The 1950s were the heyday of the western. You can look at almost any other decade and find plenty of examples of exceptional westerns, but none can compare to the 50s in terms of the sheer number of intelligent, high quality productions. Broken Arrow (1950) was, to the best of my knowledge, the first western to portray the Indians as more than simple caricatures. This film doesn’t demonise them, nor does it present them as the mystical, tree-hugging hippies that our increasingly politically correct world seems to insist on. Instead it presents a people with their own way of life and their own system of values.
Tom Jeffords (James Stewart) is a former army scout who stumbles upon a wounded Apache boy and nurses him back to health. In doing so, he starts to regard the Apache as real people who think and feel, and who are not just inhuman killing machines that must be eliminated at all costs. When he is subsequently captured by a raiding party, his act of kindness, though viewed with suspicion, leads to his being spared. However, he is forced to witness three survivors of an ambush tortured to death; this is a war of attrition with no quarter given or asked for from either side. The point is made that these are a people with a strong sense of honor but there is no shying away from their capacity for brutality. Jeffords’ return to white society gives an insight into the cruelty and brutality on both sides, as the town’s residents display both shock and incredulity on hearing that he failed to take the opportunity to kill a wounded Apache. Sickened by the endless cycle of tit-for-tat violence, Jeffords takes it upon himself to seek out a meeting with Cochise (Jeff Chandler) in order to try to find some middle ground. The meeting does produce some limited results, and also brings him into contact with a young Apache maiden (Debra Paget). As Jeffords finds himself falling in love, so he seeks to broker a peace deal between Cochise and the army. The racism prevalent on both sides is shown clearly and the film, to its credit, doesn’t try to lecture the viewer on who was right and who was wrong. It assumes that adults are capable of making up their own minds – seems such an odd concept these days, doesn’t it?
James Stewart gave one of his usual solid performances, and by the end of the movie you can see director Delmer Daves draw on some of the disillusioned bitterness that Anthony Mann would later exploit so successfully. Jeff Chandler’s portrayal of Cochise earned him an Oscar nomination (eventually losing out to George Sanders), and he is convincing in the role. Generally, the acting is fine all round with good work from Paget, Will Geer, and Jay (Tonto) Silverheels as Geronimo. Delmer Daves is a director who seems to be very underrated these days, but I feel he turned out some great movies (especially in the western genre) in the 50s. One criticism that could be levelled at him is that his endings were frequently a bit of a cop out, however, I don’t feel that it applies in this case.
Broken Arrow is a great example of a 1950s western and, if you have even a passing interest in the genre, it deserves a place in your collection. I watched the R2 DVD from Optimum which is far from a perfect disc. The colors vary from faded to strong and the image is generally soft. Having said that though, it’s by no means a terrible presentation and is certainly watchable throughout. There is a R1 release from Fox but I don’t own this and can’t comment on the transfer.
If anyone has been wondering where I’ve been, I just decided to take a little break from posting. As others have mentioned, you can reach the point where you post so often that it starts to feel like an obligation rather than a pleasure. As such, I’ve decided to post when I feel like it rather than try to fulfill some notional quota I’ve set myself. So, until the next time…
18 thoughts on “Broken Arrow”
Just watched this as the basis for a future post. Really enjoyed it too. Most surprising was the lack of touchy-feeliness between the Americans and the Indians. This is definitely not Dances with Wolves but, as you say, the slow understanding between people who’ve known nothing but enmity for years. Actually, if it reminded me of anything, it was The Last Samurai, that Tom Cruise vehicle from several years ago that also featured a powerhouse performance from the ‘enemy’ leader, in that instance Ken Watanabe.
In Broken Arrow, I liked the hard edge displayed by James Stewart towards the end, in fact the only real disappointment was the ending. I guess it made sense to finish where it did – just felt a little ‘tacked on.’ Good review – I sort of knew you would have covered it 😉
It’s a long time since I wrote that one! Anyway Mike, it’s a fine movie isn’t it? I really like these films that show a bit of intelligence in their portrayal of the Indian wars. Anthony Mann’s Devil’s Doorway, Robert Aldrich’s Ulzana’s Raid (both of which I’ve done pieces on) and Walter Hill’s Geronimo all fall into such a category. Thet don’t pussyfoot around the faults on both sides, and I always find that refreshing.
Excellent review. I like Jeff Chandler in almost everything, he’s is always a great presence in a film, even if the film isn’t so good. And what a hunk!
