January 29, 1911 [His Trust]
The Civil War seems to preoccupy Biograph and D.W. Griffith—and it becomes history-as-anecdote, a shrinking of that massive slaughter to conversations and conflicts on front porches and in parlors. And while Hist Trust makes some attempt to reproduce the War in its more expansive mood (the scene switching from the home to the battlefield), the camera's line-of-sight seemed odd, as though the South were "rushing to the rear," while the North seemed somehow off to the left of their opponents; at least with this latest effort, Griffith appears more comfortable filling the screen with figures than spectacles. In any case, the impact of seeing that War cheek-to-cheek, as it were, depends on the film-makers—who have chosen to simplify, not merely miniaturize, the War Between the States.
The Negro slave George is entrusted with the safety of his master's wife and child, a responsibility he heartily accepts, entering domestic life with paternal concern. The husband dies in battle, and the swooning wife is presented with his sword (the "Southern Woman's Heavy Burden")—but she does not bear it alone, as George stands by her, is beaten by invading Yankees who loot the house and burn it down. George rushes in, saves the the child—and returns for the sword! The house collapses in a satisfying matter (I suppose these dramas are not so "miniature" after all), and "George Gives His All": the widow and her daughter move into George's quarters, while he sleeps out-of-doors.
I suppose the notion of cinema-as-dream is already clichéd, but for me it will persist. His Trust, though, falls into a singularly odd dream-scape. George never stops being a slave—yet he replaces his master, and the woman lives in his cabin. Earlier we saw him on all fours, playing horse with the little girl—and while this image seems at once natural and oddly allusive (I am put in mind of the lines from "Polly Wolly Doodle," "I came to a river and couldn't get across," with resultant confusion between a nearby Negro and a "hoss"), I'm more intrigued by the slave's supplanting the master—yes, he sleeps outside; but the rest of it—his fatherly attitude, his obvious anguish over his mistress' plight—seems the product of another world, a history that very few, if any, have lived through.
And while the dream-ideal of self-sacrifice is a constant of melodrama (not only in Southern apologetics) and one to which I am deeply attracted, I still wonder what Negroes think of George. After all, from the start of the Nation, doubts concerning the "Peculiar Institution" have surfaced: In Notes on the State of Virginia, after an unremitting yet somehow cool-headed denunciation of "the blacks" (his tone always thus, polite even in the midst of dismissal), Jefferson considers the evils of slavery, asserting, "The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other." He concludes that both are debased, and ends with a peroration of Kierkegaardian proportions:
I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.Biograph and Co. seem to disagree with at least one Founding Father, and politely ask George if he can carry the fallen South on his back just a while longer—and lucky for them he appears to be complying, as cold as the ground may be, and as dark the night.