Borderland Films: American Cinema, Mexico, and Canada during the Progressive Era

Borderland Films: American Cinema, Mexico, and Canada during the Progressive Era

by Dominique Brégent-Heald


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803276734
Publisher: UNP - Nebraska
Publication date: 11/01/2015
Pages: 448
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.60(d)

About the Author

Dominique Brégent-Heald is an associate professor of history at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Her articles have appeared in Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, American Review of Canadian Studies, Western Historical Quarterly, Journal of the Canadian Historical Association, and Journal of American Culture.


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Borderland Films

American Cinema, Mexico, and Canada During the Progressive Era

By Dominique Brégent-Heald


Copyright © 2015 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8032-7884-4


Constructing the Filmic Borderlands

During the early the twentieth century, the American cinema constructed and circulated both real and imagined representations of the natural landscapes of the North American West. As the literary critic and art historian W. J. T. Mitchell argues, the landscape is a medium complicit with imperialism. Beyond merely illustrating the varied western terrain, filmic depictions of western scenery evoked a range of images and narratives connected to nation building. These wide-open spaces seemed to contain limitless possibilities for prosperity, self-determination, and renewal. Yet the American cinema did not romanticize a singular western frontier but rather imagined three frontiers with overlapping stories of colonial expansion: the southwest frontier, the northwest frontier, and the "last frontier," that is, the Klondike. The term frontier applied not only to the "unsettled" lands in the western interior of the continent but also to those "undomesticated" regions on the northern and southern margins of the U.S. nation-state.

In producing borderland films, the film industry drew from and added to existing conceptions of frontier regions. This chapter traces the origins of borderland films by examining the broad cultural contexts underlying these productions, namely the establishment of North America's border zones, the interrelated cultural and ideological movements of romanticism and antimodernism, and the influence of Frederick Jackson Turner's "frontier thesis." I provide a brief overview of the U.S. film industry during the early twentieth century with a focus on D. W. Griffith's frontier/borderland productions filmed in the eastern United States. The desire for realistic frontier backgrounds enticed filmmakers to establish production facilities in the West. Southern California, particularly the greater Los Angeles area, emerged as the nucleus of film production in the United States, although the name Hollywood as shorthand for the U.S. film industry would not emerge until the 1920s.

Creating Borders, Mythic Frontiers, and Romantic Wests

In order to analyze the relationships between American cinema and the borderlands of North America, one must consider the histories of the borders that the United States shares with Mexico and Canada. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), which concluded the Mexican-American War, created the approximately 1,900-mile-long physical boundary separating the United States and Mexico. Under the terms of the treaty, Mexico ceded its northern frontier, roughly a third of its territory, to the United States. The United States had already annexed Texas in 1845, and, with the 1853 Gadsden Purchase, acquired another approximately 30 million square miles of Mexican land in present-day southern Arizona and New Mexico. During the treaty negotiations, Mexico and the United States agreed to appoint a commissioner and a surveyor to designate the boundary line with "due precision." Over the course of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the U.S.-Mexico border gradually evolved, as Rachel St. John puts it, from a "line on a map to a clearly marked and policed boundary."

The creation of the U.S.-Canada border was also the product of bilateral conflict, subsequent diplomatic treaties, and commissions to survey the boundary, but it unfolded in phases over a longer duration. The Treaty of Paris in 1783, which marked an end to the American Revolution, established the border in eastern North America. Territorial disputes periodically emerged and were resolved by various treaties, arbitrations, and commissions. The western interior was also highly contested. Following the War of 1812, the Treaty of 1818 between Great Britain and the United States established the 49th parallel from the Lake of the Woods in Minnesota/Ontario to the Continental Divide of the Rocky Mountains. Diplomats extended the border to the Pacific Coast through the Oregon Territory in 1846.

The selection of the 49th parallel was based on an astronomical concept as no distinct topographical landmarks served to distinguish the western interior of North America. In the decades that followed, the territory remained uncharted until the 1860s and 1870s, when officials on either side of the boundary deemed the development of the region's land and its resources a vital enterprise and symbolically integral to the future of each nation. Additionally the discovery of gold in Alaska and the Yukon during the late 1890s created a sense of urgency surrounding a clear definition of North America's northernmost national boundary. In 1903 an international tribunal resolved the Alaska Boundary Dispute in favor of the U.S. position. The resolution stimulated Canadian resentment toward Britain, underscored the disparity of power between Canada and the United States, and ultimately strengthened the Dominion government's resolve to increase its autonomy in the region.

