Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

Celluloid Indians: Part 2 of 2


American Indians in the movies


We have been looking at the way American Indians were represented in Western movies (click here for Part 1 of our story), and we have suggested that their principal role would be to provide an obstacle for white settlers and soldiers to overcome, a barrier to progress, and a threat.


Early Westerns pro-Indian


In fact, though, many early silent Westerns, or semi-Westerns, gave viewers a quite positive, if patronizing view of ‘the red man’. According to Richard Abel, in Back in the Saddle Again: New Essays on the Western (1998), half of all Westerns made between 1907 and 1910 featured Indians.


If you take The Squaw Man as an example (the term squaw being considered less offensive then) the first version, in 1914, directed and written by a young Cecil B DeMille and Oscar Apfel (Apfel used because DeMille was completely new to the business), and based on a 1905 Broadway play by Edwin M Royle, was remade in 1918 by DeMille alone, and DeMille would make the picture yet again as a talkie in 1931, with Warner Baxter in the lead. In this tale, the hero marries a Ute woman and although at first the justice of the peace refuses to carry out such a shocking ceremony, the hero’s friends oblige him to.



Inter-racial romance


The Ute maiden, Nat-u-rich, actually played by an American Indian, Red Wing (of Winnebago parentage), saves the hero’s life, and she is, as usual, a ‘princess’. This was often to be the case: by saving a white man, Pocohontas-style, the American Indian’s value is enhanced, according to the (perhaps unconscious) prejudice of the white film-makers, and by having ‘royal’ blood her status is also higher, and so she is more worthy of the white man. This lasted right through the Western genre. Even a relatively pro-Indian movie such as Broken Arrow in 1950, written and directed by Delmer Daves, who had spent some time in his youth with the Hopi and Navajo, featured the fictional Sonseerhray (played by the unIndian Debra Paget) as an Apache ‘princess’ (there was of course no such thing) who is in love with the hero Tom Jeffords (James Stewart). She is beautiful, but is doomed to die, because it wouldn’t do, in 1950, for the white hero to marry a ‘redskin’. Such a wife would hardly be acceptable in polite white society, my dear.



In this regard anyway, The Squaw Man, all those years before, was more progressive. The two have a young son who is clearly loved by all – by both parents, by the ranch hands and even by the townsfolk.


This notion, that the Western hero could fall in love with and even marry an American Indian, became quite a staple of the genre. Think of Kirk Douglas and Dewey Martin both falling for Teal Eye (Elizabeth Threatt) in The Big Sky (1952), Clark Gable loving Kamiah (Maria Elena Marqués) in Across the Wide Missouri in 1951 (though she too must perish and their son will be educated in the East as a white man), or Debra Paget again in 1956 as ‘Indian girl’, someone for Stewart Granger and Robert Taylor to fight over in The Last Hunt. There were very many more. Death of the female Indian character often avoided awkwardness. The only good Indian wife was a dead Indian wife, you might say.


But again, go back to silent Westerns and we see a (slightly) more progressive approach. Ramona, one of the most durable and long-lasting examples of the Western genre, started life as a romantic novel by Helen Hunt Jackson (1830 – 1885), first published in 1884. Jackson was an American poet and writer who became an activist on behalf of improved treatment of American Indians by the United States government. Her story was made five times into a film, first by DW Griffith in 1910; it became a Mexican telenovela; it is an outdoor stage play performed annually, the ‘official state play’ of California; and it was made into a musical in 2018.




The Griffith film was subtitled The Story of the White Man’s Injustice to the Indian and starred Mary Pickford, then only 18, as Ramona, who falls in love with a lute-playing American Indian named Alessandro (Henry B Walthall). However, Ramona learns that she too has some Indian blood in her veins. Thus, it’s isn’t so shocking to white audiences that she might go off with an Indian and have a baby. You might call that a cop-out but it’s true to the novel. The couple and their infant child (who has suddenly appeared between scenes) are driven off by white settlers who insist that this is “our land”. In the wilderness, only tragedy awaits them. The baby dies. A white man with a gun even drives them from the grave. Alessandro goes crazy and is then murdered by another white. At last the rich Don Felipe turns up again while Ramona is tending the corpse. The film suddenly stops.


DW Griffith


In fact in Griffith’s early Westerns the Indian is frequently the hero. Angela Aleiss has calculated that in his thirty Indian-themed films, Indians were bad guys in only eight. The director’s very first film with an Indian as central character, The Redman and the Child (1908), featured ‘The Sioux’ (Charles Inslee) befriending a young white boy and his grandfather, and when some white villains kill the old man and take the child hostage, the hero strips off his ‘white’ clothes and pursues the wicked men, killing them and rescuing the boy.


DW pro-Indian – at first


Griffith’s The Mended Lute (1909) was a pastoral idyll set among the Indians before the arrival of the whites.  Publicity made great play of the picture’s authenticity in matter of costumes and dances. The film actually featured two American Indian actors, James Young Deer and his wife Red Wing, later the star of The Squaw Man as mentioned above, and these would go on to play quite a few roles in early Westerns. Young Deer would also write 10 and direct 37 movies, and Red Wing became a big star, to the extent that her name is used in the title of some films, The Flight of Red Wing (1910) and so on.


Red Wing


A change


From about 1910 onwards, though, things began to change, as conflict-based films, with Indians as an obstacle and a threat, became more common. According to Scott Simon, in The Invention of the Western Film, this change came about as a result of a change of locations, from the leafy upper New York State to the more arid conditions of California. This seems a bit of a stretch to me, I must say. More likely is that the taste for romance and an almost anthropological interest in Indians gave way to a preference for movies with derring-do and action. But whatever the reason, silent films with Indians began to drop the very positive ‘noble savage’ and pastoral agenda and concentrate on warfare with whites.


