His Trust (1911)
His Trust (1911)
Director: D. W. Griffith
Cast: Wilfred Lucas, Dell Henderson, Claire McDowell
Synopsis: A Confederate officer who is called off to war leaves his wife and daughter in the care of George, his faithful Negro servant.
During the American Civil War, it seems that every household in the Southern states had to wait only a short time before a parade of Confederate soldiers would march by, accepting without a glance anyone in uniform who cared to tag along. At least, that’s the impression given by pioneering director D. W. Griffith’s skewed vision of the genteel South in his early shorts. In His Trust, the particular household with which we are concerned is headed by a portly but noble Southern Colonel (Dell Henderson – The Lonedale Operator, Intolerance) who sports a lustrous, drooping black moustache. After bidding farewell to his wife (Claire McDowell – The House of Darkness, Heart o’ the Hills) and little daughter (Edith Haldeman), this splendid gentleman shakes the hand of George, his faithful Negro servant (Wilfred Lucas – The Lonedale Operator, Intolerance – blacked-up like a minstrel) and beseeches him to care for his family while he’s away. He then catches the passing “12.42pm-from-Virginia” military parade while happy Negros caper and cheer in the background.
The optimistic glory of marching off to war isn’t quite the same as the reality of being in the thick of battle, however, and when we next meet the Colonel his veneer of self-possessed nobility has been stripped away to reveal a rather excitable man who somehow manages to engineer a victory for his side by waving his arms and pointing in different directions. Unfortunately for the Colonel, he succumbs to an enemy bullet – although not before he passes his sword to a soldier with the order to carry it to his wife. As you’d expect, back at home the news of the Colonel’s death is greeted with much over-acting, but thankfully faithful old George is on hand to protect mother and daughter when the unruly Union soldiers come visiting…
His Trust, the first part of a two-part movie, is a typical early Griffith production in which both the plot and characters are painted with the broadest of strokes. Many will find the depiction of George – as well as the use of white actors in black face – as racially offensive, and even for the early 20th Century, Griffith seems to have had a noticeably skewed perspective of what was, for then, recent history. All slaves are happy slaves in Griffith’s world, grateful for the care and shelter afforded them by their loving white masters, and as if to emphasise the point, at the movie’s end he has George curl up like a dog outside the shack in which the distraught Colonel’s wife grieves. Griffith’s decision to portray all Union soldiers as an undisciplined rabble of looters and arsonists is also a questionable one. There’s no doubt filmmaking in the early years of the 20th Century was still a rudimentary art, and Griffith was clearly aiming to inflame the emotions of his audience by piling on the misery suffered by the widow and her daughter, but the mindlessly destructive marauding of the Union soldiers removes the film from reality, and points to a none too subtle revisionist agenda on the part of the revered director.
(Reviewed 3rd March 2015)