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

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Savage (Paramount, 1952)

Those forts again

Funny that in the very last post I should have talked about the popularity in Westerns of those big model wooden forts and then the very next day there’s a good example on TV again. They showed The Savage.

This is an earnest version of the old yarn in which a wagon train is attacked by Indians and all the settlers are killed except a small boy who is adopted by the Sioux and brought up by their chief, Yellow Eagle. The whites, in breach of treaties, move into the Black Hills of Dakota and the young man is now conflicted: where do his loyalties lie?

There were earlier silents based on this idea and later movies too, such as Alan Ladd being raised by Indians and later joining the Mounties in Saskatchewan (Universal, 1954). Little Big Man too. ‘The Savage’ is meant semi-ironically because in these movies the hero brings peace between the red and white peoples and sometimes shows more civilizational attributes than the hard-liners on each side.

The Savage, though, is a bit of a plodder in this line. Yes, there is action and Charlton goes Hestoning around the hills a lot with his shirt off showing how he has become the Alpha male of his Sioux tribe. The US Cavalry officers are quite dumb, as usual, but there are a few more enlightened men, also as usual, notably Milburn Stone (Doc Adams in Gunsmoke) who is rather good, in fact, as Corporal Martin. There’s also pleasant Black Hills location photography by John F Seitz (The Iron Mistress, Saskatchewan, The Big Land). So yes, it has its points.

The trouble comes with the script, uncredited on screen but in fact by Sydney Boehm and LL Foreman, which is stilted and over-earnest. The actors playing Indians keep their Californian drawls and make no attempt at ug-speak, which is good, but they are obliged to deliver ponderous, ‘noble’ sentiments in a mannered way. And we need some humor, don’t we? I mean 95 minutes without the hint of a smile is a bit tough going. And the actual root causes of the conflict aren’t really probed at all.

All in all The Savage is a colorful US Cavalry-and-Indians romp of the period but with a message. Broken Arrow had come out in 1950 and started to correct in a more nuanced way the old stereotype of nameless yelping redskin savages attacking the fort, so more thoughtful pictures about Indians were in vogue.

George Marshall directed (he did 50 Westerns from Across The Rio Grande in 1916 to Hec Ramsey in 1972, including Destry Rides Again, When The Daltons Rode, The Sheepman and part of How The West Was Won) and he did it with brio. There’s one scene looking over the green Black Hills from the fort with very many extras in the distance, so the budget was there. Paramount brought it out while George Stevens was up in Wyoming shooting their Shane so big Westerns were in. Yes, it’s worth a watch alright.

Just don’t expect too much. Broken Arrow it ain’t.



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