Cecil B. DeMille’s 1915 “The Cheat” is a morality play that manages the hypocritical feat of allowing the guilty embezzler, the shallow socialite Edith Hardy, to escape punishment from both the law and her particular social class, but excoriate another, the Burmese ivory trader Haka Arakau, who while certainly not innocent of wrongdoing, is essentially an accomplice who is drawn into his initial immoral action by the behavior of Edith, taking advantage of the circumstances of her criminal deceptions, feeling shielded by Edith’s fear of exposure, not merely to her dumbly devoted husband but to the members of her Long Island high society circle, both of whom she has needlessly betrayed through sheer selfishness. (More about this in a moment.)
Not unlike another American film milestone release of the same year, D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation”, “The Cheat” has been lambasted with charges of racism, to the point where the eventually blamed”villain” of the piece (Haka), originally identified as Japanese, was in the 1918 re-release changed to Burmese, [presuming whatever made the character adherent to the accusation of racist ignonimity would suddenly evaporate by this subtle shift of ethnicity] due, in no small part, to official protests from Japanese organizations, including their Embassy.
However, on close examination, it is not the depiction of Haka which may be divisive, no matter what his racial persuasion, but the generally low standard for justice and morality which are more at issue, the ease with which the film abandons any semblance of law in its relentless excusing of Edith in sacrificing a character far less complicit in unlawful behavior. If the character of Haka Arakau is to be considered an insulting model of the Asian male, then what possibly would the verdict be on the white American Edith Hardy? She is by all accounts a liar and a cheat, loyal to no one, and a betrayer of all; a spoiled self-centered sociopathic manipulator who brings ruin to everyone who comes close to her. Curiously enough, Edith Hardy is also the eventual, titular heroine of the film.
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