- Borderland Films: American Cinema, Mexico, and Canada during the Progressive Era by Dominique Brégent-Heald
In Borderland Films: American Cinema, Mexico, and Canada during the Progressive Era, Dominique Brégent-Heald maintains that the production and popularity of early borderland films must be understood within the context of a nascent film industry both searching for cultural legitimacy and negotiating the regulatory demands and anxieties of Progressive Era reformers. Borderlands, as "complex and paradoxical spaces," she argues, satisfied the above demands (29). As ambiguous and contradictory sites, borderlands lent themselves to theatrical melodramatic and literary forms that pitted good against evil and preindustrial against modern—dichotomies the film industry hoped would "entice the middle class or at the very least pacify moral reformers" (29).
Brégent-Heald's first two chapters introduce the analytical framework she uses to examine borderland films produced between 1908–19, a period that begins with the impressive rise of borderland motion pictures and terminates with World War I and the end of the Progressive Era. The burgeoning film industry joined other artists and writers such as Helen Hunt Jackson and boosters such as Charles Fletcher Lummis in portraying North America's frontier as a liminal landscape, a site "characterized by notions of in-betweeness, ambiguity, and transition" (41). Keeping with literary form, filmmakers capitalized on the established dichotomy that [End Page 249] distinguished between Spanish and French colonial pasts and an overcivilized modern society.
The author argues that pastoral settings of the American Southwest and the sublime wilderness of the American Northwest satisfied film critics, audiences, and Progressive reformers' desire for a romantic pre-modern past and physical rejuvenation amongst the debilitating effects of industrialization and modernization. Place-based productions were a means to construct an aura of "historical reality" (52) aimed at "rais[ing] the cultural legitimacy of motion pictures" (62). The seemingly authentic landscapes, experiences, and characters in borderland films shaped and confirmed audiences' belief that the pastoral colonial past was destined to fade with the inevitable ascendency of Anglo-American progress.
Subsequent chapters address the filmic representation of North America's borderlands as both utopic and dystopic landscapes. Borderlands, as cross-cultural and multiracial sites, provided filmmakers the canvas to highlight national anxieties and feature Progressive Era concerns about interracial unions, the treatment of Indians, emerging gender dynamics, criminality, and porous borders. For example, she finds that while mixed-raced characters often suffered tragic fates—suggesting that interracial romances were destructive—their imagined freedom to transgress normative gender roles, to possess power, and to express sexuality was equally celebrated (albeit highly racialized). Borderland films offered Anglo-American moviegoers a national narrative of past, present, and future that was desirable yet dangerous.
Although Southern California emerged as the mecca for film production, Brégent-Heald traces in the final chapters how the Texas–Mexico borderlands figured prominently as a thematic site for criminality and political instability. Analyzing several Texas Ranger- and Mexican Revolution-themed feature films, actualities, and military reenactments, she draws on cinema scholar Victor Burgin to describe this region as a heterotopic space comprising "sites of interface between disruptive (criminals) and disciplined (line riders) elements" (215). The layering of disruption and discipline and questions over national security and porous border zones, she notes, arose within the context of the Mexican Revolution and World War I. Here she documents the filmic transition from open spaces of interracial interaction to closed borders of military policing. Unsurprisingly, filmmakers depicted Texas Rangers as the heroic defenders of law and order against cattle rustlers, Mexican bandits, and whiskey, opium, and Chinese smugglers. Likewise, during the Mexican Revolution, filmmakers sought to capture and capitalize on "authentic" footage of military battles and army training camps along the Texas–Mexico border.
Seemingly treading familiar ground with the use of "imperialist nostalgia" to analyze early twentieth-century cultural products, Brégent-Heald's comparative borderlands approach suggests there is more to the narrative [End Page 250] of a destructive colonizer that yearns for the vanquished. Although the Southwest...