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

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Out West (Paramount, 1918)

Wild Bill Hickup

It was amazing how quickly after the showing of the first effective narrative Western (The Great Train Robbery in 1903) parodies appeared.

Of course by 1918 the famous William S Hart had already appeared in 38 Westerns, including The Return of Draw Egan (1916), which has a plot very similar to that of Out West: tough stranger comes into town, cleans up the place with his guns and gets the girl. So they had something to parody.

Out West is an 18-minute one-reeler in which Roscoe Fatty Arbuckle lampoons what must have already been Western movie clichés. Thrown off a train, Fatty becomes bar tender in a saloon after demonstrating to the owner with his twenty-shooters that no bad guy or drunk will stand a chance.
Already a parody in 1918
The good news is that Buster Keaton is the frock-coated saloon owner, and Arbuckle’s nephew Al St John is the bad guy, Wild Bill Hickup. Keaton we all know, of course, and his Go West of 1925 is one of the greatest comedy Westerns of all time. Al St John, though, may only be known to Keystone Cops fans or lovers of Buster Crabbe and Lash La Rue programmers, where he played the whiskered sidekick. He was still appearing in Westerns in 1952 (The Black Lash and Frontier Phantom). Out West was his first.
Buster oils his Colt
There’s a card sharp who slips the ace of spades into his hand. Buster notices and oils his Colt with brandy, ready for the fray. He has a useful trap door in the saloon floor for disposing of dead gamblers.

Meanwhile, Fatty is on a train, though without a ticket. He has his ample posterior punctured with bullets (some fired by Buster Keaton’s dad Joe) and is thrown off in the desert, where his a.p. is again punctured, this time by Indian arrows. Arbuckle is surprisingly agile and athletic for such a fat man. I love the way he casually lights a match by letting the passing train scrape it.
Athletic fat man does his own stunts
Black-hearted Bill Hickup, in a curious brimless hat, holds up the Last Chance Saloon with his Mexican henchpersons. When he shouts “Hands up!” the hands on the clock obediently rise to five to one. The barman attempts resistance but Bill shoots him and he ends up in the hole in the floor. Now Fatty appears, grabs two pistols and proceeds to make Wild Bill seem like an amateur. After clearing out the bad guys, Fatty takes the late bartender’s place.
Fatty is hired
Then there’s a scene doubtless thought to be hilarious in 1918 when the customers in the bar shoot at the feet of a Negro to make him dance. He is saved by a Salvation Army lass (Alice Lake) who shames them into desisting.

A “lonesome cowboy” rides his horse into the saloon. Bill gets his revenge by lassoing the Sally Army girl and a general shoot-out follows with mucho gunsmoke. Buster deceives a bandit by leaving his hat to be shot at while he sneaks round to get the drop on his attacker. Already a recognizable cliché in 1918! Fatty rescues Alice by incapacitating badman Bill by tickling him. Together, Fatty and Alice then push Bill’s cabin over a cliff with Bill in it. The End.


Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Man from Del Rio (UA, 1956)

The mighty Quinn

Any chance to see Anthony Quinn in a Western is worth taking. To see him in anything, come to that. When he got the chance to lead, or at least play one of the leading parts, he was never less than superb. He did 19 Westerns, from 1936 to 1973, not a huge number compared to some, but he was excellent in all of them. One might highlight as particularly fine his performances in The Ox-Bow Incident, Viva Zapata!, The Ride Back, Warlock and Last Train from Gun Hill.
Quinn: formidable
Man from Del Rio is at first sight just another black & white mid-50s B-Western. It starts with a cliché: the Quinn character, David Robles, shoots ‘the fastest gun alive’ in a duel on the saloon steps and no one bats an eyelid, except to congratulate him. But very soon the movie develops into a far more interesting affair with complex characters and themes.

