title: D.W. Griffith and the Dawn of Film Art

title: Part 4 -- September, 1908 -- Four Chases -- When to Edit ... and Not

In part 2 of this series, we saw how Griffith, not surprisingly, began his discovery of the power of editing in the context of the most obvious use of that device – to enhance the excitement and suspense of a chase. title: D.W. Griffith Portrait In part 3, we observed how Griffith began to use editing for other, more sophisticated, purposes. Now we will trace how, in his very next group of pictures, Griffith returned to the chase to develop his editing technique yet further.

The Zulu’s Heart (filmed August 28 & 29, 1908) – In this film, a family of white settlers is attacked by a tribe of Zulus. Their little girl, though, wins the affection of a warrior who has recently lost his own daughter and who ultimately is moved to intervene (through a chase, of course) to save the mother’s life. The most interesting editing occurs before the chase. The third shot of the film shows the family peacefully driving their wagon down a desolate road, and as soon as they exit the frame the malevolent tribe appears on foot in pursuit. The fourth shot shows a man on horseback accosting the family and warning them of the impending danger. Logically we would expect the next shot to show the attack – but it doesn’t! Instead, the family rides down yet another stretch of road, and nothing happens at all. Finally, in the sixth shot an arrow fells the father and the attack begins.

That fifth shot is a neat touch, creating suspense quite effectively by serving to delay the attack that the audience knows is coming. A cutaway to something else would have been less effective, since we know that nothing will happen to the family during the diversion. By showing the scene we expect, but without the expected action, Griffith creates far more apprehension, since the attack could occur anytime the family is in view. We even feel a bit relieved as the wagon passes out of frame unharmed at the end of scene 5. That, in turn, lulls us and creates an acute jolt in mood when the attack actually begins.

The Barbarian Ingomar (September 5 & 8, 1908) – In the next film of this group, Griffith again uses editing to complicate what would otherwise be the predictable rhythm of a straight-forward chase sequence:

  1. CAMPSITE. A woman is abducted by a group of barbarians, who are pursued by a Roman soldier.
  2. A ROAD. The barbarians run through the frame, followed by the soldier (8 seconds).
  3. ANOTHER STRETCH OF ROAD. Similar action (16).
  4. FORK IN THE ROAD. The barbarians take the fork toward the camera, but the soldier runs to the left (24).
  5. A STREAM. The barbarians cross the stream (6).
  6. THE FORK. Backtracking, the soldier takes the correct fork (12).
  7. A CLEARING. The barbarians bind the woman to a tree (38).
  8. THE STREAM. The soldier crosses the stream (6).
  9. THE CLEARING. The soldier arrives in time to rescue the woman.
As in Zulu’s Heart, Griffith begins the chase with two similar shots (10 and 11) showing both pursued and pursuer, which serve to establish the short distance between them and lead us to expect an imminent rescue. But then he upsets this scheme and frustrates our expectation with shot 12, as the soldier goes astray and makes a timely rescue far less certain. The feeling is enhanced by the length of shot 15, in which prolonged preparations for the woman’s demise continue uninterrupted. The temporal separation between victim and rescuer is at last resolved in shot 17 with the soldier’s belated arrival.

Frankly, Griffith’s geography and timing of his shots is rather confusing here, as it upsets our sense of distance between the stream and the clearing. If shots 14 and 15 were reversed, then both the barbarians and the soldier would ford the stream immediately after they took the same fork:

12. FORK IN THE ROAD. The barbarians take the fork toward the camera, but the soldier runs to the left (24).
13. A STREAM. The barbarians cross the stream (6).
15. A CLEARING. The barbarians bind the woman to a tree (38).
14. THE FORK. Backtracking, the soldier takes the correct fork (12).
16. THE STREAM. The soldier crosses the stream (6).
17. THE CLEARING. The soldier arrives in time to rescue the woman.
In that reordered (and, frankly, more logical) scheme, the lengthy shot 15 would add suspense by casting doubt upon how long the soldier would take to discover his mistake, backtrack to the correct fork, and then resume his pursuit.

Shots 12 and 13 depict the barbarians crossing the stream as soon as they took the right fork, thus suggesting that the fork and stream were in close proximity. But in the actual shot order, after the soldier leaves the right fork he arrives at the stream only after the 38-second shot 15 showing the abductors in the clearing. Perhaps this suggests that the soldier travels far more slowly in this unfamiliar territory. That, in turn, would serve to cast considerable doubt upon whether he would arrive in time to effect a rescue, and provides an unexpected degree of relief when he does appear just moments after crossing the stream, well ahead of when we would expect him to.

Was this confusion intentional? It is possible that the paper print was hastily assembled in the wrong order, although that seems unlikely, as I've seen only one paper print with any shots out of order (His Trust Fulfilled (November 1910).) Or, assuming the paper print is correct, perhaps this serves as a warning of the danger of reading too much precision and meaning into what could have been nothing more than occasional carelessness, a natural consequence of Griffith's rushed and intuitive approach to his filmmaking.