The creation of each of these borders formalized physical and legal boundaries in North America, serving to divide and link the modern nation-states. By contrast, frontiers are amorphous, ambiguous, and elastic zones of exploration and conquest. Borderlands too are often outlying territories on the edges of states' political jurisdiction, resulting in fluid meeting places between nation-states. The distinction between the terms frontier and borderlands is thus as murky as the regions these concepts purport to define. Regardless, frontier imagery and stories of western settlement and colonial expansion loom large in U.S. and Canadian narratives of nation building and notions of national identity; this is less true in Mexico.

For the most part, understandings of nation building and settlement have bifurcated into separate historical narratives of expansion and incorporation — the peaceful and efficient development of the Canadian West juxtaposed against the violent and disorderly conquest of the U.S. frontier. Yet these opposing mythologies have tended to obscure the parallels between them. For the first half of the nineteenth century, eastern North Americans widely believed that the interior of the continent was a harsh, uninhabitable environment, known as the Great American Desert, or Palliser's Triangle in Canada. By the 1860s and 1870s easterners and European immigrants perceived that the trans-Mississippi West was a place of sublime beauty, opportunity, and rugged individualism, while Canadian expansionists reenvisioned the Northwest as an agricultural Eden. Economic motives and nationalist ambitions governed the U.S. and Dominion governments' drive to colonize those regions, exploit their abundant resources, establish predominantly Anglo-Saxon societies, and, in the process, remove or constrain existing Indigenous communities. Depending on one's latitude, the West had become a "sacred American icon," a location of national renewal, or, in Canada, an extension of the British Empire.

The conquest of these western frontiers occurred as the basic tenets of romanticism pervaded North American society. A cultural and stylistic phenomenon that flowered between the 1830s and 1860s, the American romantic movement critically responded to the Age of Enlightenment's emphasis on reason and the advent of industrialization. Romanticists imbued wilderness landscapes with deep symbolic meaning. These were places of spiritual renewal, said to engender a direct emotional experience in the viewer. The aesthetics of the sublime, a word used to describe something that simultaneously evokes beauty and terror, continued to determine representations of western landscapes well into the early twentieth century, a testament to the lingering attributes of romanticism.

Beginning with dramatic visual representations of Niagara Falls and the Hudson River Valley, painters, photographers, and writers turned to the idealization of the geological wonders of the Rockies and Selkirks, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon. In the United States these romantic sensibilities overlapped with a sweeping spirit of nationalism. The dramatic landscapes of the frontier symbolized a detachment from Europe; western iconography and American exceptionalism went arm in arm. Hence the perception that these boundless lands on the margins of Anglo-American settlement were eroding produced a sense of apprehension over the purported passing of this shibboleth of national identity.

Although a palpable anxiety surrounding the disappearing western frontier emerged as early as the 1870s, this sense of angst reached a crisis point in the 1890s, a decade marked by economic uncertainty, social unrest, and political strife. In 1893, three years after the U.S. Census Bureau declared that the contiguous frontier line no longer existed, Frederick Jackson Turner reflected on its singular contribution to the trajectory of U.S. history. In a paper presented to the American Historical Association in conjunction with the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Turner proposed that the frontier was a "meeting point between savagery and civilization." He positioned Anglo-American westward expansion as the central element in the development of the national character, distinguished in its promotion of democracy and individualism. Turner's argument about the now closed frontier, which had provided a psychological "safety valve" for easterners, added to the wide sense of trepidation about the future of the nation as the twentieth century approached.

The myth of the fading frontier intensified in the early twentieth century, predicated upon a widespread ambivalence toward modernity. Stemming from the earlier romantic tradition, antimodernism emerged as a reaction against an "overcivilized" society and manifested itself in the therapeutic pursuit of intense physical and spiritual experiences apparently found in pre-industrial artisanship, exotic cultures, and natural environments. Writers increasingly romanticized locales and historical periods that seemingly existed beyond the purview of accelerating industrial capital development.

Dubbed regional or place-based fiction, these literary works tended to concentrate on distant places and eras within North America, such as the trans-Mississippi West, the U.S. Southwest, the Canadian Northwest, and the Klondike. From the mid-nineteenth century through World War I, the publishing industry organized much of its fiction around these identifiable locations and branded these literary works to appeal to various market segments in search of "local color" or authentic folkways. Stage productions of the 1870s through the early 1900s similarly embraced this type of romantic regionalism. For example, the New York Times noted the predominance of dramas set in North America's frontier regions during the theatrical season of 1908–9. East Coast–based playwrights and producers vividly dramatized western life for their audiences, who vicariously experienced mythical aspects of bygone frontiers.

These ostensibly authentic landscapes not only appeared on the stage and in the pages of regional fiction but also could be experienced in the flesh. In both the United States and Canada the nascent tourism industry promoted western landscapes as convenient escapes from the alienating, industrial metropolises of the Northeast while simultaneously touting the widespread availability of modernized tourist infrastructures. In particular North America's transcontinental railroads competed against one another by extolling the natural attributes of their particular section of the West. The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, the Canadian Pacific Railway, the Northern Pacific Railway, and the Great Northern Railway promoted tourism through pamphlets, posters, brochures, lantern slides, still photographs, and even artwork. Such visual ephemera paradoxically promoted the splendor of western landscapes while celebrating the machine's mastery over the wilderness.

