing, to spare her disgrace and avoid besmirching the family name by taking the blame (though why his taking the blame would save the family is not clear to me). He departs for wildest Montana and becomes a cattle rancher. An Indian princess named Nat-U-Ritch (surprisingly, in this age of black-and brown-faced white people, played by an actual Indian, Red Wing). He marries her and she bears him a son. Whether it’s gratitude or real love isn’t clear to me. The thing is, he owes her, big time. She saved his life once by shooting the man who was about to kill him, and again when he goes “snow blind” and blunders into a steaming hot spring. With no transition at all we cut to the Cap’n frolicking with his 6-year-old son, and then to the cousin hiking in the Alps. He fractures his noggin and, as his last act, writes out a paper exonerating the Cap. The noble family sets out west to take him back.

The new widow is shocked that he’s married to a redskin, but it is decided they’ll take him back to Blighty and raise him properly. After all, he is the future Earl of Snotbury, or something. Can’t have him growing up with a squaw for a mother. Nobody consults Nat-U-Ritch about this. Once more Cap’n decides to do the noble thing, and stays behind. But the sheriff wants to arrest the squaw for murder. She solves everybody’s problems by shooting herself. Noble Cap holds her lifeless body and says “Poor little mother.” THE END. It’s all so bloody convenient for everybody but poor Nat. Now Cap’n can marry his English slut and raise the poor kid to be a proper little shit. It all just made me terribly angry. CB liked the story so much he made it two more times.