An influential Western
We’ve been talking about the Western career of Delmer Daves (click the link for that). Well, with his first Western as director, Daves started on a high. Not only that, the picture said something relatively new, and had a great influence on the genre as the 1950s progressed.
For in 1950 audiences were treated to a movie which showed white racist Indian-haters in a very bad light and Indians as noble, with a wise and statesmanlike leader. Broken Arrow was screened and became quite a box-office hit (though didn’t earn as much as Universal’s Winchester ’73).
One of the many ways in which the Second World War had a big impact on popular culture in the US was that we were all told how repressive and racist the Fascist powers were, and how tolerant America was by comparison. White GIs served alongside ‘ethnic’ ones (there weren’t too many black or Jewish soldiers in Hitler’s or Hirohito’s armies) and found to their surprise that they were just like them. Hollywood began to consider making movies which reflected this. Anti-semitism was the first target, with Fox’s Elia Kazan-directed Gentlemen’s Agreement with Gregory Peck in 1947. Then Kazan did another anti-racist picture for Fox, this time about discrimination against black people, Pinky (1949).
It was inevitable that Westerns would ‘borrow’ the cachet, and anti-Indian feeling was after all a mainstay of the genre – Indians were brutal savages, right? As anti-Communist hysteria grew – and it was especially virulent in Hollywood – some liberals graduated to Westerns because those movies contained a presumption of patriotism and they were set ‘safely’ in the past. Racism could be treated with near impunity, they thought – though of course as it turned out it didn’t stop movie people being blacklisted and hounded out of their livelihoods in witch-hunts.
Broken Arrow was a good example: credited to Michael Blankfort, it was in fact written by the blacklisted Albert Maltz. Blankfort must have had mixed feelings when he was nominated for an Academy award…
I haven’t employed the overused word seminal to describe Broken Arrow because a seminal movie is one that sowed the seed for a whole genre or type of film. In a way, John Ford paved the way for a wise Cochise, worthy warrior adversary of John Wayne, in 1948 in Fort Apache. Ford was going some small way towards making up for all of his previous Westerns in which Indians were just nameless hordes to be shot down in droves by the white hero. Furthermore, filmed before Broken Arrow but released afterwards, Devil’s Doorway had dealt with similar themes to those of Broken Arrow. Noirmeister Anthony Mann’s first foray into the Western (and what a great Western director he was going to turn out to be) was probably a better film than Broken Arrow. Certainly it was more radical, stronger and more uncompromising.
And even Devil’s Doorway wasn’t the first pro-Indian Western. In the early days of the genre there had been many films which highlighted the plight of the Native American at the hands of the encroaching white man. In the 1910s Thomas Ince, in particular, produced several pro-Indian silent movies. Well-known feature films such as Ramona, The Squaw Man and Zane Grey’s Vanishing American were made and remade all through the silent era. But Devil’s Doorway and Broken Arrow were a worthy 1950s corrective to the Indians of the Stagecoach kind, who were just whooping savages threatening the lives of brave white men.
Daves used James Stewart as lead. Stewart, the naïf, bumbling Jefferson Smith going to Washington or the whittling, anecdotal Tom Destry Jr in Shinbone, deliberately and suddenly in 1950 turned into the hard, driven, tough Western hero who appeared in Broken Arrow and Mann’s Winchester ’73. It was an amazing transformation. One of the reasons for which Darryl Zanuck, head of 20th Century Fox at the time, held back the release of Broken Arrow (which was actually shot before Universal’s Winchester) was to see what reception Winchester would receive from the public. Would they accept James Stewart as tough guy with a gun? But he needn’t have worried: the Western movie had gained a huge new star, to rival John Wayne, Gregory Peck and Henry Fonda – if not quite Coop.
Unlike Winchester, Broken Arrow was in fine Technicolor and the photography was exceptionally good. Filmed on location round Flagstaff and Sedona in Arizona, with studio sets kept to a minimum, the movie glows with beauty. From a visual point of view, Ernest Palmer, director of photography, who was Oscar-nominated for this film, gave us one of the finest Westerns of the era. William H Daniels’s cinematography for Mann in Winchester ’73 was also very good – a chiaroscuro black and white that suited the psychological Western it was – but photographically speaking, Broken Arrow is even better.
Stewart’s performance as former army scout, now stage line owner Tom Jeffords is the equal of his Lin McAdam in Winchester. In Broken Arrow, Jeffords is a man committed to an ideal and prepared to do anything to achieve it. The real-life Jeffords was perhaps slightly less altruistic; he spoke to Cochise to protect the profits of his mail business, and what’s wrong with that? But the real Jeffords did indeed journey alone into Cochise’s camp, become blood brother of the chief and have his mail riders protected. He was clearly a decent man. Stewart gets it right, perfect in fact.