As an example of his emotional range, I recommend the noir film “Because of You” with Loretta Young. He plays a hospitalized shell shocked vet who is possessive and neurotic about Loretta Young. I sometimes cringed for Chandler’s character, who suffers, and is sad and creepy.
If he had lived longer, I think Chandler would have been an impressive character actor.
Thanks Muriel. I like Chandler’s acting too and have found him fine in most everything I’ve seen him in. Because of You is a new title to me but it sounds interesting – I’ll look out for it.
I saw this a little while ago now and felt that ‘Dances with Wolves’ must have been influenced by it, though it is many years since I saw that film. Both Stewart and Chandler are excellent in this.
I’d be surprised if it wasn’t an influence Judy. Having said that, it’s a much subtler, more nuanced film than Costner’s movie.
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This is an excellent duster as far as I’m concerned. I like everything about the production, the story, the acting, direction and the cinematography. Top job, Colin! It never hurts to have the drop dead beautiful Miss Paget on display. In 1956, The 20th Century-Fox Hour remade the film for their anthology series. They replaced Stewart with John Lupton, Chandler with Ricardo Montalban and changed out the equally pretty Rita Moreno for Miss Paget. (Review up on IMDB) The episode was a big enough hit that they put the show into production as a series. They kept Lupton, but replaced Montalban with Michael Ansara and Moreno with Sue England. It ran for 72 episodes.
Gord, you’re way ahead of me when it comes to these TV shows – I’m finding out about new or neglected material all the time, which is good. A quick check tells me this is available for viewing online so I’ll try to sample that.
I do not think it hurts to see where some of our fav directors or actors started from. I’m always pleased when I run into early tv work by people like Charles Heston, Charles Bronson etc, For example, there are plenty of Peckinpah fans out there, but few have seen any of his pre-film work. There is an episode of the “Rifleman” that i say is a must see. THE RIFLEMAN – The Marshal- 1958 This is a Peckinpah written and directed episode, and it is truly excellent. It was only Sam’s second job as a helmsman. It was also the first time Peckinpah and Warren Oates worked together. Review on IMDB
I agree with all of that, and really enjoy seeing the then up and coming guys working with others who had already had established careers in the cinema. That mix of different levels of experience stood all of them in good stead, I feel. And then it sets you thinking where different influences might have come into play, all this on top of simply enjoying the stories on screen as well.
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I think the opening 13.5 minutes of “Broken Arrow” is magnificent. The scene where the Apaches first “warn” Stewart when he is with the boy by firing arrows a few inches from his head is riveting. The ambush that follows, without music, is choreographed brilliantly by Daves. This is followed by the torture scene which Stewart is forced to watch while in voice-over he grimly observes, “This is war. There was terrible cruelty on both sides.”
I think this acknowledgment of “terrible cruelty on both sides” is what is missing from “Dances with Wolves” which is a historically inaccurate, unbalanced portrayal of both Native Americans and Whites. The film not only drips in political correctness, but it is offensive in its portrayal of Whites (except for the sensitive Kevin). The white men are fat, drunk, farting, pants-pissing oafs. The Lakota Sioux are beautiful, intelligent, dignified, and full of wisdom. These Sioux know nothing about Whites until Kevin comes tripping along? Come on, there was a major Dakota Sioux uprising in Minnesota during 1862. Three hundred and fifty settlers were killed; hundreds of Sioux were arrested and 38 were hanged. Some of the Dakota Sioux escaped to the west and had to have shared the news with the Lakota Sioux.
The Native Americans in the novel “Dances with Wolves” are Comanches, a tribe that had clashed with Americans for decades before the Civil War and with Mexicans for far longer than that. That wouldn’t have fit Costner’s Edenic narrative. Bruce Beresford’s “Black Robe” (1991) was a far superior and more sensitive film that tried to present a balanced view of two disparate cultures and spiritualities. Similarly, “Broken Arrow” is a more honest and better-crafted film than DWW. Sorry for the rant.
No, that’s fair enough. As I said to another commenter above, I think what sets this movie apart (and of course it’s not entirely alone in this) from Dances With Wolves is subtlety and nuance. I think what annoys me most is the way it was widely assumed – largely due to both critical negligence and movies not being seen all that often – that Costner’s film was breaking new ground in its sympathetic view of the American Indian. Once you start to look at the movies of the 50s with anything beyond a casual glance it’s obvious that this is simply not true. Daves, Sherman and Mann, to name just a few, explored this theme extensively, and it does their work, and that of the writers on those movies, a huge disservice to put forward the notion that Dances With Wolves represented a break with tradition. It’s just poor analysis.
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