The trade press at this time was full of articles forecasting the demise of the Western (plus ça change…) and something was needed to pep the genre up.


Griffith joined in: In Fighting Blood (1911), based on a Zane Grey tale, soon to be reviewed you will be thrilled to learn, a young man bravely saves his family from Indians on the warpath. In The Last Drop of Water (also 1911), a wagon train attacked by Indians is saved at the last minute by the US Cavalry. And most notably, in The Battle at Elderbush Gulch (1913) – click for our review – which was Griffith’s most ambitious Western to date, the Indians are unremittingly savage. In the short span of the action, written by Griffith with Henry Albert Philips, puppies (they were almost obligatory in early Westerns) are saved from Indians who want to eat them, a baby is saved too (it’s Lillian Gish’s) and there is a great deal of (silent) shooting and gunsmoke. This picture too had the whites saved by the last-minute arrival of the US Cavalry, already a well-established trope (Buffalo Bill had made much of it). To 1913 audiences, the fate of the settlers in the cabin as the Indians closed in was doubtless truly frightening and the arrival of the soldiers would have brought a cheer from the watchers.



By the way, in their book The Only Good Indian authors Ralph and Natasha Friar counted 112 movies like Elderbush Gulch with attacks by American Indians on peaceful settlements of whites, 72 on wagon trains, as in The Covered Wagon (1923), 32 on stagecoaches, such as Stagecoach (1939), 14 on railroads, as in The Iron Horse (1924) and 45 on forts, usually wooden palisades, such as in The Indian Fighter (1955). You have to admire Ralph and Natasha’s assiduity.


Thomas Ince


The other great film maker of the time, Thomas H Ince, sometimes referred to as the Father of the Western, also made many Westerns with Indians, at his Inceville compound in Santa Monica. His coup of securing the services of the Miller Brothers’ 101 Ranch gave him access not only to many expert cowboy actors and extras, as well as props, but also the company’s band of Oglala Sioux, who were put to work in the likes of War on the Plains, Custer’s Last Fight and The Invaders (all 1912). Again, click for our reviews.




As Edward Buscombe says, “The Inceville Sioux, prominent among them William Eagleshirt, undoubtedly lent authenticity to these films, as well as consolidating in the public’s mind the notion that the essential Indian was one who rode a horse, wielded a tomahawk or bow and arrow and wore feathers in his hair and deerskin leggings.” Buffalo Bill too used principally Plains Indians and these became the standard Indian of entertainment. Later, Apaches would become the mode, though Hollywood Apaches often closely resembled the Sioux and Cheyenne of earlier films in their dress and behavior.


And it lasted. Look at the costumes in Seminole Uprising (1955), for instance: the distinctive and colorful clothes of the Seminole, which some movie makers tried to reproduce, have been replaced by the standard fringed buckskins and war bonnets, probably in order that old film stock could be re-used to pad scenes out.


The actress Mona Darkfeather played in many Ince Westerns and much was made of the fact that she was a full-blooded Blackfoot, but she said in a 1914 interview that she was descended from a Spanish family and had been to a Catholic school in LA. Even that turned out to be an exaggeration. Her actual name was Josephine Workman.




The 1920s


In the 1920s, there was at first less interest in the American Indian. The Covered Wagon in 1923, a huge hit, had Indians as just one of the hazards of westward expansion, as did the also very popular The Iron Horse in 1924. But the fashion soon recovered. In 1924, of the 228 Westerns produced, fully 13% had Indians in a leading role.


The same year, Congress granted American citizenship to these peoples. We have already seen in Part 1 how in the mid-20s Zane Grey’s novel The Vanishing American and its film version treated the Navajo in a basically positive way. And rarely has an archaeological discovery aroused such interest in the general public as did the so-called Folsom point arrowhead in 1926. ‘Indian’ music (in inverted commas because it wasn’t really) was all the rage, and much was played at screenings of 1920s silent films.


When sound came in toward the end of the decade, Paramount made a major picture, Redskin, with Richard Dix again. Reels of this film were even in color, a real novelty, shot by the great Edward Cronjager. The 82-minute picture was released with an accompanying soundtrack on nine Vitaphone gramophone records, to be played in theaters. Click here for our review.



The 1930s


For most of the 1930s, as the Great Depression struck and major losses were incurred on big pictures like Fox’s The Big Trail and MGM’s Billy the Kid, the studios fought shy of the Western genre.  The Hollywood Western was in the doldrums, or at least the adult A-Western was. With few exceptions, the genre was consigned to juvenile programmers, and if Indians appeared at all in these pictures, they were just whooping savages to be shot down. Certainly Hollywood showed scant interest in Indians.


Cecil B DeMille did make a couple of A-Westerns in the 30s, at Paramount, but he seemed to have forgotten his earlier fairly pro-Indian past with the likes of The Squaw Man. Captured by the Sioux in The Plainsman (1936), Jean Arthur’s Calamity Jane calls them “painted buzzards” and “red hyenas”. The Indians talk in what I call Ug-speak – you know, “Me heap big chief” and so on – and are shown as simple-minded. Gary Cooper’s Wild Bill Hickok easily hoodwinks them, securing Calamity’s release in exchange for a chiming watch. Later they savagely roast him over a big fire.


In fact there’s an amusing story told that Anthony Quinn, DeMille’s future son-in-law, blarneyed his way onto the cast by telling DeMille that he spoke fluent Cheyenne. Quinn’s description of Little Big Horn in the film is gibberish, but DeMille was impressed. Quinn pushed his luck by telling the director that the fire laid in the studio couldn’t possibly have been a Cheyenne one, as they never made fires like that, and it was enough to get DeMille to change it.


