The Half-Breed is “the most original and risky of Fairbanks’ Triangle features” as Frederic Lombardi wrote in 2013. It opens with the tragic end of an interracial romance – the suicide of a Native American woman who has been seduced and abandoned by a white man. She leaves behind a son, Lo, or Sleeping Water (Douglas Fairbanks), who is raised by a white naturalist. When his adoptive father dies, white miners force Lo from his home at gunpoint. The role was a departure for Fairbanks, who reputedly wanted to stretch his acting chops with the part, in what is essentially a story condemning racism and hypocrisy. Early on, the viewers learn the identity of Lo’s father: he is the local sheriff. The audience alone is privy to the irony of Sheriff Dunn’s contempt for Lo – and of their rivalry for the love of preacher’s daughter, Nellie Wynn.
Anita Loos, who wrote The Half-Breed’s scenario, might have been at least partially responsible for turning the stereotype of the virginal white woman and the rapacious redskin on its head. Nellie’s brazen pursuit of Lo seems to belong to the flapper frankness of the 1920s rather than to pre-World War I Victorian morality.
The film follows a common strategy of exposing racism and then evading a real confrontation – in this case, by revealing Nellie to be a heartless coquette and providing Lo with a more worthy love interest, Teresa, who, as both a Mexican and an outlaw, is his social equal. Yet it’s unfair to condemn the film for its inability to transcend its time period’s prejudices. As late as 1990, Kevin Costner is provided with a white captive to marry rather than a Native American bride in the Oscar-winning Dances with Wolves.
Library of Congress nitrate print of The Half-Breed’s original Fine Arts Corporation Pictures release in 1916 came from the infamous 1978 Dawson City find, when hundreds of pre-World War I films were uncovered buried in a swimming pool. While closest to the original release, this print could only be used for intertitles and a small number of indispensable shots, including portions of Jack Brace’s pursuit of Teresa through the redwoods. The only other surviving 35mm print is a 1924 re-release of the film held by the Cinémathèque française, which contributed 90 percent of the photographic shots of the reconstruction. Finally, a 16mm abridgement print, provided by Lobster Films, filled in some missing scenes, such as the fight between Lo Dorman and the group of drunken Indians.
Cast and Credits
Sog.: dal racconto In the Carquinez Woods di Bret Harte. Scen.: Anita Loos. F.: Victor Fleming. Int.: Douglas Fairbanks (Lo Dorman), Alma Rubens (Teresa), Sam De Grasse (lo sceriffo Dunn), Tom Wilson (Dick Curson), Frank Brownlee (Winslow Wynn), Jewel Carmen (Nellie Wynn), George Beranger (Jack Brace), Winifred Westover (Belle). Prod.: Fine Arts Film Co. / Triangle Film Corp. (supervisione di David W. Griffith). 35mm. L.: 1335 m. D.: 65’ a 18 f/s. Bn.
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