The Planter’s Wife (September 9 & 10, 1908) – No such doubt can impair evaluation of Griffith’s very next film, which represents his most sophisticated use to date of editing to depict a chase. In Ingomar, the parties began the chase in proximity and then diverged before the final rescue; here, Griffith uses the opposite scheme:

  1. CABIN INTERIOR. The husband runs off with a woman. (20 seconds)
  2. CABIN EXTERIOR. They ride off in a carriage. (12)
  3. CABIN INTERIOR. The wife enters, reads a letter, is horrified and runs with her coat to a door on the right. (32)
  4. A ROAD. The carriage rides toward the camera. (10)
  5. CABIN INTERIOR. The wife reenters with a gun and leaves. (6)
  6. CABIN EXTERIOR. The wife mounts a horse and rides off. (18)
  7. THE ROAD. The wife rides toward the camera. (10)
  8. ANOTHER STRETCH OF ROAD. The carriage rides by. Shortly after it passes out of the frame, the wife rides by. (24)
  9. BY A RIVER. The carriage stops and the husband and woman run toward a dock. (14)
  10. A BRIDGE. The wife crosses on horseback. (6)
  11. A DOCK. The husband and woman pay an attendant, get into a rowboat, and row away. (26)
  12. BY THE RIVER. The wife rides up to the dock on horseback. (8)
  13. THE DOCK. The wife questions the attendant, pays him, and they row off together. (28)
  14. ON THE RIVER. The husband and woman row past the camera position; shortly after, the wife and attendant row past. (22)
  15. FURTHER DOWN THE RIVER. Both boats enter the shot. The wife holds the husband at gunpoint. …

While a vibrant film shouldn't be reduced to a mathematical exercise, there seems no alternative to appreciate the structural precision of this sequence. The essence of any chase is how far the parties are apart at any given instant. As seen in Ingomar, the separation in space and time can be shown in either of two fundamental ways – directly in a single shot containing both parties (as would be done in its purest form in Griffith’s next film), or indirectly by showing each party at the same location and separating these paired shots in time. Here Griffith virtually perfects the latter approach.

When the chase begins with the husband and wife each departing the cabin interior (shots 1 and 5), they are shown to be four shots apart, separated by 54 seconds (shots 2 – 4). The next shots of a same location (the cabin exterior – shots 2 and 6) are again four shots (and nearly the same 50 seconds of shots 3 – 5) apart. The next pair of shots (on the road – shots 4 and 7) finds them three shots (and the 24 seconds of shots 5 and 6) apart. Omitting for the moment shot 8, the next time we see them (by the river – shots 9 and 12), they again are three shots apart (and nearly the same 32 seconds of shots 10 and 11). The succeeding pair of matched scenes (at the dock – shots 11 and 13) are only two shots (and the 8 seconds of shot 12) apart. The next time (on the river – shot 14), they are at the same location, but the wife enters the frame only after the husband exits; essentially, this is equivalent to two similar shots with none in between, or a separation of a single shot and only a few seconds. Finally, shot 15 (further down the river) shows the husband and wife together int he same frame (zero shots and zero seconds apart). Note, though, that the length of each shot is strictly functional – it is only their degree of separation that reflects the structural plan.

And where does shot 8 fit into this scheme? Well, it really doesn’t! If the parties are three shots apart both before and after shot 8, then why are they suddenly shown nearly on top of each other? Admittedly, this adds a sense of visceral urgency to the chase, as if to remind us of the imminence of capture despite the number of shots and seconds that otherwise still separate the parties. It also serves a purpase in terms of pure form, as it divides the film in half with a brief break (albeit of incongruous content) between the first three and the remaining pairs of shots. Or perhaps the answer is that Griffith was an intuitive artist who did not plan his pictures with an adding machine and who is entitled to make an occasional “mistake.” After all, he made the entire film in a mere two days! Even so, the entire sequence is constructed with remarkable precision and looks just fine on the screen.

The Call of the Wild (September 17 and 25) – In the final film of this group of chase pictures, Griffith adopts a far simpler scheme. He begins the chase on horseback with a scene showing both the pursued, and then the pursuer, within the same continuous shot – first, the victim rides in and then out of the frame, followed several seconds later by the villain. But then Griffith increases the intensity by relentlessly constructing his chase entirely of the same type of shot as the distance grows progressively shorter, until they finally ride in and out of frame nearly together. At the same time, the shot length steadily contracts from 20 to a mere 6 seconds. While the use of a repeated type of shot is not as visually interesting as the variety of The Planter’s Wife, the repetition itself, abetted by the increased brevity of the shots, serves to increase the intensity and at the same time imply the inevitability of capture.

And so, in these four movies Griffith tested various forms of editing the same basic sequence, but with variations that enrich the context of the chase being depicted. Thus, The Planter’s Wife chase is complex and lengthy, reflecting the wife’s cpnflicted emotions in pursuing her cheating husband. By contrast, The Zulu’s Heart and Call of the Wild chases are unexpectedly and surprisingly short, adding to the poignancy of innocent victims subjected to mortal danger. And in Ingomar the uncertainty of rescue is abetted by the hesitant timing.

