Across the Mexican Line (Solax, 1911)
I’ve had this 16mm reduction negative for some little time but paid little attention to it since, based on the title scribbled on the leader, I already had a copy of the film and had already transferred it to video. Still, eventually I got around to examining the reel and I quickly realized that it did not contain the film I thought it did. It was, in fact, a copy of Across the Mexican Line (1911), which is interesting because that film was presumed to be lost after the last known print of it was discovered to be unsalvageably deteriorated. I think any collector would say that it’s always a bit of a thrill to think that the film you’re holding is the only one in existence.
Across the Mexican Line was the first of Solax’s “Big Military Features” series of films. The release was “very timely” and “heartily” received by audiences, Moving Picture News reported in their film chart for April 29th, 1911. The picture was created to capitalize on the Mexican Revolution, which had just broken out the year before, and evidently it succeeded.
The film begins with Castro, a popular Mexican entertainer who sympathizes with the guerrillas’ cause, meeting with the commander of a detachment of Mexican troops. The commander needs intelligence of the American troop movements. Castro suggests that they use a female spy.
Dolores, the spy, ingratiates herself with Lieutenant Harvey and gains access to the telegraph room. Harvey even teaches her Morse code and shows her how the equipment works. Unfortunately for the Mexicans, Dolores fails in learning the information the commander wants. Castro tries a different, more direct approach: bribing Harvey. When that doesn’t work, he kidnaps him and takes him to the commander, who threatens the lieutenant with death unless he divulges the information.
Dolores, who has fallen in love with the man she was sent to spy on, sneaks out of the camp on a stolen horse and rides to the telegraph wires. She climbs a pole and taps into the wire, frantically messaging the American headquarters. The pursuing guerrillas shoot at her and she’s hit in the right hand, but continues tapping out the code with her left.
The Americans receive the message and a counterattack is launched. Just as Harvey is about to be shot by the firing squad, the Americans rush in and tear down the guerrilla fighters. Harvey embraces Dolores and the two kiss as the film ends.
Solax, in their ad copy, stated that they intended their Big Military Features to mark “a departure from the studio productions” that had dominated the screen and to instead be “big, lively, outdoor pictures, full of vigorous, active incidents”. Across the Mexican Line gets there, eventually, but the cramped, crowded sets of the first half are, to all appearances, very much a “studio production”. The editing style also adapts itself as the film progresses, from the long, continuous shots of the opening scenes to the short, staccato takes of the climax that rapidly cut between several simultaneous plot lines. It’s a dramatic change — going from shots that last around a minute and a half at the start of the film to just ten seconds at the end — and creates a feeling of heightening tension and of time running out.
Across the Mexican Line reverses the common damsel in distress trope. Harvey is the helpless one here, and it’s Dolores who must save him. Challenging gender roles was a common theme in Guy’s work, just as Guy herself challenged them in life. Even today, female directors are uncommon and are woefully underappreciated. When Guy began directing, she was quite literally the only one.
I liked Across the Mexican Line, but I will say that, until I read a contemporary plot synopsis, many of the details of the film were lost on me. It’s easy enough to get the gist from the picture alone — that Dolores is a spy, that Harvey is somehow important to Castro, and that Castro has some connection to the guy in the military costume — but everything else was nigh incomprehensible. It doesn’t help that the first scene, which the synopsis says introduced the military guy, is missing from my negative.
My rating: I like it.
Available from Harpodeon