I have seen roughly 30 short films by Griffith, but few if any of them could I remember anything about. I'm going through my set of his films once more, and trying to at least write about them as I see them. Now there has been a tendency in film history to just lump every techincal development to Griffith, and he himself did a great deal to perpetuate the myth that he was the "Father of Cinema". However no director of his generation can even come close to matching his skill as a storyteller, a filmmaker, and even as an innovator. Perhaps with any luck I'll be able to revisit some of his features as well, but for now this brief look at his short films is as much for my benefit as yours. Oh and in case you're wondering, I have to go to work, and don't have time to watch a full length film, hence the reason the Oscar watch is on hold.
In the Border States (1910)
One of if not the earliest Civil War film Griffith made, this one takes his extraordinary attention to detail and applies to a rather humanistic tale. Taking place near the Mason-Dixon line, this involves two families from opposing sides as one daughter or a union soldier wards off a confederate soldier in their home. Taking place on Griffith's typical house, the same room shown in nearly all of his films. An actor portraying Robert E. Lee appears here, and just as in Birth of a Nation, you almost feel a little history coming to life.
The House With Closed Shutters (1910)
Another Civil War short, this one is powerfully feminist in its implications. A man is drafted to fight for the Union, but chickens out, and rather than risk family disgrace, his sister dons the uniform and goes to fight for him. She winds up being killed, and as a result the cowardly brother is made a prisoner in his own house, never to show his face. The film is overtly patriotic, and deals with a moral code of family honor that may make it seem horrifically dated. Still the thought of not just a woman impersonating a man, but actually going off to war and being braver than the man is a novel concept indeed. Try not to get too distracted with the "black" servant who's very much a white man in makeup.
The Fugitive (1910)
It is odd to think about it, but during Griffith's time if you wanted to make a war film you basically had the Civil War to choose from. Before either World War, and after the decidedly uncinematic Spanish-American War, this was your stomping ground. The Fugitive makes an extensive use of location shooting, moving far out of the typical one room studio. An early sense of parallel editing is present, as Confederate soldiers are tracking down a Union fugitive who's killed one of their men. The ironic twist is he hides out in the house of the mother of the boy he's killed. Griffith, one of the earliest humanists, and a decided pacifist shows that North or South we're all Americans. In many ways tied to the similar themes of In the Border States. Griffith unfortunately gets left off the list of the great humanist directors, but lets be honest Kurosawa, Ray, and Renoir all owe an enormous debt to Griffith thematically if not from a techincal standpoint. The Fugitive shows much more of the guilt of killing in war than previous pictures.