Broken Arrow

Broken Arrow Stewart PagetThis 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.

 

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Harper LeeHarper Lee’s 1960 Pulitzer Prize winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird is not a novel about justice.  It is about something much simpler: right and wrong.

Engaging from the first page to the last, it is told in the voice of Jean Louise Finch, a girl from southern Alabama, looking back on the years between 1932 and 1935, when she was six to eight years old and had the nickname Scout. She plays and learns from her brother Jeremy, called Jem, who is four years older, in their hometown of Maycomb, the County seat.  Their father, Atticus, is an attorney and state legislator and they have a black woman, Calpurnia, who cooks, cleans, and acts as surrogate mother when needed.

Although Atticus was not college educated, he is a very thoughtful and well-read man and he ensures that both of his children strive to be as well-educated as possible. Jem claims that Scout has been reading since she was born and she reads to her father every night before she goes to sleep. Something of a tomboy, she has trouble controlling her temper, but she struggles to understand this little world she was born into.

The novel begins in 1932 when a boy comes to spend the summer with his aunt, Miss Stephanie, a neighbor of the Finches. His name is Charles Baker Harris, but he goes by the nickname of Dill and he has many outlandish stories for his new friends, mostly concerning his absent father.  As they play, Jem tells him to stay away from the Radley place because a maniac named Boo Radley lives there and never comes out.  His father keeps him chained to a bed and he only comes out at night to go around to look in people’s windows.  Naturally, Dill wants to see him and hatches various plans to make Boo come out, none of which ever come to anything.

A major portion of the novel deals with their fascination for Boo Radley and their father’s orders not to bother the man, but the most remembered scenes of the book deal with a trial in which Atticus must defend a black field worker, Tom Robinson, who has been accused of raping Mayella Ewell, a poor girl who lives with her redneck father, Robert E. Lee “Bob” Ewell, and seven brothers and sisters behind the town dump.

It is apparent that Tom is innocent, that Mayella was beaten and raped by her own father. Although there is a mountain of circumstantial evidence that points to his innocence, a guilty verdict is a foregone conclusion.  The testimony of Bob and Mayella, two white people, is weighed against the testimony of one black man by a male jury of white men.  Even though the result is a foregone conclusion, Atticus puts of the best defense he can.  Jem is perhaps the most crushed by the verdict.  He has a child’s certainty that justice will be done and his disappointment at the result is deep.

As Jem turns away to deal with this on his own, Scout turns to Atticus and to the women in her community and her Aunt Alexandra to find an explanation for the injustice. What she learns is that the important thing is to try to do right, even against overwhelming odds, and to trust that the world will always lean toward what is right.  The evidence is in the judge, who gave every advantage he could to Tom’s defense, the neighbors, who know that justice wasn’t served, and a community that is more aware of the injustice that either Jem or Scout might believe.  In the end, through the character of Boo Radley, justice is finally served, outside the courtroom.

The message is clear. Do right.  Trust in your fellow man.  Everything will equal out in the end.

Comparisons between the novel and the movie are inevitable, but it is difficult to find any great division to say one is better than the other. The movie more or less tells the essentials of the novel by focussing on the action and it is extremely successful.  One might only wish that all adaptations were as successful, but for me the book lives the story more successfully.  The voice of Scout is unique, engrossing, and deeply touching.  In the movie, we also hear Scout’s voice, but I have always thought that the girl playing Scout, Mary Badham, seemed a little too big for six years of age.  She has moments that are deeply touching, but at the same time, there are moments when it is quite obvious that she wasn’t an actress, when her performance doesn’t quite ring true.  In the novel, the reader always has the feeling of the adult woman Jean Louise getting back into that period of time completely, of being so much inside the head of her younger self that there is no mistaking the authenticity at all.

The other thing that really won me to the novel is that it works under no time constraint. You feel the long days of summer, of the children playing, of the frightening mystery of Boo Radley, and the incredible perplexity of life.  The movie seems to be almost entirely about the trial, but the trial is entirely secondary in the novel.  It takes place near the end and requires only a few chapters to reveal the entirety.  The novel is more deeply concerned with the children and what they have to learn from life and the trial is only another part of the great textbook of life.

If I were asked if one should see the movie or read the book first, I would advise most strongly that one read the book. Take the time to get that depth of voice and character that a novelist has the time to create for you.  Lose yourself in this childhood of the deep south between 1932 and 1935 and take Scout’s meditations and lessons deep inside you.  Then, watch the truncated version that consists almost entirely of action.

My review of the movie is at To Kill a M0ckingbird.

You’ll like both!