Indeed, all the actors are very good here. Burly New Yorker Jeff Chandler is excellent as Cochise. Producer Julius Blaustein recalled, “We had a terrible time locating an actor with the proper voice and stature to play Cochise. Before we found Chandler we were even considering [Italian opera singer] Ezio Pinza.” Chandler was cast in May 1949 on the basis of his performance in Sword in the Desert. It must be very hard for a white actor to portray an Apache chief without relapsing into “Me Cochise, you white man” ug-speak. Daves replaced such language with conventional English so that whites and Indians would sound alike. Chandler goes way beyond stereotype Indians to provide a moving, powerful performance which shows Cochise as a real statesman. Daves cleverly has him change his clothes. First seen in obvious ‘Indian’ costume, when Jeffords appears he wears softer clothes, in tones matching Stewart’s, as he comes round to Jeffords’s point of view.
Debra Paget, only 15 at the time of filming, is truly beautiful as Stewart’s (fictional) Indian bride Sonseeahray, despite the overdone make-up. I don’t know if the costumes were authentic but they are certainly very graceful. If anything she was probably too good to be true. Paget would go on to make quite a ‘thing’ of Indian maidens, as Appearing Day in White Feather (1955) and ‘Indian Girl’ in The Last Hunt (1956). There was a slight age gap, with 41-year-old Stewart wooing her, but never mind.
Devil’s Doorway also contained an inter-racial romance. While this raises few eyebrows these days, in 1950 it would have been termed miscegenation, and would have been viewed with shock or even abhorrence by many. But Broken Arrow’s example is ’safe’: Paget’s Indian maid is beautiful, she is subservient to the white male (always wanting to learn his ways and become ’civilized’), and anyway she is soon killed. However, in Devil’s Doorway, the affair is between an Indian man and a white female, and in those days the man was still considered the dominant partner in a marriage. This ‘redskin’ would be ‘taking’ a white woman, and that certainly would have been viewed with disapproval by many in the audience. It is another example of how Mann’s film is more radical and daring than Daves’s.
Certain critics, especially Native American ones, have argued that Indians should have been used in these parts, and they have a point, especially when one considers that whites played the ‘good’ Indians while Geronimo and the ‘bad’ (i.e. more militant) Indians were played by Native Americans. This was a subtle kind of racism, unintentional, perhaps, but nevertheless insidious. But there are problems with this argument: acting and plays were alien to the Indian tradition. There was no corps of Indian actors waiting in the wings. And, worse, the financers of movies were very unlikely to use unknown ‘ethnic’ actors in Hollywood films when bankable white actors with known names were available. You can hardly blame Daves.
In fact, Chandler rather cornered the market on Cochise roles. He was Cochise again in The Battle at Apache Pass (a kind of prequel) in 1952 and in the weaker sequel Taza, Son of Cochise in 1954.
Of the rest of the cast, Basil Ruysdael is fine as sage General O. O. Howard, known as ‘Bible Howard’. Jay Silverheels (‘Tonto’) plays an angry Geronimo with conviction and power. He was Geronimo in several other movies too. Will Geer (Wyatt Earp the same year in Winchester ’73) here plays the Indian-hating heavy Ben Slade. John Doucette is the nasty muleskinner who whips the mob up into trying to lynch ‘Indian-lover’ Jeffords. Good old Arthur Hunnicutt is there too, as an Al Sieber-like character. So the cast is strong.
The writing is generally very good. It has an authentic ring to it. In his foreword to the 1947 source novel, Blood Brother, Elliott Arnold wrote that he researched the story carefully and most of the book was based on accurate history. He used records left by Jeffords himself. The novel deals with the history of Cochise from 1855 to his death in 1874, whereas the movie begins the story in 1870. The character Sonseeahray was invented by Arnold (no relation, sadly), and then built up in the movie.
The film, more than the novel, has quite a ‘white’ take on events, and Daves softens (probably necessarily) the almost anti-white-American sentiments of the book. Stewart is in nearly every scene and even when he isn’t there’s a voiceover narration by him. So the focus shifted. It’s really the story of Jeffords more than Cochise.
The movie has a sudden and perhaps weak ending in which Stewart is told that the loss of his wife Sonseeahray will seal the treaty, and he is supposed to say that’s alright then. He’s left as though saying, “You mean the movie is over?”So the Daves-Maltz work was not quite so revolutionary or even particularly pioneering as some have suggested. And the Arnold novel was certainly not one-sided; there are vicious elements on both sides, Apache and white. But Broken Arrow was released as the first Hollywood talkie, aimed at adult audiences, to make an intelligent pro-Indian case. It was a major success. And it had a huge influence on later Westerns. When Jeffords announces regretfully, “Apaches are wild animals, we all said,” he is clearly including in that ‘we’ 1950 audiences as much as characters in the film.