Never again would Griffith concentrate so intensively upon exploring a single problem in so many consecutive pictures. Having exhausted the genre for now, he would not produce another chase film for months. Nonetheless, it is significant that at the same time that he explored intercutting so thoroughly, he continued his study of when it could be more dramatically effective to avoid editing.

The Call of the Wild itself provides the outstanding example to date of this through its use of the pan, by which the camera is rotated horizontally. Actually, this technique was introduced in Griffith’s work in The Barbarian, Ingomar (and had been a staple of both documentary and fiction films long before then). The opening scene of Ingomar finds two couples entering a formal garden and walking to a nearby beach, the camera panning with them. There appears to be no dramatic purpose to that camera movement, and sp it seems purely decorative. But in The Call of the Wild Griffith invested this type of shot with expressive overtones and as a result it serves as a remarkable barometer of the evolving feeling behind the unfolding action.

The improbable story focuses upon a rejected suitor who dons Indian garb, assembles a tribe, gets drunk, and rides to his intended’s home to abduct her. The pan begins as he jumps over her picket fence and sneaks toward her gate. At first, the camera leads him, as if to take his point of view and suggest what he is seeking. Next, it comes to rest at the gate just as the girl and her husband emerge, the Indian crouching at the extreme left edge of the frame, so as to depict him as a lurking menace to her marital happiness. Finally, as the girl bids her husband goodbye and walks along the outside of the fence to the road the pan reverses to follow so that she and the stalker continue to occupy opposite sides of the moving frame – apart, yet linked by the frame, as if to bar her escape. The pan enables Griffith to stay close to the action and to emphasize the proximity of the two characters, thus ensuring our intense involvement to a greater degree than if the scene had been played as a far shot. At the same time, its continuity maintains constant tension and imparts a sinister subjective qualitythat editing would have broken. With his pan, Griffith found the ideal way to convey not only the content of a sustained action scene but also the shifting emotional overtones of a complex situation, and all without relieving any of the mounting tension.

The Devil (September 12) – In the same fertile month The Devil further attests to Griffith’s recognition that editing cannot fulfill certain narrative needs.

the devil pops in the devil pops in
The Devil – the devil pops in

First, Griffith continually pops the devil in and out of several scenes through rather skilful stop-motion photography (probably achieved by editing rather than literally stopping the camera while the devil entered or exited). Never before or again would a Griffith film be so dependent upon trick photography. (He had used stop-motion editing in a way that was meant to be transparent in The Redman and the Child, when the Indian hero kills a victim by strangling him under water; shortly after the villain is submerged there is a slight jump, the ripples disappear, the Indian struggles some more and then stands up in triumph; clearly the actor got up and walked out of frame in the interim.) The problem with using this technique in The Devil is one of tone – the vast majority of stop-motion trick films comprised the sort of tongue-in-cheek fantasies perfected by Melies where no realistic pretensions ever intrude, or incredible slapstick stunts where extreme pratfalls were endured by substituted dummies. Because of this association, Griffith’s depiction of the devil’s escapades seems more comical than threatening and thus defeats the intended earnestness of the film and the gravity of its message. Yet, given the needs of the story (and the short 8-minute length of this movie which precluded much exposition), there seemingly was no other way to show the full scope of the devil’s activity without resort to a confusing onslaught of rapid editing or an annoying and disruptive slew of explanatory titles (of which there seem to have been none, as the paper print and release lengths nearly coincide).

Griffith also seemingly regresses to theatrical artifice by using a split set with a cutaway wall.
the split set
The Devil – the split set
The devil has lured a woman and her unfaithful husband to adjoining rooms in the same restaurant, and in a long, continuous shot we observe the devil arousing their suspicions and fears. On the one hand, this is disappointingly uncinematic, especially since we know from For a Wife’s Honor that Griffith was fully capable of intercutting alternate shots to show the action in each room. Yet, the set enables Griffith to depict the tempter and both his prey simultaneously, and thus adds a certain psychological richness that is appropriate to the situation. Indeed, to this day there is no way for a movie to show simultaneous action between two isolated actors – dream balloons, mirrors, split screens, flashbacks, and opaque props are all largely ineffective, draw inappropriate attention to themselves and detract from the narrative. So while The Devil’s cutaway wall was a throwback to a more primitive era of cinema (and even earlier staged melodrama), it was the best, and perhaps only, treatment of an otherwise insoluble problem of depicting the pivotal scene of this particular story.

Of course, all film is artifice and silent drama at its best managed to seem emotionally credible without being naturalistic. Yet even at this early stage of his career, Griffith clearly understood that, despite the vast power of film, some narrative needs are simply beyond the realm of inherently cinematic devices to effectively depict. While the best course is to choose stories that lend themselves to the resources of cinema, Griffith didn’t always have that luxury and occasionally had to side-step the artistry he continued to develop in order to convey the tales he had to grind out to meet his production schedule.

Peter Gutmann

Copyright 2010 by Peter Gutmann
{Portions of this article were published in Classic Images No. 84}

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