Still in his second year of directing, D.W. Griffith delves into the American Revolution in this early Biograph adventure film. An American courier is trying to deliver an important message to General Washington. He seeks refuge with his family but is soon found out and shot. His family must try to deliver his message and save themselves from the licentious Hessians, who include… Mack Sennett?
D.W. Griffith had been directing motion pictures for a little over a year when he made this tale of the American Revolution. Alternately titled 1776, it made use of many familiar faces from Griffith’s stable of actors: Mary Pickford, Owen Moore (soon the be the first Mr. Mary Pickford), Kate Bruce, Arthur V. Johnson, Linda Arvidson (the first Mrs. D.W. Griffith), and future king of slapstick, Mack Sennett.
And, in case you fell asleep in American history class, here is a refresher on just who the Hessians were: German mercenaries serving in the British forces during the American Revolution. Since so many of these mercenaries were from Hesse, the term “Hessian” was adopted as a blanket term.
Now for the movie!
Owen Moore plays a courier who has vital information that must be delivered to General Washington. However, he is being pursued by a band of Hessians and he just barely manages to duck inside his family’s home. His mother and father (Kate Bruce and James Kirkwood) have just sat down to a meal with their daughters (Mary Pickford and Gertrude Robinson). With the Hessians already bursting in, the family hides Owen in the fireplace.
The Hessians make their entrance and act in the expected movie villain manner. While Mary distracts them, Owen sneaks into a chest that the family plans to carry out of danger. However, Mary accidentally gives the game away when she and her sister try to move the chest too soon. The Hessians fire into it, killing Owen. The message is seized and the family arrested.
But what’s this? Owen’s father escapes and manages to talk to his only Mostly Dead son. Owen passes on the message verbally and then slips into All Dead. Mary is also at liberty and springs into action. She charms a soldier into putting down his musket, which is immediately seized by her father. Mary dons the uniform of the captured soldier and her father rushes off to obtain help from the neighbors. This is very well-timed, since back at the house, the Hessians are starting to get a little rough…
Griffith and the motion pictures were still growing up at this point and his best Biograph work was still ahead of him. However, this does not mean that the film is without charm. Its most obvious asset is Mary Pickford.
Pickford had been a motion picture actress for only six months and was just seventeen years old when she made The Hessian Renegades. Griffith has assigned her the scrappy-little-maiden role (did he ever love those) and she pretty much walks off with the film. It is already obvious that Pickford is a superstar in the making; whenever she enters a scene, it is impossible to pay attention to anyone else.
The film does have its flaws, however. Griffith’s historical films of this period tended to have a stilted, stagy manner to them (he was not alone in this by any means) and The Hessian Renegades is no exception. The stagy nature of the film forces the audience to stretch their suspension of disbelief to the breaking point. For example, Owen’s father sneaks up, listens to his son’s dying words and then curses the Hessians all while the Hessians are sitting two feet away! Now I realize that this was so Griffith could fit everyone into the same shot but it does rather jar one out of the action. And apparently the Hessians have terrible eyesight since they fail to notice that their sentry (actually Mary Pickford in disguise) has shrunk by about a foot.
The Hessian Renegades is an entertaining film that clocks in at approximately ten minutes. While there are some definite flaws it is still entertaining and interesting to watch. However, both star and director were soon to move on to better things.
I should make a confession. I fully intended to review America for this month. I started to watch it, got a ways in but I just couldn’t face two hours and twenty minutes of Carol Dempster, not even with Lionel Barrymore to compensate. I’m very sorry to any of her fans that may be reading. I hope you enjoyed this substitute American Revolution.