Cheyenne Quinn


In DeMille’s Union Pacific (1939) Indians attack a train carrying Barbara Stanwyck, who calls them “red devils”. The attackers are vandals, shooting arrows into a piano, and they are stupid, regarding a captured carved wooden Indian as a religious object. The Indians are easily routed when another train comes up. It’s all typical DeMille (i.e. junk). Buscombe says, “Simple-mindedness and savagery is the dominant image of Indians in the 1930s.” Even in 1947, when attitudes had moved on (see below), DeMille was stuck in his rut. In Unconquered (1947), another eighteenth-century yarn, again with Coop, Indians are once more easily-tricked idiots, as well as treacherous. Boris Karloff is their chief. This time Paulette Goddard is tied to the stake. It’s yet more trashy-DeMille-ism.



At the end of the decade, when John Ford’s Stagecoach contributed to a revival of the form, Indians were once again a danger, an obstacle to be overcome on the march towards civilization and settlement. We are told in the first reel that Geronimo is on the warpath but we never see him. When Apaches launch their attack on the coach, none of them is identified. They are just a hostile and barbarous menace and they serve to show John Wayne’s bravery as he uses his Winchester against them. Much the same could be said of Ford’s first color film, the same year, the eighteenth-century tale Drums Along the Mohawk, in which Indians are nameless hostiles attacking the terrified whites or chasing Henry Fonda through the woods.


The 1940s


In the 1940s, things moved on a little bit. In the Custer biopic They Died With Their Boots On, Custer (Errol Flynn) is portrayed as being generally sympathetic to the Indians (there’s no slaughter on the Washita or anything). On the eve of his final battle, Custer has a conversation with an English officer in his command who remarks, to Custer’s evident approval, “The only real Americans in this merry old parish are on the other side of the hill with feathers in their hair.” All the trouble is caused not really by the Indians but by unscrupulous businessmen who are out to get their greedy hands on Indian lands. And often in the 1940s, lowlife white types were the real villains.


This would go on into the 1950s. In The Half-Breed (1952), Sitting Bull (1954), Drums Across the River (1954), Crazy Horse (1955) and The Indian Fighter (1955), there is gold on the Indian lands and the wicked whites scheme to get it. In The Great Sioux Uprising (1953) crooked Lyle Bettger wants to steal all the Indians’ horses and sell them. In Devil’s Doorway (1950) and Seminole (1953) greedy whites covet the Indian lands for their own use. And so on.


The corrupt Indian Agent was a particularly vilified Hollywood Western character. Think of the loathsome Meacham (Grant Withers) in John Ford’s 1948 picture Fort Apache, selling whiskey and guns to the Indians. When he protests that he has the permission to do so, John Wayne’s character Captain York, a ‘man who knows Indians’, retorts that he has been given it by “the Indian Ring, the dirtiest, most corrupt political group in our history”. He had a point. Selling guns to the Indians is an especially heinous crime in Westerns, for those weapons will be used to kill whites.


Corrupt white guy


Such a character had already appeared in The Law West of Tombstone (1938) – review shortly – but it was especially common in the 40s.  The same year as Fort Apache, the picture Indian Agent, a Tim Holt oater, had Harry Woods as the corrupt official bested by the hero. The role re-appeared in Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon in 1949. The trope lasted long. We see a corrupt Indian agent in Apache in 1954. Even in Ulzana’s Raid (1972) it was still going strong.


Buscombe says that this ‘wicked white’ character was a kind of scapegoat, “conveniently diverting attention away from the actual historical forces that brought about the dispossession of the Indians, for which we might [should?] all feel responsibility.” Mmm, maybe.


It is however probably true that, as Buscombe suggests, in the late 40s, after a war fought in part to defeat an especially nasty form of racism, in which many American Indians had a distinguished record, Hollywood felt the need to redress the balance.


The 1950s


The following decade was, broadly, when the ‘liberal Western’ began to show the other side of the story. Of course all through the 50s many Westerns were still produced, especially juvenile and B ones, in which Indians were still numbskull savages, nameless hordes only there to be shot down in droves by the white heroes.


And there were also some pretty noxious racist A-movies like Paramount’s Arrowhead (1953). Directed and written by Charles Marquis Warren and starring Charlton Heston, the picture purports to be a screen version of the life of Al Sieber (1843 or 44 – 1907) and on-screen text announces:


The character of Ed Bannon [the part played by Heston] was drawn in part from the actual Chief of Scouts of the United States Army of the Southwest – Al SIEBER. Born – 1855; killed – 1907.


Despite the “in part”, I don’t know which part. This Bannon bears no resemblance whatever to Sieber either in the facts of his life or the kind of man he was. In fact Heston’s Bannon is a sociopath, or even a psychopath. Whichever, this Bannon is a racist murderer and a sadistic and bitter man, and Al Sieber was none of these things. Bannon creeps up behind two Apaches, says, “Turn around, dirt” and when they do he shoots them both dead with his rifle. That sets the tone of the film. There’s a half-Apache woman, the fort laundress Nita, played by the wonderful actor Katy Jurado (the year after High Noon). Bannon uses her but mistrusts her, rightly as it turns out. She tries to kill him. Heston holds her down viciously, sneering at her through clenched teeth, “The Apache in you finally came out.” When she stabs herself, the ‘hero’ Bannon looks down at her body and, walking out, says to some soldiers, “There’s a dead Apache in here. Get it out.” Still today I find this kind of Western deeply offensive, and I shudder to think how an American Indian might regard it.