The female lead was Quinn’s fellow Mexican and friend Katy Jurado in a characteristically wonderful performance as the doctor’s nurse who at first spurns Robles as a gun-man, like her first husband, who left her a widow, but she gradually comes round to care for him. Robles is a scruffy gunfighter-turned-sheriff who is hired to clean up the town but is then ostracized by the hypocritical townsfolk. Jurado has a great line about using a snake to kill rats but then you are left with a deadly snake.
Not just pulp
Quinn's Robles is gauche, inexperienced, almost puzzled, yet very powerful and very effective. He thinks that as sheriff, in his new clothes, he will be respected by the townsfolk. He is soon disabused. Frozen out of the community dance, he ends up on the street with the town drunk and then tipsily dancing with himself. It’s a moving moment. The Quinn/Jurado relationship is handled with great skill. They are the only Mexicans in the white town of Mesa (supposed to be a Dodge/Ellsworth kind of cattle town) and the snobbish treatment of Robles has racial undertones too.

There is some good support acting, notably from Western veteran Douglas Fowley, who did 96 Westerns between 1934 and 1982, as the cynical Doc Adams (he had to be named Adams and indeed director Harry Horner had done an episode of Gunsmoke earlier that year), and Whit Bissell as the town drunk-factotum Breezy Morgan (55 Westerns, 1947 – 1978). I love the Doc’s sign. It advertises his services - Physician, Dentist, Veterinary and, in case all the above fail, Undertaker. Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams (uncredited) leads the gunmen thugs in the saloon.
Jurado and Quinn: both superb
Only Peter Whitney (TV Western stalwart) as megalomaniac villain Ed Bannister is miscast. He is supposed to be a former lightning-fast gunslinger himself but doesn’t convince at all as that. He has grandiose schemes to own the town but he never satisfactorily explains what his plans are.

The director was an interesting fellow, Harry Horner, who had been born in Bohemia, went to university in Vienna and had worked in many different capacities in theater, Broadway shows and movies. It was his only Western feature film but he was famous for entering deeply into the background of a movie to get a better understanding.

The classic final Main Street showdown (scheduled for 10 in the morning, and the clock on the wall ticks inexorably in a High Noony way) again has an unusual twist.

No one would claim that (The) Man from Del Rio is a great Western – it’s not High Noon - but Quinn’s complex characterization and Jurado’s sensitive strength make it well above the average.


Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Lone Gun (United Artists, 1954)

This post has been updated and revised.
Please click here for the new one.


Monday, October 28, 2013

Westworld (MGM, 1973)

The West as a fantasy world? What an odd idea.

An entertaining blend of Western and sci-fi, this movie was Jurassic Michael Crichton’s debut. He wrote and directed it. It was the first film to use digitized images and the early 70s special effects are still quite impressive. The idea is that for a thousand dollars a day you can vacation in a Western town, rob banks, sleep with saloon gals and have gunfights, with robots at the other end of your .45 and with no risk of getting hurt. Hell, I’d go. Eager Richard Benjamin and blasé James Brolin go off to this depraved Disneyworld-on-steroids of the future and do exactly that. At first they have a great time shooting down a mechanical Yul Brynner. Until a computer virus strikes (a new idea then) and everything starts to go wrong… Of course, you knew it would go wrong when the voice on the PA system cooed to the incoming tourists, “Nothing can go wrong.”
A theme park for Western fans
A good sci fi idea, and the story is not a million miles away from Jurassic Park. Yul is perfect as the robot gunslinger. I feel there needs to be an exclamation point at the end of that sentence but that would perhaps be unkind. Seriously, he is very threatening as the implacable, indestructible foe, a sort of future-world Frankenstein’s monster in a cowboy hat. He wears exactly the same costume as Chris in The Magnificent Seven and I suppose it’s a jokey reference to his indestructibility there too. Either that or Brynner insisted: he loved that costume.
Call him out. Go on. You can't lose.
The movie plays on the idea of the mythical West. It always was a fantasy. Now it is a fantasy for real. If you see what I mean. It can also be read as a comment on the 1970s breakdown of the Western as genre and the over-confident assumptions the genre was based on. Or am I overdoing it here?

