WHITE FAWN'S DEVOTION
(James Young Deer, 1910, USA, 11m, BW)
White Fawn's Devotion
by James Young Deer
Run time 10:52 min.
Audio/Visual silent, black & white
White Fawn's Devotion: A Play Acted by a Tribe of Red Indians in America is a 1910 American short dramatic silent film. Although a few writers believe the film features Young Deer's wife, Lillian St. Cyr, otherwise known as Princess Red Wing as "White Fawn", the lead woman does not fit St. Cyr's description. The movie was shot in New Jersey at 24fps. White Fawn's Devotion is the earliest surviving film directed by a Native American. It was one of the earlier films shot in America by the French company Pathé. A reviewer in the New York Dramatic Mirror wrote that the film "proves to be interesting if we can forget the New Jersey scenery" and noted that "it is not quite clear where the devotion comes in, nor of what it consists.".
When a settler in the Dakotas gets word that he is to inherit a large fortune, his Native American wife is upset. Believing that she will lose her husband if he returns East, she stabs herself with a knife. Her husband finds her and removes the knife, but their daughter see him with the knife in his hand and her apparently dead mother. The child, believing her father committed the murder, alerts the nearby Indian village. Several Indians then engage the settler in a long chase. When the settler is captured, the Indians intend to put him to death until White Fawn miraculously revives and informs the Indians of the truth. This ending, in which an interracial couple ends up together, is a rare occurrence for this period of film production.
James Young Deer (also known as J. Younger Johnston or James Young Johnson), the uncredited director and writer of White Fawn's Devotion, was believed to be the first Native American film director. His ancestors were members of the Nanticoke people of Delaware. Young Deer was hired by Pathé Frères as a director and scenario writer and frequently worked in collaboration with his actress wife Lillian St. Cyr, also known by her stage name Princess Red Wing. Out of the more than 100 short and a few feature films he made, White Fawn's Devotion is one of fewer than 10 films of Young Deer's to have survived.
This film is the earliest surviving film directed by a Native American. What is so dynamic about this film is the fact that it is from the Native perspective. The Indigenous individual was able to become the observer rather than the observed. The film is about a intercultural contact between the Indigenous woman and her White settler husband. At the time this type of film was less threatening and consciously tried to avoid the cliche Indian wagon train attacks. This film is transcends what is Native cinema because it is from a perspective not known to others.
This is the first movie by James Young Deer, a Native American director who mostly made movies about Native Americans for white audiences (at white-owned film studios). This is a short movie, based on the themes of “The Squaw Man,” but told from the Indian girl’s perspective, utilizing fairly basic editing techniques and a central chase sequence to heighten tension. The movie begins with a white settler receiving a telegram informing him of his inheritance. He has to go to some unspecified place to receive it (the ancestral home, I suppose), but he’s very happy to hear it and runs home to tell his family. Said family consists of a small child and a Native wife. When he tells them of his good fortune, the child seems happy for her father, but the wife looks uncertain. Finally, when he gestures about his coming departure, she objects. They argue, apparently the wife is concerned that he plans to go for good, abandoning her (and the child? It’s never clear what her intended fate is). No matter how he tries to reassure her, she will not be consoled. Finally, the father sends the child away, not wanting her to hear the dispute, which escalates until the father goes into the house to pack his belongings. He has left his knife on the table, however, and his wife grabs it and plunges it into her heart. He comes out and finds her, pulling out the knife just as the child returns, making him look like the murderer!
In a panic, the child runs to the neighboring Indian tribe and speaks to a Native elder. When he hears her story, he demands justice for the wife, and sends out the warriors to hunt the white man down. He figures out what is happening and runs for it, grabbing a horse and making tracks as fast as possible. Unfortunately, he is cornered at a cliff and has to climb down, leaving the horse behind. He winds up in the river, fighting the current and losing, ending up passed out on the shore. His pursuer finds him, binds him, and returns him to the tribe, where the elder tells the daughter to kill him, giving her a large dagger. She balks, and the warriors begin a dance. Just as it seems that the elder will take his tomahawk and do the deed himself, White Fawn suddenly arrives, apparently uninjured, and interposes herself. She, evidently, explains the situation and the white man is freed. The family gathers together and the elder signals them to leave.
There’s a missing scene at the end where the father renounces his inheritance and stays with his family, making this the one version of “The Squaw Man” with a truly happy ending. I guess. It seemed to me as if he could go attend the will reading or whatever and then get his money and come back to the homestead easily enough. This version didn’t make it clear what all the fuss was about. In “The Squaw Man” it’s made very obvious that his marrying a non-white is unacceptable, and there’s even some question as to the child. Apparently, Young Deer later made a gender-reversed version in which a white woman was married to a Native American, which Moving Picture World found “disgusting.” There’s also some dispute about the female lead: the “Treasures” disc and the imdb attribute Lilian St. Cyr (aka “Princess Red Wing”) as the actress, but Wikipedia says it doesn’t look like her. I’m inclined to agree, but it’s hard to tell from the distance of the shots and the quality of the available prints (and my own uncertainty regarding the still images Ive seen of her).
In this movie, the focus is really on the chase, which is handled competently, but not especially innovatively. Action tends to cut from the pursued back to the pursuer just as the latter reaches the place the former just left. There’s a bit of more sophisticated inter-cutting for the scene at the cliff, where the warrior cuts the rope that the white man is climbing down on, but it’s pretty standard for 1910. There are no close-ups or camera movement, and pretty much the whole movie is done in wide shot. Young Deer made this fairly early in his contract with Pathé Freres, which hired him because American critics were making fun of their phony Westerns, and it was felt that he would bring added authenticity to the new American unit.
The title of this early Native American movie is as misleading and confusing as the film’s plot. White Fawn really isn’t that devoted to her white husband. In fact, she’s something of a drama queen whose over-the-top histrionics are the reason for her other half being hunted down and almost killed by the local Indian – sorry, Native American – tribe. Upon learning that he must travel to London to claim a fortune left to him by an unknown Uncle, White Fawn throws a right hissy fit, even going so far as to plunge a knife into her own chest. It’s devotion of a kind, I suppose, but of the bunny-boiling, look-what-you-made-me-do-you-bastard variety which nobody wishes to have directed at them.
Anyway, mistakenly believing White Fawn to be dead, the couple’s young daughter runs to the local Indian – sorry, Native American – tribe to erroneously inform them that her father has killed her mother. Naturally, the Indians give chase, sparking one of cinema’s least exciting pursuits. Back in the very first years of the 20th Century, there was something of a craze for chase movies (E.G. How a French Nobleman Got a Wife Through the ‘New York Herald’ Personal Columns (1904)), but these movies were cobbled together with no thought given to editing, and James Young Deer, the director of White Fawn’s Devotion does little to improve on those primitive movies. The twist ending appears to makes no sense at all, yet overall, the whole movie comes across as well conceived.
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