This 1950 movie was one of the first to portray western Native Americans in a balanced manner and carries as its message racial equality and peaceful relations between Indians and Anglos. Based on the popular novel, Blood Brother, by Elliott Arnold, the film adaptation by Michael Blankfort dramatizes the historical relationship between Tom Jeffords (James Stewart) and Chiricahua Apache leader Cochise (Jeff Chandler).
When Jeffords goes panhandling for gold in Apache territory, he runs across a boy who is dying from buckshot wounds. He nurses the lad back to health, but is discovered by members of the tribe. The boy intervenes on his behalf and they decide to spare him. They are interrupted by the arrival of prospectors. The Indians tie up and gag Jeffords while they ambush the prospectors, killing most of them. When the melee is over, Jeffords is released.
In Tucson, he hears one of the prospectors who survived the raid giving a false picture of it and he corrects the man, then must describe what happened to him. The men berate him for being friendly to the Indians, but Jeffords has a plan to bring peace between the Chiricahuas and Whites. He learns to speak Apache and is taught smoke signals by a member of the tribe living in the city, then he travels to meet Cochise face to face. Impressed with Jeffords bravery and honesty, he agrees to let the mail go through unmolested. While in the Apache camp, he meets a young girl, Sonseeahray (Debra Paget) and falls in love.
An Army unit, attempting to catch Cochise off-guard, goes into Apache territory and gets caught in an ambush. Although many of the soldiers are killed and their wagons stolen, General Oliver Otis Howard (Basil Ruysdael) survives and returns to Tucson, just in time to save Jeffords from being lynched as a collaborator with the Apaches. The general has been dispatched from Washington to negotiate a peace with Cochise that will give the tribe 50,000 acres of land as a reservation.
Directed by Delmer Daves, the film strives for historical accuracy, but succeeds only in a Hollywood-skewed way. It was filmed near Sedona, Arizona, although the action should have been filmed hundreds of miles south near Tucson. Even so, hundreds of Apaches from the Fort Apache Indian Reservation were used as extras.
It is very unfortunate that Hollywood did not trust real Indian actors to accomplish most of the major Apache roles, although the venerable Jay Silverheels (“Tonto”) played the renegade Geronimo in the movie. Although both Jeff Chandler and Debra Paget are not completely believable as Indians, they are the only two Anglos to portray Native Americans in the film. Paget, by the way, was only 15 years old at filming. The actors were aided by a script that readily swapped out English for the assumption that they were all speaking Apache. At least, no one spoke the broken English that ruled in films of the day. Paget may have been misdirected to speak too proper English, but it doesn’t detract from the movie.
Most of the performances are quite acceptable, although none stands out as being a great performance.
The true value of the film is in its message, that we can all live side by side in peace. In 1950, this was rather a brave stand. The film goes out of its way to make the point that there are both good and bad Indians and Anglos and it is more important to be true to an ideal than to condemn a man based on his ethnicity. This was also a complete break from other Westerns.
The music in the film is unobtrusive, which is a good thing in a movie like this. There is no Hollywood orchestra playing some hackneyed Anglo version of an Indian war song, thank goodness. The scenes with Indian music and dancing feel authentic, perhaps because they are being performed by real Indians.
Broken Arrow claims high ground in the Western genre of filmmaking. The presence of James Stewart certainly adds weight to the message of racial equality and justice. It’s a very good film that I would recommend for the entire family.