Cordial to Palance on the set anyway, though Heston seems to be asking the make-up man, ‘Can’t you make him any more repellent?’


Nevertheless, little by little, more thoughtful and interesting pictures began to appear, pioneered, really, by two in 1950, Delmer Daves’s Broken Arrow and, made before but released after, Anthony Mann’s Devil’s Doorway.


Using as a basis the book Blood Brother by Elliott Arnold, written into a screenplay – uncredited because he was one of the Hollywood Ten – by Albert Maltz, in Broken Arrow Daves made some attempt to show Apache culture, despite having, as usual, white American actors (Jeff Chandler and Debra Paget) playing the leading roles. The opening credits appear over Indian paintings on deerskin, and the Apaches have wickiups, not the usual teepees. The hero Tom Jeffords (James Stewart) witnesses a ritual dance and Cochise (Chandler) explains its cultural significance. Cochise is a wise statesman, ready to listen to reason, and Jeffords too is reasonable and fair. He even makes the (for a Western) really quite radical remark about his fellow whites, “Who asked us here in the first place?” Both Cochise and Jeffords have to deal with extremists on their own sides: Cochise has the bellicose Geronimo (Jay Silverheels) and his followers, who are all for the warpath, and Jeffords is plagued by far-right whites who will be only be content with slaughter and annihilation of the Apache.



In later 50s films too Geronimo is the bad guy, refusing to assimilate. The Battle at Apache Pass (1952), Taza, Son of Cochise (1954) and Walk the Proud Land (1956) all have angry Geronimos refusing to listen to reason, with the implication of course that he, and his determination to maintain the warlike way of the Apache, are inevitably doomed. Not until the 1990s, with two movies, Geronimo: An American Legend and TNT’s Geronimo, was Geronimo given anything like a sympathetic or understanding treatment.


Silverheels as Geronimo


In Seminole (1953), we have a similar situation. Chief Osceola (Anthony Quinn) is wise and ready to talk peace with Lt Caldwell (Rock Hudson) but the pig-headed Major Degan (Richard Carlson) on the white side and the angry Kajeck (Hugh O’Brian) among the Seminoles want all-out war. In Across the Wide Missouri (1951) sage Bear Ghost (Jack Holt) is friendly to the white trappers but the firebrand Ironshirt (Ricardo Montalban) wants to fight them. And so on.


Because Westerns had a strong element of morality tale about them, the ‘bad Indians’, that is the ones who resisted being ‘civilized’ and had the sheer gall to hold to their own cultures, were often shown to be architects of their own destruction. They died at the hands of the white hero or fell victim to their own over-aggressiveness, drunkenness or whatever. The subtext was that this was the judgment of God or white civilization, and the two were conflated.


As I said above, Mann’s Devil’s Doorway was almost a stronger statement than Broken Arrow, with its Indian hero so manifestly unjustly treated and falling for a white woman, and finally perishing.


Red man wants white woman – shocking!


In other 50s Westerns visceral loathing of Indians is depicted but shown to be unjust and wrong. Think of The Last Hunt (1956) in which the pathological central character (Robert Taylor again, this time not on the side of the angels) kills Indians with glee, because he utterly loathes them, and kills buffalo so that they will starve; or Broken Lance (1954) in which the state governor refuses to allow his daughter to marry Spencer Tracy’s son Robert Wagner because he has an Indian mother (Katy Jurado); or, at the turn of the decade, Flaming Star and The Unforgiven (both 1960) in which half-Indian characters in white families (Elvis Presley and Audrey Hepburn respectively) suffer appalling racial prejudice and hatred because of their Kiowa mothers.


And occasionally now, in the 1950s, interracial romances were allowed to succeed. In The Indian Fighter, The Last Hunt, Run of the Arrow and White Feather the hero and Indian bride end the movie in married bliss. So maybe that was a step forward.


Nazi army officers


Sometimes we got Indian-hating Nazi-type army officers who have a bloodlust. Nothing will suffice but the complete destruction of all Indians. In They Rode West (1954) Captain Phil Carey attempts to prevent the decent army doctor (Robert Francis) from treating the Kiowa, who are suffering from malaria. In Tomahawk (1951) Alex Nicol is a blond Aryan Indian-hater, clearly a Nazi, who participated in the infamous Sand Creek Massacre and does all he can to provoke war with Red Cloud’s Sioux.


Nazi officer


There’s a whole parade of (usually Eastern) martinet officers who seek the extermination of all Indians. Henry Fonda’s Colonel Thursday in Fort Apache, Jeff Chandler in Two Flags West, Robert Preston in The Last Frontier, Rhodes Reason in Yellowstone Kelly, Richard Carlson in Seminole, the list is long. But these characters are shown to be ignorant, incompetent and prejudiced and we are always on the side of the more reasonable, often local man who understands, even likes the Indians and only obeys cruel commands because he is an army man and obliged to. The bad officers nearly always perish in the last reel and, we are invited to think, good riddance.


By the book Henry Fonda


Not featuring an army officer but close, John Ford’s The Searchers in 1956 is fascinating from an Indian point of view. It replayed the captivity narrative in VistaVision and Technicolor. On one level it is racist – Kim Newman calls it “one of the most viciously anti-Indian films ever made”: the hero Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) is obsessed and at first seems to want not to bring the captured Debbie (Natalie Wood) back home but to find her and kill her because she has been ‘polluted’, being taken by the Comanche Scar (Henry Brandon). Scenes such as Ethan shooting out the eyes of a Comanche corpse so that the man’s spirit will be condemned to forever wandering sightless display an almost pathological hatred of Indians. It almost seems a cop-out when Ethan relents and takes Debbie home. We seem to be very far from the ‘liberal’ Westerns of Daves and Mann.


