Often laughably bad
On the ‘bonus’ part of the Sidonis Calysta DVD of When the Redskins Rode, Patrick Brion, waffling even more than usual, gives his opinion that Westerns set in the mid-eighteenth century were incredibly rare. This is of course nonsense. Pre-Civil War Westerns were myriad, and had been ever since, in the silent days, filmmakers started doing Last of the Mohicans versions. True, these stories were not set in the ‘West’ in the sense we understand it today but in those times the Western frontier was in upper New York State. Robert E Kent, who wrote Redskins, himself wrote and/or produced plenty of early Westerns, pictures like Brave Warrior, The Pathfinder, Fort Ti, Frontier Uprising and more, and there were loads of others. Brion says, bizarrely, that there were so few of these pictures because the costumes were more expensive. I don’t know where he got that from.
Actually, the Sidonis DVD was part of the reason that I got this one. Though they still have those annoying subtitles you can’t turn off, and most of the waffly discussions on the discs are eminently skippable, they do usually choose good movies, often ones that have been overlooked, and the picture quality on them is good. But I was disappointed by this one. It’s pretty well junk as a film and even some of the picture quality is distinctly iffy.
The title of course would be unthinkable today. But even if it was not considered offensive in the early 50s, it was still very bad: apart from a perfunctory first scene where some attacking American Indians ride ponies, they are always on foot, as are the whites (except the snooty French: their officers ride). The film should have been called When the Redskins Walked.
It was a Sam Katzman production, so that tells you a lot. Katzman had the knack of making low-budget genre films with very few pretensions to classiness or artiness but which had disproportionately high returns for his financial backers. I daresay he wangled Brion’s ‘expensive’ costumes from some other picture. He certainly incorporated footage from MGM’s Northwest Passage, including the famous river crossing.
At one point Kent’s script has a character suggest putting their men in green. Another replies that would be a good idea: they would blend in with the forest. More accurately he could have said that they would blend in with the 1940 footage.
The picture starred Jon Hall. Hall had done well in Edward Small’s epic Kit Carson in 1940 but with the best will in the world, he wasn’t much of an actor. He’d topped the billing in another Katzman early Western, Last of the Redmen, another sub-Mohicans yarn in 1947, and he’d also headed the cast for Lippert’s low-budget Deputy Marshal in ’49. The year after Redskins he’d do yet another Katzman/Kent early Western, Brave Warrior. He was by this time looking slightly less, er, svelte.
He’s supposed to be an Indian in Redskins, and is about as convincing as I would be as a Swahili. It was a time when Native American parts were nearly always taken by non-Native American actors. Hall’s mother was Tahitian and he often got ‘exotic’ roles. I guess they thought that was Native American enough.
Even less convincing, in fact hilarious, is Mary Castle as the femme fatale Elizabeth Leeds, with her red hair, blue eyes and bright red lipstick, and talking like a gangster’s moll, who suddenly announces that she is half Shawnee. You laugh out loud. Poor Mary. To me she was always Matt Clark’s fellow railroad ‘tec Frankie Adams on Stories of the Century. As the leading lady of a feature I’m afraid she simply wasn’t up to it.
There’s also an amusing and illustrative bit (we’re in the early 1950s here more than the early 1750s) when Elizabeth, who is rather forward (not to use another word) tries to seduce the noble Indian, who is def attracted to her, but of course he can’t kiss her, no matter how inviting she is, because, well, he’s an Indian and she’s white (she hasn’t revealed her mixed blood yet). I mean, they very idea! But as soon as she tells him she’s half-Shawnee, they immediately set about smooching, because now it’s OK, you see, according to the Hollywood code of ethics.
Hollywood sometimes made Indians more socially acceptable by elevating their status. So Hannoc (that’s Jon) is a ‘prince’, son of the ‘king’ of the Delawares. That ‘king’ is the equally convincing (by which I mean unconvincing) Pedro de Cordoba. Pedro’s mother was French, his father was Cuban, and he was born in New York City. He does his best, though. Curiously, he wears a headband with a swastika. In itself that’s perfectly reasonable: the swastika was an ancient symbol long before it was appropriated by the Nazis. But one might have thought they would have avoided it in 1951.
Another risibly bad ‘Indian’ is Sherry Moreland as Morna, who pines for Hannoc, and Hannoc’s royal dad approves, but he has eyes only for the strumpet Elizabeth. Even when Morna invites him into her chamber while she’s taking a bath he doesn’t fancy her. Still, we know she will finally triumph and wedded bliss will be hers in the last reel, as is duly the case. But it’s worth watching the film to see how bad she is as a Delaware maiden. The authenticity isn’t helped when Hannoc calls her ‘honey’.
Another reason for the iffiness of Redskins (I still can’t get used to that title) is that it was directed by Lew Landers. Landers rivaled the likes of Sam Newfield and William Beaudine in helming often ultra-low-budget fare astonishingly prolifically for many years. He peaked early, with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in The Raven in 1935, but it was downhill from there on. He worked for just about every studio in Hollywood at one time or another during his long career, especially at RKO and Columbia, turning out B-feature adventures, thrillers and Westerns. In the 1950s he turned to series television, as many of his fellow B directors did. In 1953 he helmed Captain John Smith and Pocahontas. The direction of Redskins was noticeably clunky.
I don’t know what the French made of it, or make of it on the Sidonis DVD now, because in the movie the French are real skunks. The heroes (i.e. the American whites) are allied with good Indians (no, not dead ones, the Delawares and the Mohicans, who are noble) while the French, and their thuggish Wyandot and Ottowa henchmen, are rapacious and brutal.
On the goody side we have the English. This was always slightly problematic in Westerns and American history pictures. After all, those Brits would soon be the cruel oppressors, unjustly taxing free men, and independence would shortly be the only answer. Still, for the mo’ they are good guys.
With the home-bred Americans, of course. Explorer, surveyor, and frontiersman Christopher Gist, played by John Ridgely, a regular Warners bit-part actor who graduated to some better roles, is one of those cheerful souls. Gist was over in Ohio in the early 1750s, where he accompanied Colonel George Washington on missions and saved the future president’s life on two occasions, but luckily he found time to save America from the French in this movie.
George is here too, though, played with suitable nobility and gravitas by James Seay, who found steady employment when movies needed an authority figure or a stern official type. He does manage to get in a dig at the English. They’re good guys for the moment but they mustn’t get too uppity.
But the best player on the set, by absolute miles, is John Dehner, as Delmont, apparently an English gentleman but really a snakelike spy for the French. What a good actor Dehner was! I especially liked him as bad guy and here he is seriously bad. Click here for our Dehnerama, our homage to the Westerns of Mr JD Forkum.
Kent’s screenplay is pretty heavy-handed, full of lines like “It’s too quiet. I don’t like it.”
It was in ‘Supercinecolor’, so that was extravagant. Many of the scenes are definitely kitsch and the color heightens the gaudy tawdriness.
Fort Le Boeuf and Fort Necessity looked suspiciously like the same set. Can’t let the expenses get too out of hand.
Much of the fighting is very unrealistic. I suspect that the stuntmen were from the second rank. I spotted tire tracks in one chase. In the (black & white) trailer someone says “Put out the lights”, there’s a click and they go off. Realism isn’t really this picture’s strong suit.
Nor quality, either, I fear.
Still, I enjoyed it.