With the 1896 development of projected motion picture technology in North America, the transcontinental railroads sponsored the production of films that flaunted western landscapes along their respective routes. Individual filmmakers obtained images of the primordial West and Far North to thrill or educate audiences, transforming spectators into armchair tourists. Exhibitors, itinerant showmen, and lecturers screened these nonnarrative motion pictures, initially lasting only a couple of minutes, as part of an eclectic program in vaudeville theaters or to illustrate narrated travel lectures given in a variety of exhibition venues, such as churches and association halls.

Travelogues, also known as scenics or travel films, intersected with the rise of mass consumerism and modern tourist practices. With its emphasis on photographic realism combined with movement, the travelogue was a product and expression of modernizing society. The American cinema was a peculiarly modern institution through which audiences experienced a nostalgic vision of North American frontiers, creating a disjuncture between past and present. Travelogues and other actualities, that is, brief, nonnarrative films presenting visual documentations of current events or footage of well-known persons, dominated the first decade or so of motion picture production and appealed to viewers' collective curiosity about technologically advanced forms of spectacle and display.

By 1903–4 filmmakers were increasingly using motion pictures to relate fictional narratives. For Charles Musser The Great Train Robbery (1903), based in part on Scott Marble's 1896 stage play by the same name, marks a turning point because it inserts a story film into the framework of the travelogue genre. Despite its shooting location in New Jersey, the film's depiction of a frontier-type landscape and riveting tale of banditry and retribution influenced similar productions.

Partially due to the commercial and critical success of The Great Train Robbery, by the end of 1904 story films had become dominant in American cinema. The shift toward internally consistent, linear narrative structure, however, did not transpire until around 1908. During his first year directing at Biograph in 1908–9, D. W. Griffith, a former stage and film actor who quickly became one of the era's most influential filmmakers, initiated the transformation from a "cinema of attractions to one based on narrative integration."21 While Griffith's story material was eclectic, he produced a significant number of place-based borderland melodramas within a short time.

D. W. Griffith, Borderland Films, and the Transitional Cinema

In the summer of 1908 Griffith produced The Fight for Freedom: A Story of the Arid Southwest, The Tavern-Keeper's Daughter, and The Greaser's Gauntlet — one-reel melodramas that each take place in and around the southwest frontier. As summer turned to fall, Griffith filmed two Canadian-themed regional films, The Ingrate: A Tale of the North Woods and A Woman's Way: A Romance of the Canadian Woods. In her memoir Linda Arvidson, Griffith's first wife and fellow Biograph actor, notes that Griffith worked according to climate and weather to film summer, autumn, or winter stories. Arvidson also affirms the importance of romantic regionalism to Griffith's early Biograph productions, recalling that her husband was "always overly fastidious about 'location.' His feeling for charming landscapes and his use of them in the movies was a significant factor in the success of his early pictures." Aided by his cinematographer G. W. Bitzer, Griffith's pictorial views of natural landscapes, formed in the tradition of romantic painting, heightened the emotional expressiveness of the diegesis.

Exterior filming for Griffith's regional borderland productions between 1908 and 1909 largely occurred in the Fort Lee area of New Jersey, while interior shots transpired at Biograph's Fourteenth Street studio in New York City. Although The Fight for Freedom takes place in an unspecified Mexican border town, filming for the outdoor scenes happened in Shadyside, along the wooded cliffs of the Palisades across the Hudson River from New York City. For The Tavern-Keeper's Daughter, which unfolds "in the lonely wilds of Southern California," Biograph constructed the rural tavern setting at its New York studio. Griffith and his cinematographer Arthur Marvin filmed exteriors for The Greaser's Gauntlet, a story that unfolds in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, in Shadyside as well. Arvidson later reminisced, "For a mountain fastness of arid Mexico, we journeyed not far from Edgewater, New Jersey. No need to go up further. Up the Hudson along the Palisades was sufficiently Mexico-ish for our needs. There were many choice boulders for abductors to hide behind and lonely roads for hold-ups." Arvidson's comment reveals that undomesticated backgrounds and the illusion of isolation, at least in 1908, adequately provided the aesthetic components of a filmic frontier environment.


Excerpted from Borderland Films by Dominique Brégent-Heald. Copyright © 2015 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations



1. Constructing the Filmic Borderlands

2. Liminal Borderlands

3. Racialized Borderlands

4. Gendered Borderlands

5. Crime and Punishment

6. Revolution and War






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