Debbie has become more than half Comanche


Less well known but still powerful was Trooper Hook the following year, which featured the polar opposite of a Nazi-style soldier. In that, Cora (Barbara Stanwyck) is captured by the Apache Nanchez (Rodolfo Acosta) and has a son by him. Whereas Debbie was welcomed back by her family, Cora is spurned and despised by the racist whites, including by her unpleasant husband (John Dehner), although she eventually finds solace in the arms of the soldier who rescued her, Trooper Hook (Joel McCrea).



In The Charge at Feather River (1953), Guy Madison rescues two female captives of the Cheyenne. One is fearful, dreading the scrutiny of the prim and proper white ladies when she returns. The other has become acculturated to Cheyenne life, is betrothed to the chief and looks forward to being rescued back by her new people. While attempting to escape, she falls to her death, the implication being this was a just fate. Whites should show sympathy for a woman taken against her will but not for one who willingly lies with an Indian.


A bit later, in 1961, Ford returned to the theme of the captivity narrative in Two Rode Together, in which a rescued white woman (Linda Cristal) admits that conditions were harsh but grieves for her dead Comanche husband (Woody Strode) and once again, she experiences vile treatment by the ‘civilized’ whites (especially the women) back at the fort. Another, older woman (Mae Marsh, superb) simply cannot face returning. It’s too late for her. She will stay.


She cannot go back


History rewritten


Sometimes history was rewritten with breathtaking effrontery. Delmer Daves, despite his ‘pro-Indian’ Broken Arrow in 1950, directed and wrote Drum Beat in 1954 (a much weaker picture) about an Indian fighter (an unconvincing Alan Ladd) in conflict with the Modoc leader Kintpuash, called by the whites and in the movie Captain Jack (Charles Bronson, playing the Modoc in a one-dimensional “Me want fight bluecoats” kind of way), in which he has Ladd’s character say, “We could have saved a lot of lives, Jack, if you hadn’t grabbed country that wasn’t yours.” Such an amazing statement could be accepted without qualm by 1950s audiences.



Back in 1939 Henry Fonda in Ford’s Drums along the Mohawk said, “I don’t think we’ll have any trouble from the Indians. We’ve always treated them fair.” There wasn’t a hint or irony in this speech; it was delivered straight. Audiences didn’t bat an eyelid.


The 1960s and 70s


In the 1960s there were worthy attempts to confront the old cowboys-and-Indians stereotype. Indian Paint (1965), for one, didn’t feature ‘cowboys’ at all, only American Indians.


In 1964 John Ford made a kind of apologia for his career-long treatment of American Indians by making Cheyenne Autumn, which depicts the so-called the Northern Cheyenne Exodus of 1878–79. It was in many ways an earnest and well-meaning picture which tried hard to impart some dignity to the Cheyenne people but unfortunately it was a pretty bad film, disfigured with some silly episodes (such as the Wyatt Earp/Doc Holliday cameo), some embarrassingly bad acting from Karl Malden and, as usual, the major Cheyenne roles taken by non-American Indian actors.


Ford’s Cheyenne


Tell Them Willie Boy is Here in 1969 was also based, notionally, on an historical incident, and also a priori earnest and well-meaning, though not very good. It recounted the pursuit of a Paiute (Robert Blake, birth name Michael Gubitosi, earlier Red Ryder’s Indian sidekick Little Beaver) who has (perhaps) kidnapped Katharine Ross in a ton of make-up and black wig, in 1909. Willie is chased into the desert and, despite the best efforts of white liberal Robert Redford, killed by a racist white posse.



At the dog-end of the 1960s and as that unloved decade of the 70s dawned, revisionism was all the rage in Westerns. Former Western heroes were debunked with very unflattering portraits of the likes of Custer (Little Big Man), Wyatt Earp (Doc) and Billy the Kid (Dirty Little Billy). As for American Indians, things changed there too. Dee Brown’s impassioned history of American Indians in the American West Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (made into a movie of the same title by HBO in 2007) came out in 1970 and was enormously influential. Suddenly now the US Cavalry were the bad guys, slaughtering innocents in appalling raids on villages. Soldier Blue, released in August 1970 and heavily influenced by the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, news of which became public knowledge in November 1969, was actually a rancid film but it certainly pulled no punches in showing the US military wreaking its murderous wrath on innocent women and children.


Now the US Cavalry are the bad guys


A Man Called Horse the same year, with that ham Richard Harris, was also a bad movie but at least it contained 80% Lakota dialogue and does attempt some anthropological accuracy. The largest pan-Indian newspaper in the US, the Akwesasne Notes, still commented dismissively, “Same old savage stereotype. White actors playing cigar-store Indians.” The picture’s director, Elliott Silverstein, went to some lengths to try for ethnographic accuracy, hiring a (white) historian of the Sioux as consultant, but many American Indians, led by actor/activist Russell Means (Chingachgook in the 1992 The Last of the Mohicans) slammed the representation of Sioux culture. It wasn’t helped by the casting of a Greek and former Miss Universe, Corinna Tsopei, as the Sioux woman the hero takes as wife.


Mr Horse


The same year, the successful Little Big Man gave a very positive view of the Cheyenne, led by a highly sympathetic Chief Dan George as Old Lodge Skins. The Cheyenne in this one are represented as fond of free love, tolerant of homosexuality, kind to children and engaging in philosophical discussions about the meaning of life.


