Plot: Lo (Douglas Fairbanks) has struggled to find his place in the world, in large part because of his father, who abandoned Lo and his mother. His father was white and his mother is Native American, which in a society where mixed ethnicity is frowned upon, makes him an immediate outsider. Unable to find his home in either the white or Native American communities, Lo decides to carve out his own space in the world, making a home for himself in the wilderness. While he relies on nature for most of his needs, he does have some limited interactions with a small settlement nearby, where he catches the eye of the beautiful Nellie (Jewel Carmen). As she is a white woman from an affluent family, Nellie’s interest in Lo isn’t accepted by the locals, especially Sheriff Dunn (Sam De Grasse). Dunn wants Nellie to be his woman, so combined with his racial hatred of Lo, he takes action to force Lo out of the area.
Entertainment Value: A melodrama with all the trimmings of a western, The Half-Breed is an interesting movie with some great performances, beautiful visuals, and even some social commentary elements. The biracial thread is what drives the movie and it is handled with respect and restraint, including a performance in which Fairbanks never falls into stereotype tropes. To see this kind of topic explored in such a dignified way is remarkable, especially given the time period involved. The movie also never masks the blind hatred of those who disapprove of Lo’s heritage, putting the fear and hatred on full view, especially once a potential romance arises. I do think the narrative overall is on the thin side and leans on the visuals and performances, but those other elements are strong enough to compensate for a plain storyline. And the visuals are beautiful indeed, with lush landscapes on showcase that are a pleasure to soak in and help to bolster the movie’s atmosphere. So yes, the narrative is perhaps nondescript in most ways, but The Half-Breed has much more to offer as well.
Douglas Fairbanks has the lead role here and turns in a good performance, one that, as I said above, is able to avoid the stereotypical elements. I will say that while he is more than capable, the material is on the thin side, so he isn’t able to show off his talent as much as he often can. Even so, fans of Fairbanks will appreciate his work here, including a scandalous nearly nude sequence. While Fairbanks is rock solid here, the show is stolen by Jewel Carmen and Alma Rubens, who shine in very different, but both quite memorable roles. I appreciated that the material offers these talented women roles that are more than window dressing or love interests, these are well developed characters and the actresses more than deliver. Sam De Grasse is also worth mentioning, as he gives us a proper villain, as the racist lawman. I think that despite an unmemorable narrative, there is enough in The Half-Breed to make it worth a look, with the visuals, social aspect, and strong performances.