Saturday, February 4, 2017

Hard to Shoot 'Em Like That

Film: Broken Arrow (1950)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

I always forget that James Stewart was a legitimate Western star. He did enough of them, and enough of them were pretty good that I probably shouldn’t forget that so easily. Westerns are a big genre, of course, and there are enough of them that anyone can find a few that fit with their other film sensibilities. That said, Westerns have trouble getting the natives right. Early films painted them (often literally painting white actors) as savages who only existed to be threatening and get shot. Many a later Western (see Dances with Wolves, for instance) paint them as noble savages who were callously abused and slaughtered. The truth, as with many things, probably lies somewhere in between. Broken Arrow is interesting in that regard, because that’s the course it tries to set for itself.

Tom Jeffords (James Stewart) is out panning for gold in Apache territory when he discovers a young boy who has been wounded. Tom nurses him back to health, and after a few days, the boy is healthy enough to return to his home. At this time, Tom and the boy are set upon by Apache, but Tom is spared because of his kindness and because he did not take part in the attack that wounded the boy in the first place.

But, and this is where things become very interesting, as the Apache are letting Tom go, a group of prospectors enter the area. Tom is tied to a tree and the prospectors are attacked. Once they have been run off, Tom is released and sent back to Tucson. His recent experiences have taught him a little about the Apache, and despite the misgivings of local hard case Ben Slade (Will Geer), Tom thinks he might be able to improve conditions. The big problem in Tucson is that none of the mail is getting through. Tom decides that if he can learn the Apache language and customs, he might be able to broker at least a partial truce.

After a month of study, Tom heads out into Apache country more or less under a flag of truce, searching for Cochise (Jeff Chandler). The two meet, and while things are tense at first, they eventually come to an agreement and a sort of mutual trust. Cochise agrees that his people will no longer attack the mail carriers once he is assured that the mail does not carry military commands. He says nothing of a more general truce. Despite the locals’ misgivings and mistrust, the mail starts going through.

The other important moment that happens here is that Tom meets a young woman in Cochise’s camp. The girl, Sonseeahray (Debra Paget), shows interest in Tom, and that interest is clearly mutual. This starts a slow and tentative romance that, despite their clear age difference (Stewart was a good 2 ½ times Paget’s age), is actually sort of sweet.

Of course, things are going to go south at some point, and in the case of Broken Arrow there is guilt on both sides. Ben Slade and the others like him are itching to attack the Apache and wipe them out. While Cochise and most of his people are happy to attempt a more general truce, there is a group who disagree. This group, led by Geronimo (Jay Silverheels), does not attack the mail carriers, but shows no such restraint on anyone else entering into their territory.

So let’s talk about what Broken Arrow gets right, because it’s pretty significant. Broken Arrow treats the Native Americans not as violent sub-humans or as idealized noble people at touch with everything in the natural world. It treats them like real people who have their own ideas and who aren’t some sort of block of identical people who all think and feel the same way about everything. They have differences and disagree with each other. Some of them are honorable and decent. Some of them aren’t. In short, it treats them the same way it treats the white characters in the narrative. It goes so far as to have Tom Jeffords learn the Apache language so that conversations take place in a way that doesn’t make Cochise and the others sound remedial. Sure, they’re talking in English on the screen, but within the narrative, they’re speaking as equals. That’s important.

The problem is the obvious one: whitewashing. Jeff Chandler and Debra Paget are as white as I am. Chandler is so white that he was evidently the template for Race Bannon on Johnny Quest. That said, it’s nice to see Jay Silverheels in a solid and important role. In fact, most of the native roles were played by actual Apache from a nearby reservation. In that respect, once again we have to give Broken Arrow credit.

The movie doesn’t really have much of a resolution, though, which is something of an issue. Still, there’s a great deal to like here. The story may be small, but the way it gets there is big.

Why to watch Broken Arrow: It treats Native Americans like real people.
Why not to watch: Nothing really gets resolved.


  1. I can see your point about the oddity of Jimmy Stewart as a Western star. At first glance especially based on the films of his youth he would seem too much of a city boy to make it work but he was able to relax into the genre in a way other stars of the period couldn't.

    For instance both Cary Grant and Lizabeth Scott were too cosmopolitan to ever make sense on the range. Grant for the most part was wise enough to know it and stay away, his two forays into period films, The Howards of Virginia and the excruciating The Pride and the Passion-where he would have seemed ideal but wasn't-he was stiff as a board and totally out of place. Lizabeth Scott, a star with far less autonomy, was cast in two actual Western, Red Mountain and Silver Lode, and for the entirety of both films I couldn't help thinking she'd been plopped down there by some time machine and the smoky nightclub where she belonged was missing their chanteuse to perform her next number and mix it up with the mobsters. They were just too urbane but Stewart's laconic charm and irascibility were more adaptable and his long rangy frame looked right in the saddle.

    While this film isn't perfect it does try very hard to look at both sides of the argument and treat all its characters fairly which makes it at least a step above most Cowboy & Indian movie of the period. As far as the casting of the two main supporting characters, in Debra Paget's case I'm sure the Production Code played a hand in it since an actual romance between a white man and an Indian woman would have been forbidden under it. With Jeff Chandler his rather unique looks, and his success in this role, often doomed him to play a variety of ethnic roles, and be trapped in junk like Flame of Araby and Yankee Pasha, throughout his career but he was a much better actor than he's given credit for. If you've never seen Man in the Shadow with Orson Welles and he I'd recommend it. If you think he seems miscast as an Indian wait until you see Rock Hudson (!) in the sequel to this Taza, Son of Cochise. He cuts a fine figure but he looks ludicrous.

    1. My only objection to Jeff Chandler as Cochise is that Jeff Chandler was a Jewish kid from Brooklyn. He's actually pretty good in the role (good enough for a Supporting Actor nomination) and respectful with it. I haven't seen Taza, but I have seen Rock Hudson in Winchester '73, so I get the point.

      Stewart's natural persona does fit well with the genre. There's something about the way he speaks and that lanky frame that makes him work in the saddle and look good in a cowboy hat. That he could just as easily pull off The Philadelphia Story and similar films just speaks to how versatile he really was.

  2. I've heard that Jimmy Stewart, when asked which of his career projects was his favorite, he cited "The Six-Shooter." It was a radio series he did for a short time, just one season I think, so there's only around 25 episodes. He played Brit Ponsett, a gunman traveling the West at random and finding an old friend in trouble in every town he went to. And the problem was just as likely to involve finding a judge for the apple pie contest as it was to be a situation involving any gunplay.

    One of my favorite old-time radio series. If it's true that Stewart said it was his favorite project, I can definitely see why.

    I've never seen Broken Arrow.

    1. It's interesting and worth your time. Stewart is very good in Westerns in general, and he's quite good here. The plot isn't that exceptional, but it's handled very well.