Chief Dan


Winterhawk in 1975, a long and earnest pro-Indian picture, featured American Indian actress Sacheen Littlefeather, the person who had been entrusted with Marlon Brando’s speech refusing to accept his Academy Award in 1973 because of the “poor treatment of Native Americans in the film industry”. That was curious, coming as it did just at a moment when Indians were becoming the good guys in movies and the US Cavalry was being shown as vicious perpetrators of massacres (often, as in Soldier Blue, in Vietnam allegories).


The same year a TV movie, I Will Fight No More for Ever, told the story of Hinmatóowyalahtq̓it, better known as Chief Joseph (1840 – 1904), leader of the Wal-lam-wat-kain (Wallowa) band of Nez Perce. Again, it was a positive portrait.


But just as the old stereotypes marched on regardless after Devil’s Doorway and Broken Arrow in the 1950s, so too in the 1970s, the old idea of American Indians was perhaps too deeply rooted in the white American psyche to be abandoned overnight. What you might call ‘savagism’ and also ‘Tontoism’ continued, even if the Indians portrayed became more ‘authentic’.


Brit director Michael Winner, who did not understand the Western at all (or if he did just exploited it cynically) made the disgracefully bad ‘brutalo’ picture Chato’s Land (1970) in Spain which had Charles Bronson as a half-breed cruel avenger/loving father. The White Buffalo (1977), directed by J Lee Thompson, as another example, a dire movie, used a superficially realistic Sioux setting and a real American Indian actor, Will Sampson, but was still an absurd and sensational rehash of Jaws in a Western setting, with Charles Bronson again, this time as Wild Bill Hickok in shades. The Mystic Warrior, a TV movie of 1984, which also featured Will Sampson, was based on Ruth Beebe Hill’s Hanta Yo (1979), a book so detested by American Indian groups that Warner Bros found not a single reservation willing to have the picture shot on its territory and had to film in Mexico.




As far as the use of American Indians as actors goes, in this respect silent movies were also ahead of talkies, but as a general rule Hollywood has preferred European-Americans to take the parts of American Indians, and certain (white) actors made a specialty of the roles.


Eduard Franz, for one, had a craggy face that got him such parts. He was Chief Broken Hand in White Feather (1955) and Red Cloud in The Indian Fighter, for example. Michael Ansara was Cochise in the TV series spun off from the movie Broken Arrow and took several other American Indian roles. Australian-born Michael Pate was Vittorio in Hondo (1953), Geronimo  in a Zane Grey Theatre episode, Running Horse in a Rawhide one and Chato in a Cheyenne one, Chief Four Horns in The Canadians (1961), Watanka in Sergeants 3 (1962), and Sierra Charriba in Major Dundee (1965), to name but a few. Jeff Chandler was Cochise three times, in Broken Arrow, The Battle at Apache Pass (1952) and Taza, Son of Cochise (1954).


Australian Pate was often an Indian


Some especially unconvincing actors were Victor Mature as Chief Crazy Horse (1955) and Morris Ankrum as Red Cloud in the same picture, Donna Reed as Sacagawea in the Lewis & Clark picture The Far Horizons (1955) and Chuck Connors as Geronimo (1962) but there were many others. Often it was the script and direction to blame rather than outright bad acting.


Chuck was Geronimo


In one way this casting was understandable because there was no line of American Indians waiting in the wings for such parts. Drama and acting were not part of most American Indian cultures. But you also feel that movie producers and casting directors (and maybe directors too) were happier and felt safer with bankable white names.


A classic example is the Hecht-Lancaster production Apache in 1954, directed by Robert Aldrich and written by James R Webb from Paul Wellman’s novel Broncho Apache. This has the startlingly blue-eyed Burt Lancaster as the hero Massai and the not-terribly-Indian Jean Peters as his lady love. Other Apaches in the picture are Charles Bronson, Paul Guilfoyle and Monte Blue (who is Geronimo). It’s actually quite a pro-Indian movie, in the Broken Arrow vein, but you really have to suspend your disbelief to accept the actors as Indians.


Blue-eyed Apache


There were also actors who were not American Indian but who adopted ‘Indian’ sounding names specifically in order to take such parts. Iron Eyes Cody was born Espera DeCorti, the son of two first-generation immigrants from Italy, and the background of Chief Thundercloud, who claimed Cherokee heritage, is vague. He seems to have been born Victor Daniels or Victor Vazquez in Arizona.


And Mexican actors were often used in such roles – suitably dark-skinned and ‘ethnic’ looking, I suppose. Rodolfo Acosta, for instance, was Chato and Satanta (twice), as well as more fictional characters in a whole variety of big- and small-screen efforts.


Acosta in Apache Warrior


Hollywood had its Rolodex of actors for these parts and knew who to call.


There was too a perhaps unconscious but insidious racism in the casting of white actors as ‘good Indians’ (i.e. those amenable to whites) but American Indian actors as the militant firebrands who want the warpath. In Broken Arrow, as I have said, noble, statesmanlike Cochise (Brooklyn-born Jeff Chandler) has to deal with a recalcitrant, unreasonable and bellicose Geronimo (Jay Silverheels, born on Canada’s Six Nations Reserve).



There was the occasional exception. In The Big Sky, Howard Hawks cast Elizabeth Threatt, whose mother was a Cherokee, as a Blackfoot ‘princess’. It was her only film, though. But that was the exception, not the rule.


No Threatt to the usual rule


In the latter part of the twentieth century things began to change as certain actors of American Indian heritage came to the fore. One thinks of Will Sampson, Chief Dan George, Graham Greene, Eric Schweig, Rodney A Grant and Wes Studi, just as examples (there are many more). They are fine actors and raise any movie they are in.


