"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The 'Red Indians'


We've looked at Western hats and guns and horses and women. What about the eternal foe?
‘Red Indians’, as they were first called, were an essential element of many Westerns, especially early ones. They were part of the danger that pioneers had to overcome and they could be portrayed as sufficiently violent and cruel to make worthy opponents. They had the advantage of being a nameless, faceless enemy that it was quite alright to shoot down in great numbers. They were also shown as stupid people: they spoke American in an “Ug, me big chief” way that could be mocked and they were shown as very poor tacticians and strategists who would ride endlessly round a circle of wagons allowing the pioneers within the circle to take pot shots at them. Indians were just half-naked savages.

In fact, it is sometimes forgotten that many of the very early Westerns went against this trend and showed ‘redskins’ as noble savages. In 1912 Thomas Ince had told the story from the Indians’ side in The Indian Massacre. Often-filmed stories like Ramona, The Half Breed or The Squaw Man were far from anti-Indian. The 1925 silent movie based on Zane Grey's The Vanishing American was a big hit.

Still, for much of the Western movie’s history, Indians were a fearful adversary to be shot down wherever possible and without compunction. Look at Stagecoach as a classic example. Fierce Apaches attack the stage and are shot down in droves by John Wayne with his Winchester.

In 1950 Broken Arrow showed a more sympathetic side of the American Indian and portrayed Cochise as a statesman. Delmer Daves, who directed Broken Arrow, did something very similar (though not nearly as good) soon after with Drum Beat, starring Alan Ladd. Actually filmed before Broken Arrow, though released after, was Devil's Doorway, directed by Anthony Mann, a more radical and uncomprimising picture about anti-Native American racism. 

Tomahawk in 1951 starred a Wise Jim Bridger (Van Heflin) who understood the Sioux and did everything possible to help them in the face of the corrupt and/or dumb white men. Apache did the same in 1954, with Burt Lancaster as star. Suddenly, pro-Indian movies were all the rage. Manifest Destiny still wasn't being denied but it was being questioned.

Vengeance Valley showed the visceral racial hatred of many whites towards the Indians. More modern Westerns such as Flaming Star (1960) also showed this but were notably more ‘pro Indian’. Later in his career John Ford also made an effort to portray Indians more sympathetically, perhaps with an element of mea culpa, in movies such as Cheyenne Autumn (1964).
In the 1970s a new Indian emerged: films like Soldier Blue and Little Big Man (both 1970) attempted to show how appallingly Native Americans had so often been treated. Suddenly the bluecoats were not brave soldiers arriving at the last moment to the sound of bugles to rescue beleaguered wagon trains; they were shown brutally massacring men, women and children in defiance of peace treaties. Indians became the goodies. In Dances With Wolves (1990) all the white men are evil except Costner, and the Sioux are noble and fine.
There were even Westerns that didn’t feature ‘cowboys’ at all, only Indians. See, for example, Indian Paint (1965). The 2007 HBO fictionalized documentary Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was, like the book it was based on, a passionate statement of the appalling exploitation so many Native Americans suffered.
As white men slaughtering Indians indiscriminately became politically incorrect, Indians were replaced as slaughterees by Mexicans. Many later Westerns showed Americans going south of the border and gunning down huge numbers of nameless and faceless Mexicans, usually bandits or soldiers. The Wild Bunch is only the most extreme example. Many other Westerns thought it was quite OK to turn Gatling guns on men in tan uniforms with droopy moustaches or ones with sombreros and ponchos, or lob dynamite at them. The justification was that the soldiers were the troops of corrupt or repressive generals and the bandits were degenerate and anyway unshaven.

It’s not surprising that Mexico got rather tired of this and Yankee film makers did not always find it easy to get permission to, er, shoot south of the border.
It is worth noting some outstanding American Indian actors. One thinks in particular of Chief Dan George in Little Big Man and The Outlaw Josey Wales. In recent times three people have dominated in lead Indian roles and they are all fine actors: Wes Studi, Graham Greene and Eric Schweig. Anything with them in it will be superior.

For many years Indians were played by white actors. Partly because there was no corps of Indian actors waiting in the wings to take such parts (plays and acting were not in the Native American tradition).but more because Hollywood producers preferred bankable 'name' stars, Anglo-Saxon 'Indians' were the norm. In Broken Arrow, for example, Cochise was played (very well, actually) by New Yorker Jeff Chandler and the Indian 'princess' who married the hero was Debra Paget. There was even an insidious kind of racism because the 'good' Indians were played by whites and the 'bad' (more militant) Indians by Native Americans - like Jay Silverheels as Geronimo in Broken Arrow. Australian Michael Pate also made rather a thing of playing Indian chiefs. Lately, however, that has changed and, happily, we are more used to Native American actors playing 'Indian' parts.

Suddenly it became infra-dig to refer to Red Indians at all. 'Native Americans' was the preferred term. I must say, though, that the 'Native Americans' I have met detest the phrase. They prefer 'Indian'. And indeed, the pc appellation is rather silly. As if those of Polish or Italian or Chinese extraction born in the USA somehow aren't native Americans.
Probably the subtlest and most interesting portrayal of an Indian/Native American is the character Nobody, played by Gary Farmer in Jim Jarmusch's unusual  but excellent Western Dead Man (1995). It is so good simply because Nobody is an outcast, just as the whiter hero played by Johnny Depp is. Nobody is a complex character and a fascinating one, but above all he is not simply 'an Indian', standing as a symbol for a whole tribe or race. He is a person. An individual. It's a great performance and a worthy corrective.

We'll see soon how Mr. Depp handles Tonto in the forthcoming Lone Ranger...
Well, I must be off. Hi Yo, Silver.

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