Hollywood has had a long shameful history in the way it portrays Native Americans in film. Far too often, “Indians” in film were nothing more than white actors wearing “redface” and animal skins and reduced to the role of savage villain out to kill the poor, beleagued white settlers. There was a very, very brief time, at the beginning of motion pictures, when Indian-themed films were very popular and real Native Americans acted and sometimes directed films portraying their people in positive and nuanced ways. Actor / director James Young Deer of the Nanticoke people and his wife, Lillian St. Cyr of the Winnebago people, became so popular and powerful they were regarded as Hollywood royalty. The Invaders, released November 29, 1912 is a sort of bridge film, sitting in the time period when Native American actors portraying real people were being replaced by white actors playing one-note bad guys.
The Invaders was directed (uncredited) by Francis Ford and Thomas H. Ince. Francis Ford was the elder brother and mentor of director John Ford who is best remembered for his classic Western films such as Stagecoach and The Searchers. Thomas H. Ince went on to make more than 800 films, many of them Westerns, and became known as the “Father of the Western”. In 1912, Ince was also beginning to build his own studio (nicknamed “Inceville”). Ince bought a 460 acre ranch and leased another 18,000 acres to build a revolutionary new style of studio. He invested money to build every kind of building that could possibly be used in film making, from sound stages, printing labs, commissaries, dressing rooms, and huge, elaborate sets to houses where his workmen and many of his actors actually lived. Ince had fallen in love with what later came to be known as “Westerns” and wanted to direct similar films so, while his studio was under construction, he leased an entire Wild West show consisting of “300 cowboys and cowgirls; 600 horses, cattle, and other livestock (including steers and bison) and a whole Sioux tribe (200 of them in all) who set up their teepees on the property”. Many of the Sioux went on to feature in films by Thomas Ince, including The Invaders.
The Invaders is regarded by many film historians as one of the first great Westerns with the narrative beginning to shift from the earlier, more nostalgic Indian-themed films to the later traditional Westerns with the focus on the white protagonists. While the story focuses on a broken treaty and the violent results, The Invaders also gives nearly equal time to creating mirror dramas among the Sioux and the white cavalry. Both the Sioux chief, played by real-life Sioux William Eagle Shirt, and the cavalry colonel, played by director Francis Ford, have daughters in the midst of romance. The chief’s daughter, Sky Star (played by Ann Little, the only white actor portraying a Native American in this film) rejects her father’s choice of suitor, an overly aggressive but skilled warrior, in favor of a dalliance with a boyish surveyor, one of the invaders responsible for breaking the treaty. Meanwhile the cavalry colonel’s daughter is being romanced by a young lieutenant. While their fathers are both responsible men who respect each other, the two young women could not be more different. Sky Star is independent and capable. She is perfectly comfortable canoeing down a river by herself and does not hesitate to slap away her unwanted suitor when he gets too aggressive with her. But the colonel’s daughter is so passive as to be pretty much a non-entity in her own courtship. My first thought when she appeared on screen was “My god! Could her corset get any tighter!” While Sky Star tries to prevent conflict and save her would-be boyfriend, the colonel’s daughter (she does not even have a name) falls to pieces in the face of danger and ends up literally on her knees clutching her father and weeping and wailing in terror.
The film also goes to great length to establish that the Sioux are the injured party. They have read and agreed to a treaty in good faith and the film shows the treaty three times as the Sioux refer back to it as they try to decide how to deal with the illegal invaders sent by the US government to survey Sioux land for a railroad passage. It is only after the cavalry refuse to stop the surveyors that the Sioux tear up the broken treaty and resort to war. Director Thomas Ince was a bit worried about showing the Sioux reaction. While, ultimately, critics of the time were impressed by the “subtle and complex pantomine” of the Sioux performance, Ince worried during filming that their acting style was too restrained and audiences would fail to realize just how angry and betrayed the Sioux really were. I have to agree with Ince to a degree. The Sioux do come across as so reasonable and respectful (except for Sky Star’s unwanted suitor who spies on the surveyors and mutters angrily) that their slaughter and apparent torture of the surveyors (who all appear very boyish) seems overly harsh.
The rest of the film is more a stereotypical Western with the focus on the hapless cavalry as the Sioux attack the post and the young lieutenant heroically rides for help. Except the battles come across quite realistic with real life Sioux warriors and lots of dust and smoke filling the air and obscuring some of the action. I also liked the scene when the Sioux plan their attack and burn down the telegraph poles to isolate their enemy and the scene when the Sioux chief and the cavalry colonel yell back and forth through the walls of the post (silently of course) as the colonel tries to delay the attack by revealing that the chief’s daughter is in the post.
The Invaders is a black and white silent film and the Internet Archive version includes no added score. It runs a little short of 41 minutes which made it a real epic back in 1912. 40 minutes meant 3 reels of film at a time when “most films still squeezed their stories into a single reel”. Most of the acting is decent, even the weeping and wailing of the spineless colonel’s daughter was pretty much the standard of the time. The film is in very good shape, not too dark, and pretty clean and clear. There is very little “dialogue” in the film. Most of the title cards simply state scenes like “An Unwanted Suitor” and “The Sioux Persuade The Cheyennes To Join In The Uprising”. There are only 3 title cards that denote speech like “If My Daughter Is Here Let Her Speak!”. Despite that, the personality and motivations of most of the characters is very clear. While there is a lot of smoke and dust during the battles, the action is interesting and realistic. My only real complaint was that the very end was a bit too melodramatic for my taste. For tender-hearted film fans, the deaths of the surveyors occurs mostly off-screen although there is a scene of two shirtless dead bodies draped over rocks and, while Sky Star succeeds in warning the post it is at a high cost. The Invaders is FREE in the Public Domain and available to watch online or download at the Internet Archive.