Several of them appeared in Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves in 1990 and by then there was almost a reverse process in place: apart from Costner’s character, all the whites are low-down and cruel polluters and all the American Indians are noble, decent family people who respect the environment. There are only Goody Indians and Baddy Whites.


Costner & Co


But for most of Hollywood history this was far from the case.


And using American Indian actors did not guarantee a fair or accurate portrayal. There are, for example, sixteen (that I know of) screen appearances of the Mescalero-Chiricahua Goyaałé usually known as Geronimo, and he was played by a variety of white actors but also by such as Jay Silverheels, Chief Yowlachie and John War Eagle, the best in my view being Jimmy Herman as an elderly Goyaałé in TNT’s Geronimo in 1993. That did not prevent his usually being characterized as a treacherous villain. I don’t think Goyaałé actually was a paragon of virtue, truth be told, but he wasn’t half as villainous as Hollywood showed.


Herman was Geronimo


Maybe it isn’t only a sprinkling of American Indian actors we need but control over production, direction, screenplay writing, casting and such.




Language was another issue. Linguists number about 200 mutually unintelligible tongues in North America alone, belonging to perhaps nine large language groups. This hugely rich linguistic diversity was habitually reduced to what I call Ug-speak in Western movies, as American Indians, even addressing each other, talked in broken English of an “Ug, me big chief” kind. It was an ungrammatical even childish ‘Indianlect’ that could be easily mocked. In fact, of course, many different American Indian groups were polyglot, mastering Spanish, French and English, the languages of the interlopers, with great skill, as well as several of their own. It always got my goat when Tonto, given some menial task to do by his white master the Lone Ranger, meekly responded, “Me do.”


And as a point of language, this time white language, the dialogue in Westerns often says that Indians, especially Apaches for some reason, “infested” the territory. Rats infest. If I were an Apache, I’d be pretty disgusted at being told that I “infest” my own land, but then I guess I’d have been furious at many screen Westerns of those days.




Alcohol was another bugbear. Friar and Friar found 53 examples of drunken American Indians appearing in Westerns between 1908 and 1970. There are instances in movies of American Indians being shot at or driven out if they dared to enter a saloon, and selling liquor to them was one of the worst crimes renegade whites could commit, on a par with providing them with firearms.



Take the way Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda), just arrived in Tombstone in the first reel of Ford’s My Darling Clementine, drags a drunken Indian Charlie (played by Charles Stevens, who claimed to be a grandson of Geronimo) out of the saloon. “Indian, get out of town and stay out!” he shouts, kicking the man in the backside.


Bad soldiers


As for military strategy and tactics, ‘Indians’ were often shown to be hopelessly bad at it. Time and again, for example, the wagons of settlers would be circled while the red foe galloped round and round, allowing the whites inside the ring to take pot shots.



White movie-makers also applied their own preconceptions to military matters, showing an all-powerful chief such as Sitting Bull who would deploy his troops as a US Army commander might, commanding battalions to move hither and yon. Nine times out of ten it wasn’t like that at all. American Indian attacks were much more collaborative and often individual, the object being, often, to ‘count coup’ and show personal courage and skill.


Military lack of success against Indians, in particular the defeat of Custer at Little Bighorn by allied American Indian peoples a week before the United States celebrated its Centennial, and also the great difficulties encountered in subduing different groupings in the Apache Wars between the 1860s and 1880s (especially the inability to find and capture Geronimo), was an embarrassment to governments and the Army establishment. It left scars on American ‘cultural chauvinism’.


The only good Indian is a dead Indian


General Sherman is purported to have said “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Although he denied ever having made the remark and there is no written documentation of it, it was widely believed that he had, and also widely believed to be true. There is more evidence for Minnesota representative James Cavanaugh, who on May 28, 1868, stated in the House of Representatives, “I like an Indian better dead than living. I have never in my life seen a good Indian – and I have seen thousands – except when I have seen a dead Indian.”


Cavanaugh said it


The ‘belligerence’ of certain American Indians was reflected in Hollywood movies. Friar and Friar list 81 films which deal with the Sioux, 43 with the Apache, 25 with the Comanche and 20 with the Cheyenne, whereas ‘friendlies’ such as Crow and Pawnee got only four each. The thrills were to be had in the Indian fighting.


More recently


In 1990 Kevin Costner’s astonishingly successful Dances with Wolves cast actors of American Indian extraction in all the main speaking parts of American Indians. Graham Greene, playing the Sioux holy man Kicking Bird, had one of the largest parts ever given to an American Indian actor. Furthermore, when these people speak, they use native languages, with subtitles. The non-Sioux actors were coached in Lakota. The film did still project the good Indians/bad Indians trope – the Pawnees are the fearsome enemy this time. In fact in the source novel the ‘good’ Indians were not Sioux but Comanche, traditionally in Hollywood a people implacably hostile to whites. The hero has a romance, of course, but there’s a white woman conveniently a captive in the Sioux camp for Costner to fall for. Interracial love is apparently still a step too far for the mainstream movie business.


Greene in Dances


It did happen though. In 1992, Michael Mann’s remake of The Last of the Mohicans rewrote Fenimore Cooper to allow a romance between Natty Bumppo and Cora, OK, but also between Uncas (Eric Schweig, of Inuit origin) and Alice. So that was daring. As usual, though, Alice does not survive, jumping to her death to escape the evil Huron Magua (Wes Studi, a Cherokee).


Uncas loves Alice


A 1990s Western that gave us a much more interesting American Indian was Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995). In that, Gary Farmer, according to Wikipedia born in Ohsweken, Ontario into the Cayuga Nation and Wolf Clan of the Haudenosaunee/Iroquois Confederacy, plays Nobody (they have another go-round of that joke which is at least as old as the Odyssey), who is in fact the leader of the white man/Indian duo, the other 50% of which is played by Johnny Depp, as William Blake.



