The Battle at Elderbush Gulch (1913)    2 Stars


The Battle at Elderbush Gulch (1913)
The Battle at Elderbush Gulch (1913)

Director: D. W. Griffith

Cast: Mae Marsh, Leslie Loveridge, Alfred Paget

Synopsis: Settlers fight for their lives against marauding Indians.




Sally Cameron (Mae Marsh – Judith of Bethulia, The Birth of a Nation) and her little sister (Leslie Loveridge) are despatched to the Wild West for reasons unknown at the beginning of The Battle at Elderbush Gulch, one of the last two-reelers D. W. Griffith’s made for Biograph before embarking on the insanely ambitious The Birth of a Nation. They share a carriage ride out West with a young new mother Melissa Harlowe (Lillian Gish – The Musketeers of Pig Alley, Broken Blossoms) and her husband (Robert Harron – Intolerance, Hearts of the World) who discover theirs is the only baby in their new frontier home. Upon arriving at their new home with their uncles, the girls are disappointed to learn that their puppies are not allowed indoors. When Sally sneaks out one night to check on the pups, who have been left in a basket outside, she discovers that they have wandered off.

Now, unknown to Sally, her Uncles have some noisy and unruly neighbours – a tribe of Red Indians who just happen to be finishing off a particularly riotous festival involving the eating of man’s best friend, so the more astute of you can probably deduce where the plot is headed, especially when the Chief’s son and his mate arrive late to the party to find that all the dogs have been eaten so set off to find some of their own. Fortunately for Sally, she manages to rescue her pups just as the two hungry braves are about to spirit them away, and is rescued from being kidnapped herself by her uncles who kill the Chief’s son in the process. Naturally, when the Chief learns of his son’s death, he’s far from happy…

Although many of Griffith’s film are over-sentimental melodramas, they’re interesting to watch to chart his development as a filmmaker. Everything about The Battle at Elderbush Gulch is more accomplished than the films he was making just a couple of years earlier. He might not quite have been the finished article by the end of 1913, but he wasn’t far from it – and he was desperate to spread his wings further than Biograph were prepared to allow. And although the plot involves lost puppies and orphan waifs, it’s pleasantly free of the cloying sentimentality that makes so much of his work unpalatable for modern audiences. The climactic battle scenes are particularly well-staged and breathtakingly exciting even today, which is quite remarkable when one considers the technical limitations Griffith was still working under. The Battle of Elderbush Gulch is perhaps more explicit than some might expect of such an old film, with scenes of molestation and scalping, and a scene in which a baby is briefly seen being tossed about by an Indian as he murders its mother.

(Reviewed 18th May 2015)

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