Friday, 3 April 2015

1911: His Trust

His Trust

D.W. Griffith's Civil War pictures from this year, several of which feature on Eureka Video's blu-ray of "Birth of a Nation", show a huge improvement on anything I've seen from previous years. The race relations angle has dated rather badly though.
In "His Trust" - subtitled "The faithful devotion and self-sacrifice of an old Negro servant" - a Confederate soldier goes off to fight a battle, bidding goodbye to his wife, little daughter, and several -presumably - slaves.
He leaves his wife and child in the care of George, who looks like he might be head butler, and George promises to look after them.
The soldier is killed in the battle and a comrade returns his sword to the wife, who spends the rest of the picture in various degrees of helpless shock.  Then, while she's out, some Union soldiers ride up to the house, chase away the slaves, then loot the place and set fire to it. The little girl is inside, and George, realising this, braves the fire and smoke to rescue her. The mother returns in time to see the house burn to the ground.
George, however, takes them both to his shack. He sits the mother down in his only chair, puts the child to bed, then gestures to the mother that all he has is hers. Still stunned, she barely reacts. George then goes outside and settles down to sleep on the ground under a thin blanket.
Acting and production values have moved on dramatically since "Oliver Twist" just a couple of years ago. No more stagey painted backgrounds - the sets are three-dimensional and look like real rooms. The fire and smoke are also real. A real house - or something very like it - burns down. There's still a bit of the melodramatic "hands-flung-in-the-air" approach to death scenes, and "hand-across-the-brow" swooning, but at least they're now learning that the camera is sensitive to finer stuff than this - that just acting with the face and eyes can convey an awful lot.  
What a pity then, that it didn't worry them that the black characters look ridiculous.  They're clearly white people blacked up, and not even very well. George himself is bad enough but the others look like they've come straight from the Black and White Minstrel Show. Griffith was a serious, ambitious film maker so there's no reason to think he was setting out to ridicule anybody, it's probably just that being a dyed-in-the-wool Southerner, born just a few years after the Civil War, it would never occur to him that getting black people to do a job like acting was an option. Nor is there any malice here - George is presented as a self-sacrificing hero - but how else should we read it? Patronising? Or just blinkered?
Was Griffith so much an uncritical product of his time and place that he was never struck by the absurdity of a slave gallantly telling his mistress that all he owns is hers?
No need, George. She knew that already.