Previous ‘Indians’ may have been quite sympathetic, such as, say, Chief Dan George in The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) but he was still clearly the subordinate. Clint Eastwood’s Josey was the leader. But in Dead Man Blake is entirely passive; it is Nobody who guides their path and helps Blake survive as long as he does (for he is a dead man). Farmer’s Nobody is a complex character, a philosopher, an outcast, a person, not just an ‘Indian’ or representative of a race. Nobody is the name he has chosen, in preference to what people called him, which was Xebeche, ‘He who talks loud and says nothing.’


Ironically, Depp would become Tonto in Disney’s 2013 blockbuster The Lone Ranger, but that was a revisionist version, with Tonto as the canny one and the Lone Ranger (Armie Hammer) as the dumb white straight man. The times they were a’changin’.


Depp is a different Tonto


In 1998, the film Smoke Signals, a comedy-drama, not a Western, is credited as the first to have American Indian actors, writer and director. As Ed Buscobe says, “If Indians make films it seems unlikely that they would want to make Westerns.”


And in 21st century Westerns film makers regained the courage to show American Indians as violent and hostile. Eric Schweig’s character Chidin in The Missing (2003) is splendidly evil and fearsome. In fact as early as 1972, the excellent film Ulzana’s Raid had shown Apaches as capable of horrific violence (graphically depicted for the day) in what appears to have been a deliberate refusal to sentimentalize American Indian behavior.


That’s all for now, folks


Of course there are very many Westerns which deal with American Indians and I can’t possibly mention them all. Sorry if one of your favorites isn’t here.


The record of portrayal of America’s indigenous peoples isn’t good, though, to say the least, but I do think it’s getting better. I certainly hope so anyway.


There are still plenty of white people who disparage American Indians and would readily trot out Vanishing American theories or even repeat Sherman’s remark (real or not). In a comment on my last post on Indians a year or two ago, reader Jean-Marie said, “I remember 25 years ago having a discussion with a tall blond American with bright blue eyes dressed in buckskin, an exhibitor at a big gunshow in Las Vegas. He was from Nebraska, about 40 years old, his table full of wonderful Winchesters. We begun to talk of Nebraska, telling him I had been to Chimney Rock, Scottsbluff, Chadron and Fort Robinson on my way to the Dakotas. When he asked if I liked the trip, I said yes, a lot but that I was embarrassed by the poor and harsh conditions of living on the reservations of the Indians, drinking and spending their money in their own casinos, in the middle of junkyards. He just stared at me saying, “After all, who won the war?” Are you joking? was my answer but he was not. I did not ask if he had ancestors killed by the Indians… It does not mean that all the people living in the west are like that of course but I was much impressed by what I felt as a persistent hatred.”



Sorry these posts have been long but it’s a big subject. And I may have to revise yet again when I’ve seen Cree Neil Diamond’s 2009 film Reel Injun!

But for now, Ánágodziih doleel (I am informed that there is no word in Apache for goodbye and when Apaches part they say, Ánágodziih doleel, which means, See you later).



8 Responses

  1. Another fine read.

    I always found Cheyenne Autumn a bit underrated, desperately flawed in multiple ways but there’s something touching about it all the same, and some breathtaking cinematography. It just doesn’t really work as a drama, more a series of beautiful pictures. But in its message it’s trying too hard, really- I always felt that when it comes to Ford films, Fort Apache was the most authentically and effortlessly respectful towards the Indians. (Never found The Searchers a very satisfying experience, and as for Two Rode Together – what a weird movie…)

    I actually rather like Apache too, if you can manage to suspend disbelief in Lancaster in the lead role it’s quite engaging.

    As for Arrowhead, although I’d heard this was at the racist end of things prior to watching it, I was unprepared for quite how vile it was going to be, I almost felt like I needed to wash my hands after watching it – a nasty, nasty piece of work.

    1. It certainly did not deserve the “worst film of the year” award that it got from the Harvard Lampoon. But it was pretty clear that Ford had more or less lost it by then. I agree that FORT APACHE is absolutely superb. APACHE, well, not my favorite, I fear, though that too had its moments. ARROWHEAD, ugh.

      1. I think Ford had for sure lost his ability to put a satisfying complete movie together, or even possibly a coherent single scene- but he could still put some great images on the screen, and stage some moving moments, the fact that you can see flickers of his greatness in that film but that it is just that – flickers, from a dying ember – almost adds to the sadness. (And underscrores its failures as a film, we should be feeling empathy for the Cheyenne, not feeling sad for the film’s director! From what I’ve read, a lifetime of alcohol abuse may have finally been taking its toll on JF by this time and eating into his artistic gifts.)

        The bit from Apache that I remember as being very effective is when Lancaster arrives in a thriving town at night and is almost awestruck by the sights and sounds, that bit’s stuck with me even though I don’t remember too much else about the film, which I might be overrating through hazy memories. Oh, I also remember John McIntyre being v good in it, but then when was he ever not?

        Arrowhead might just be the most virulently racist American film ever made after 1915 (’15 being the year of Birth of a Nation)?

        1. Agree about ‘Cheyenne’. Ford said it best about himself around the time of ‘Gideon’s Day’: “The old enthusiasm is gone…don’t quote me on that…ah hell go ahead and quote me”.

        2. McIntire was the best screen Al Sieber. A million times better than the ‘Ed Bannon’ of ARROWHEAD, at the start of which on-screen text said the character was based “in part” on Sieber. I don’t know which part because that Bannon was nothing like Sieber whatsoever.

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