[And by the way, many great Westerns, even ones as good as The Searchers or Red River, had last-minute endings which some have construed as weak. It doesn’t seriously detract from a fine film.]
Delmer Daves loved the symbolism of the river, and it is no accident that key events in this film take place at the river’s edge. When Jeffords takes Sonseeahray as his bride, the couple cross the almost Rubicon-like river to their honeymoon wickiup. Geronimo’s attack on the stagecoach takes place at the river and this is mirrored by the ambush led by firebrand Ben Slade (statesmanlike Jeffords and Cochise both suffer from hothead-renegade fringe groups determined on violence) which leads to Sonseerahay’s death.
At the time of the picture’s release, Fox hired Rosebud Yellow Robe, a Native American folklorist and author, to make a national tour to promote the film. It didn’t go all that well for the studio, though. Yellow Robe explained that Sonseerahay’s role as a ‘princess’ was phony; there were no such things as Indian princesses, and that the myth started when Pocohontas went to England. Yellow Robe voiced complaints about the portrayals of Indians on radio, screen, and television to “a new generation of children learning the old stereotypes about whooping, warring Indians, as if there weren’t anything else interesting about us.” Still, to be fair, the film did make an effort to correct that.
The film got a mixed critical reception. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times wrote, “Apparently in his enthusiasm to treat the Indian with politeness and respect, Delmer Daves, the director, brought forth red men who act like denizens of the musical comedy stage. Jeff Chandler, who plays Cochise, is twice as clean and stalwart-looking as James Stewart, who plays the drawling prospector by whom the peaceful mission is embarked … This is all the more disconcerting when he is supposed to fall beautifully in love with a China-doll Indian maiden, whom Debra Paget rhapsodically plays. The scenes of the gitchy-goo love-making between these two by the waters of a lake (could be Minnetonka) are downright embarrassing … No, we cannot accept this picture as either an exciting or reasonable account of the attitudes and ways of American Indians. They merit justice, but not such patronage.”
Variety liked it better: “Broken Arrow is a western with a little different twist – the story of the attempt of whites and Apaches to learn to live together in the Arizona of 1870. Essentially it’s an appealing, sentimental Indian romance, with plenty of action. Pic has a quality of naive charm that peculiarly fits. There are colorful Indian tribal ceremonies that ring true.”
Newsweek called it “one of the most emotionally satisfying westerns since Stagecoach”. The Hollywood Reporter commented that the film “accomplishes the miracle of portraying the American Indian as a person much more than the stereotyped rug peddler or vicious savage. Instead he is presented as a member of an ancient and honorable race whose primitive intelligence is the match of any civilized culture, not merely in matters of conflict but in social organization, community service and morality.”
The picture got three Oscar-nominations (Best Writing, Best Cinematography and Best Supporting Actor for Chandler) as well as winning a Golden Globe (Best Film Promoting International Understanding) and a Writers Guild of America, USA award for Best Western.
Of later critics, William Everson in 1969 noted how Broken Arrow managed “that rare movie trick of making a social comment without overloading the scales.”
In the 1980s Brian Garfield didn’t care for it, calling the picture “A slow tearjerker with stilted dialogue and a cop-out ending.” Garfield did however remark on the film’s huge influence: “The Western was changed, philosophically, as a result of this picture; seldom thereafter did filmmakers have the nerve to depict Indians as villains simply because they were red men.”
More recently, Dennis Schwarz called it “classy and well-meaning though at times awkward and self-conscious Western.”
The BFI Companion to the Western says, “Daves drew upon his extensive first-hand knowledge of Indian culture and history to make his moving vindication of the American Indian as convincing as possible.”
Screen Directors’ Playhouse presented a radio broadcast of Broken Arrow on September 5, 1951, with Stewart, Chandler and Paget. It became an ABC TV series from 1956 through 1958 with Tom Jeffords played by John Lupton and Cochise by Michael Ansara, which wasn’t all that bad. Arnold was the story editor. Sam Peckinpah wrote three of the episodes.
As a footnote, it’s quite interesting that Arnold’s 1976 book The Camp Grant Massacre was no ‘pro-Indian’ whitewash. In The New York Times book review of the day, historian James R Frakes wrote that Arnold “treats his historic materials with discreet respect and fair-mindedness” and “a refusal to yield to the fashionable war-party line in terms of which the Indians are blameless victims and the whites satanic butchers”. Arnold’s and Daves’s work does contrast with a modern picture like the overlong and overearnest Dances with Wolves, in which all the whites (except Costner, of course) are loathsome and all the American Indians wonderfully noble. This is just as inaccurate as in the old days.
But certainly after Broken Arrow and Devil’s Doorway, movie makers were no longer able to portray Indians as just ‘redskins’ to be shot down while circling wagon trains, whooping – or at least they were only able to do that in non-serious low-budget Westerns.
Americans were suddenly made to think.