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Film / The Half-Breed

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The Half-Breed is a 1916 feature film directed by Allan Dwan, written by and starring Douglas Fairbanks.

Fairbanks is Lo Dorman, illegitimate child of a Native American mother and a white father that abandoned her. Lo is raised to adulthood in the Sierra Nevada mountains by an old mountain man. Eventually the mountain man passes away, leaving Lo alone, belonging to neither the white nor the Native American world. Lo wanders into the town of Excelsior and attends a church meeting, where Nellie Wynn, the preacher's daughter, takes a fancy to him. Sheriff Dunn of Excelsior is also attracted to Nellie—and he turns out to be Lo's long-lost father. Further complications ensue with the arrival of Dick Curson, the sleay Snake Oil Salesman, and his attractive assistant Teresa.

A pretty remarkable example of Fair for Its Day filmmaking in 1916. The film presents a startlingly enlightened view of racism and white supremacy, such as when a title card lampoons the "Superior" white man and then cuts to a shot of dirty old drunken hobo, or when Lo is forced off his deceased adoptive father's land at gunpoint because he's a half-breed. But the hero is still being played by a white actor in Brownface, and the local tribe is still portrayed as a bunch of drunks who set fire to the forest for no apparent reason.


Tropes:

  • All Women Are Lustful: Nellie is pretty clearly drawn to Lo by pure sexual attraction. When it's made clear to her that she could damage her social standing by dating a half-breed, she cuts Lo loose without a second thought.
  • Brownface: The very white Douglas Fairbanks playing a half-breed Native American. And the other Native Americans in the movie aren't very convincing either.
  • Description Cut: Sheriff Dunn, laid up in the hospital after being stabbed by Teresa, asks if Nellie has tried to see him. A visitor answers "Yes, I can hear her breaking down the door to get to you." The film then cuts to Nellie going off to visit Lo.
  • Diabolus ex Machina: Some of the local natives set fire to the forest because...they were bored? This sets up the climax in which Lo rescues Teresa from the fire but Sheriff Dunn dies.
  • Driven to Suicide: Lo's mother was "betrayed by a white man." After handing baby Lo off to a friendly mountain man, she jumps to her death from a cliff.
  • Fanservice: An example that was doubly unusual for the era both because the character was nearly nude and because the character was male. Douglas Fairbanks is shown standing on a rock and then diving into a river, wearing nothing but a loincloth.
  • Heel Realization: Sheriff Dunn keels over after finding some old keepsakes of Lo's mother and realizing that the man he came into the forest to kill is his son.
  • Hypocrite: Pastor Wynn goes around the saloon trying to get people to go to church, but when a saloon patron passes the hat for a woman dying of TB, Pastor Wynn won't deliver the money, because she's not in his congregation.
  • Love Dodecahedron: Lo, Sheriff Dunn, and local businessman Jack Brace are all admirers of Nellie—at the end she reveals that she cares only for Jack. And then there's Dick Curson and Teresa, and how he dumps her like yesterday's newspaper after becoming enchanted with a local hooker.
  • Maybe Ever After: Lo, dispirited by recent events and with the forest that he calls home having burned to ashes, resolves to go away and find a new home somewhere else. Teresa says she's realized that she's in love with him, and will follow him everywhere and stay with him forever. He walks away, and she follows.
  • Mixed Ancestry: Lo is an outcast from both worlds, and lives alone.
  • Noble Savage: More or less averted. It's not that Lo is more noble or enlightened because he's a Native American; it's more that most of the white people in town are assholes.
  • Off-into-the-Distance Ending: Lo resolves to go away and find a new home somewhere else, his forest home having burned down. Teresa, the friend that Lo saved from arrest, says she's realized that she's in love with him, and will follow him everywhere and stay with him forever. He walks away, and she follows, and the film ends.
  • Scare Quotes: A title card promises a "specimen of the 'Superior' white man", and then the film cuts to a shot of the town drunk.
  • Scenery Porn: Some pretty incredible footage of the giant trees of Sequoia National Park.
  • Snake Oil Salesman: Dick Curson makes all kinds of ridiculous health claims for the patent medicine he is selling from the back of a horse cart.
  • The Tease: Nellie spends a lot of time in close physical contact with Lo, and also strings Sheriff Dunn along. At the end she tells Jack Brace that she loves only him.
  • Victoria's Secret Compartment: A woman at the saloon who appears to be a prostitute pulls some money out of her Compartment.
  • Woman Scorned: Curson cruelly throws Teresa over after he takes interest in a local prostitute. She stabs him In the Back (he lives) and then flees to the forest where she takes refuge with Lo.

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