The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans


Jim Bridger saves the day

George Sherman directed more
Westerns than any other kind of movie, 85 in all. Westernwise he’s probably
best known for his last, the John Wayne vehicle Big Jake in 1971 (even though Wayne himself did most of the direction on that), but otherwise under his own steam he made dozens and dozens of B-Westerns, often very good ones, from Hollywood Cowboy in 1937 onwards.
Universal’s Tomahawk in 1951 was at the top end of
his output, as far as quality goes. It has certain merits:

It’s a Technicolor picture shot
on location in the Black Hills of Dakota. Charles P Boyle was behind the
camera: he was a B-Western cinematographer but had worked with Winton Hoch on the
Oscar-winning photography of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon so he must have learned something.
   Van Heflin as Jim Bridger          Yvonne De Carlo & Tom Tully    John War Eagle as Red Cloud

Van Heflin starred as (an entirely fictional) Jim Bridger, in his
fourth Western (the one before Shane),
and while he was no Fonda or Peck, he was a more than adequate Western lead. And
although, regrettably, Yvonne De Carlo was the female lead, at least she
managed the whole film without a song, and I liked Preston Foster as Colonel
Carrington. Alex Nicol has the chief baddy role, as an Indian-hating lieutenant
who would have been welcome in the ranks of the SS. Jack Oakie as Bridger’s
pard ‘Sol Beckworth’ and Rock Hudson have small parts. So the acting, while not
perhaps super-stellar, is perfectly satisfactory.

And then the plot (screenplay
by Silvia Richards and Maurice Geraghty from a Daniel Jarrett story) features the
Fort Laramie Treaty and Jim Bridger so it has historical interest, although
IMDb’s classification of the film as ‘History’ is perhaps somewhat on the
optimistic side. Or, put another way, historically it’s a load of tosh.
It’s a story of how Jim tries to restore peace with
the Sioux in the teeth of the stupid Army, who want to build a wagon road up
the Bozeman Trail because gold has been discovered in Montana, and they want a fort right
in the Sioux hunting grounds – in defiance of several previous treaties.
       Sioux braves                  Bridger argues the Sioux’s case          Alex Nicol as SS Lt.
The movie has a
great start as, to the strains of ‘Indian’ music, a highly ornate tomahawk thuds
into a birch tree. A voiceover tells us that it is 1866, the Laramie
Conference. The Sioux and the US Army are lined up facing each other. “It will
take a great man to see both sides. Jim Bridger, pioneer, trapper and scout, is
such a man.” Of course at this confab the white man speaks with forked tongue.
This is a pro-Indian movie in which Red Cloud (John War Eagle, a real Sioux who
grew up on the Yankton Indian Reservation in South Dakota but was, bizarrely,
born in Leicestershire, England) is a real statesman and the white Americans
the bad guys (especially Alex Nicol, of course). Well, the movie was shot in
1950, the year of Broken Arrow.

Although the writers have
concertina-ed various historical events into a short period in 1866 and Jim Bridger
did not lose an Indian wife and children at the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864,
still there is some vague historical plausibility to the movie, to be fair. And
accurate or not (mostly not) it’s still quite a fast-paced, exciting adventure.

Yes, Tomahawk is a George Sherman B-Western, and it’s no Broken Arrow, but it’s quite a lot of
fun and by no means the worst offering of 1951.

The fort

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