September 25, 2012  |  An Auteurist History of Film
D. W. Griffith’s The Battle at Elderbush Gulch and John Ford’s Straight Shooting

The Battle at Elderbush Gulch. 1914. USA. Directed by D. W. Griffith

These notes accompany screenings of D. W. Griffith’s The Battle at Elderbush Gulch and John Ford’s Straight Shooting on September 26, 27, and 28 in Theater 2.

[D. W.] Griffith’s Westerns…adopted the view of the Indian as a figure of fierce savagery, the primitive enemy of white civilization and the chief obstacle (aside from nature itself) to American expansionism, as evident in his final western for Biograph, The Battle of Elderbush Gulch. Its Biograph Bulletin states that this film is “unquestionably the greatest two reel picture ever produced.”…Perhaps more than any other single silent short, it determines and develops the dominant perspective of the Myth of Conquest.

Straight Shooting, similar to [John] Ford’s later Westerns…never veers into action for the sake of action. It is leisurely and steadily paced and accented by pauses and reflections, yet also proves exciting in the climax of the range war…. Ford demonstrates a grasp of rhythm and space that enables him to keep a steady beat…. Ford shows in Straight Shooting how well he understands the situating of the westerner in his particular space…. His pacing allows…for the depiction of the duality of human nature: for characters to be both wise and stubborn, both funny and brutal, both selfish and self-sacrificing—as we will also see in later Ford Westerns starring Henry Fonda, James Stewart, and John Wayne.

– Mary Lea Bandy and Kevin Stoehr, Ride, Boldly Ride: The Evolution of the American Western (University of California Press, 2012) (currently available in the MoMA Store)

The series of D. W. Griffith’s early Westerns reached its zenith with The Battle of Elderbush Gulch. He had used the plot of the Cavalry saving the settlers from the Indians before, but the scale here is grander, the photography brilliant, the execution and editing of the action precise. Lillian Gish and Mae Marsh give performances that can be seen as rehearsals for the genius they displayed in The Birth of a Nation. Griffith had now pushed the short film to the farthest limits, and something had to give.

Twenty-three-year-old John Ford, at the start of his career, embarked on a series of Westerns (of which Straight Shooting was the first feature) starring Harry Carey as Cheyenne Harry. Carey was a more natural actor than either William S. Hart or Tom Mix, and Cheyenne Harry’s character, as shaped by him and Ford, was that of a gallant but unglamorous saddle tramp, not unlike John Wayne in Ford’s The Searchers four decades later. The results salvaged Carey’s waning career (he had worked for Griffith and appeared in Elderbush Gulch), and Ford became the most promising director on the Universal lot.

In technique, acting, and content, Straight Shooting shows a strong Griffith influence. Yet many of the compositions are strikingly Fordian and could compare favorably to images in his much later work. John Ford was a natural. Reviews of his Universal films frequently commented on their extraordinary photography and use of locations. The plots would seem to have been very similar to Hart’s, but they lacked the oppressive moralizing, concentrating more on vigorous action.