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.

 

Advertisements

The Cowboys

John WayneThis 1972 coming of age western stars John Wayne as Montana rancher Wil Anderson.

When his hands abandon him to join in a gold rush, Anderson solicits the aid of local schoolboys to help him move his herd of cattle and horses 400 miles to market. Among the boys is Slim (Robert Carradine), Charlie Schwartz (Stephen Hudis) and a Hispanic outcast, Cimarron (A. Martinez).  A gang of men ride in before they leave.  Led by Long Hair (Bruce Dern), the ex-convicts want to join the drive, but when Anderson catches Long Hair in a lie, he refuses to hire them.  A black cook, Jebediah “Jeb” Nightlinger (Roscoe Lee Browne) shows up and applies to drive the chuck wagon.

The boys learn about hard work, whiskey, and death along the trail and are forced by circumstances to grow up quickly.

The screenplay by Irving Ravetch, Harriet Frank, Jr., and William Dale Jennings, based on Jennings’ novel of the same title, is a little long. In fact, the movie begins with an Overture and contains an Intermission, like Gone with the Wind or Ben-Hur, but this film is not in the mold of those movies and it seems more than a little pretentious to present it as if it was an epic.  The music by John Williams seems like typical cowboy movie music, both self-important and overblown.

Roscoe Lee BrowneMost of the performances are very good, especially Wayne and the boys that make up most of the cast. Probably the best acting in the film was accomplished by Roscoe Lee Browne, who creates a completely believable, three-dimensional character.  Sarah Cunningham is very good as Wil’s wife Annie, but Slim Pickens gives us nothing more than his usual self as local bar owner Anse Peterson and Colleen Dewhurst has a short, wasted performance as Kate Collingwood, the Madam of a traveling cathouse.  The most disappointing performance, unfortunately, is Bruce Dern whose sneering, one-note villain is almost laughable.

The movie is pretty good, however, considering its drawbacks. Going in, I worried that the angle with the boys doing the cattle drive would be hokey (and some of it is), but for the most part Wayne and the boys carry the film.  It’s a fresh angle for a Western and would have been extremely successful if it had been cut to a decent length, without a pretentious Overture and Intermission, and Dern’s character had been more well-drawn.

A fun movie.