Cast & Crew
Sam De Grasse
Ostracized from white society, Lo Dorman, a half-breed, lives in the forest on the outskirts of town with his adopted Indian grandfather. While there, he meets another outcast, Teresa, who has run away from authorities after stabbing her unfaithful lover. Seeing her from a distance, Sheriff Dunn mistakes Teresa for Nellie, his sweetheart, and, believing that she has begun an affair with Lo, decides to kill him. Because she has gone through some of Lo's possessions, Teresa knows that Dunn is really his father, but as she tries to explain this to the sheriff, a forest fire breaks out. Lo tries to rescue both Teresa and Dunn, but finally must make a choice between them, and, unaware of their relationship, decides to leave Dunn to die. He is able to save Teresa, whom he later marries.
The Half-Breed (1916)
Harte's glory days as a pioneer of local-color literature, established by influential works like the 1868 stories "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" and "The Luck of Roaring Camp," were behind him when he wrote In the Carquinez Woods. But he still had enough imaginative pep to create a complex and offbeat protagonist like the character Fairbanks eventually played: Lo Dorman, a mixed-race frontiersman caught between the ruggedness of nature, symbolized by his Native American ancestry, and the blemishes of civilization, embodied by the town where he grew up.
The character's first and last names - Lo, spelled Low in some editions of the novella, and Dorman, which sounds like "doorman" - ironically suggest his lack of status in the local ethnic hierarchy. Harte gives the names a touch of class, however, by linking them with European culture. When he meets Teresa, a Mexican newcomer in town, Lo says, "Call me - Lo." She responds, "Lo, the poor Indian?" And he says, "Exactly." Harte inserts a footnote here explaining that "Lo, the poor Indian" comes from a (1733) poem by Alexander Pope, the first word of which "is humorously used in the far West as a distinguishing title for the Indian." Another passage states that Lo Dorman is the Anglicized spelling of L'Eau Dormante, the French translation of Sleeping Water, his Indian name when he was a child. Lo's name is multilayered, as is Lo himself - a member of two worlds, as if the heroes of James Fenimore Cooper's great Leatherstocking saga, white Natty Bumppo and his Indian companion Chingachgook, were combined in a single figure.
The movie version of The Half-Breed begins with a brief account of Lo's early life, when his Indian mother learns that her white lover has betrayed her and decides to end her life, first leaving her baby with a white town dweller who becomes the only father he knows. No longer welcome in town when the old man eventually dies, Lo chooses a redwood tree in the woods and sets up housekeeping in its trunk. He maintains his connections with the town, but the animosity toward him increases when he strikes up a fledgling romance with Nellie (Jewel Carmen), a preacher's daughter, thus sparking jealousy in Sheriff Dunn (Sam De Grasse), who's been courting her.
More trouble brews when Teresa (Alma Rubens) attacks her two-timing lover and the sheriff with a knife, runs into the forest to hide, and finds safety by becoming Lo's roommate, or trunk-mate, in the sequoia he calls home. Nellie visits the woods to reconnect with Lo, but returns to town after deciding that his mixed blood rules out the prospect of settling down with him. The sheriff traces Teresa to the redwood, and is stunned to find evidence showing that he himself is Lo's long-lost father. The climax arrives when a forest fire rages through the woods, killing one key character - fewer than in Harte's novella - and sparing others. Lo then departs in search of more hospitable territory, and you certainly can't blame him.
Centering a movie on a mixed-race character had unusually strong cultural and political implications in 1916, a year after The Birth of a Nation had unleashed D.W. Griffith's bigoted historiography on the world. Equally to the point, The Half-Breed came from the Triangle Film Corporation, which had recently produced The Aryan, a William S. Hart western that reflected "a strongly racist ideology" and signaled that associating with mixed-blood people was "a clear sign of degeneracy," according to film historian Frederic Lombardi in Allan Dwan and the Rise and Decline of the Hollywood Studios.
Noting that Fairbanks and Dwan had drawn on aspects of Hart's persona in The Good Bad Man, their previous western, Lombardi speculates that The Aryan was very much on their minds when they made The Half-Breed, motivating them to create a hero who strikes a pointed contrast with Hart's distasteful protagonist. On a deeper level, The Half-Breed rejects the old pop-culture cliché that nothing good can arise from romance between people of different races. Lo is a compelling figure even though he comes from a white father and a Native American mother. And he doesn't lust after Nellie as he might in a Hart or Griffith movie; quite the reverse, she's the one who comes looking for him, only to discard him because his lineage doesn't match her own pristine pedigree. By today's standards, The Half-Breed isn't exactly progressive, but for 1916 it's relatively enlightened.
The filmmakers did a lot of traveling to find the picture's impressive wilderness locations, and they also show enough of the frontier town to underscore the importance of the nature-culture theme. The Half-Breed didn't score a hit with audiences, and Lombardi is probably right when he observes that moviegoers expected a larger amount of action from a Fairbanks film, and that the star's charisma is more muted here than in his usual comedies and adventure yarns. "Those who look for stirring fights in every Fairbanks picture will find none of them in this," the Motion Picture News declared in its favorable review, and The New York Times reported that the story gives the star "infrequent opportunities...for his talented smile."
The differences between The Half-Breed and other early Fairbanks vehicles make it all the more interesting today. Lombardi calls it "definitely the most original and risky" of the star's Triangle productions, and a significant step toward large-scale Fairbanks epics like Dwan's Robin Hood (1922) and Raoul Walsh's The Thief of Bagdad (1924) in years to come. Moving Picture World welcomed The Half-Breed as a picture where "the intense personality of Fairbanks does not bulge out of the story," producing a result that is "not only an artistic achievement, but a stronger proof of his [acting] ability." Fairbanks fans were not entirely pleased by this venture into serious drama, but it holds up at least as well as the fluffier entertainments he made in the first major period of his career.
Director: Allan Dwan
Production Supervisor: D.W. Griffith
Screenplay: Anita Loos; based on Bret Harte's novella In the Carquinez Woods
Cinematographer: Victor Fleming
With: Douglas Fairbanks (Lo Dorman), Alma Rubens (Teresa), Sam De Grasse (Sheriff Dunn), Tom Wilson (Curson), Frank Brownlee (Pastor Winslow Wynn), Jewel Carmen (Nellie Wynn), George Beranger (Jack Brace), Winifred Westover (Belle the Blonde)
by David Sterritt
The Half-Breed (1916)
The working title for this film was In the Carquinez Woods. Some reviews refer to the film's title as The Halfbreed. Bluebird Photoplays, Inc. produced a film based on the same source in 1918 entitled Tongues of Flame (see below).