There’s perhaps too a satirical idea that the herds of dumb tourists who flock to the theme park are just as robotic as the mechanical gunslingers.
Nothing can go wrong...
The same resort contains Roman World and Medieval World and that’s a bit annoying. We Western fans have to sit through those bits, drumming our fingers, waiting to get back to the proper Westworld (often referred to confusingly by the characters as ‘Western World’). At the end they get mixed up, Blazing Saddles-style, as cowboys walk through Roman gardens into a medieval castle.

This is a fun film and still worth a watch. I remember it when it came out and the gunslinger was actually quite frightening. Well, I was young(ish) in 1973. I’m quite sure James Cameron had seen Yul in this part when he created the Terminator.
Quite scary. For 1973.
Apparently, HBO has just commissioned a pilot for a series based on Westworld from Dark Knight writer Jonathan Nolan with JJ Abrams (who directed Mission Impossible III and the 2009 Star Trek) to produce. I hope that comes to fruition. We need a good HBO Western to follow Deadwood.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Jeff Arnold and Riders of the Range

British boys and Billy the Kid

British readers of a certain vintage may have wondered if the writer of this blog is related to the famous Jeff Arnold, Texas Ranger, hero of Riders of the Range, a BBC radio serial of the late 1940s and early 50s, and then of the British boys’ comic Eagle.

Well, no, unfortunately, I can claim no blood relationship. Sad but true.
The other Jeff Arnold
But I have been contacted by Steve Winders, who writes articles for the Eagle fan magazine Eagle Times, and Steve gives me the lowdown on Riders of the Range.

He says that the radio serial “combined music and drama to tell stories about the cowboys of the 6T6 outfit from Pecos, Texas, aiming to present an authentic picture of the wild west, with the stories being set against a background of real events, including the opening up of the Chisolm [sic] Trail and the story of Billy the Kid.” Sadly, all the episodes were performed live and not recorded so we cannot listen to them now, though the scripts survive.

The hero of the series was the Texas Ranger Jeff Arnold, played by the Canadian singer and actor Paul Carpenter, chosen for the role, apparently, because he sounded like John Wayne.

The serial was both written and produced by Charles Chilton (1917 – 2013) and in 1950 Chilton was approached by Marcus Morris, owner of Eagle, to make Riders of the Range a weekly feature of the comic. Morris even paid for Chilton to make his first visit to the American West. The strip was beautifully drawn by Frank Humphris (1911 – 1993) and became very popular. It lasted till 1962.

British readers (the stats page of this blog tell me that there are quite a few) may well remember that Jeff and his old-timer sidekick Luke.

Thanks, Steve, for the information, and happy trails!

Saturday, October 26, 2013

It Can be Done, Amigo (Atlantida, 1972)

aka Si può fare…amigo, Bulldozer is back amigo, The Big and the Bad, etc. etc. [yawn]


Why does such drivel have to be so long? Surely an hour would be enough to have to sit through such junk. Yet even if you fast forward the moronic fights to avoid listening to the stupid sound effects and hasten the end, it still seems to go on for ever and a day. Actually, Germans were the luckiest. In their country the runtime was ‘only’ 85 minutes. In Spain they had to suffer an extra quarter of an hour while the poor Italians had no less than one hour 39 minutes to endure.

Even if you are a fan of spaghetti westerns, it is difficult to see what the appeal could possibly be in this cretinous farrago.
'Slam bang action' is actually a lie. It's boring.
It ‘stars’ Bud Spencer, who seems tired and bored. Jack Palance does nothing except grin vapidly and count his paychecks. There’s an unattractive woman (Dany Saval) and a tiresome nine-year-old kid (Renato Cestiè).
Bad actor and stupid kid
The dialogue, by Rafael Azcona and others, has the usual chimp-on-valium sparkle and wit. The ‘music’ is abysmal and uncredited (who would take ‘credit’ for it?) Visually, this is cheap and nasty with lousy photography by Aldo Tonti of the usual Almerian characterless desert and knock-off western towns (they have the nerve to call one Silverton. Silverton, Colorado is a great town and well worth a visit).

The total budget for this movie was probably forty lire.
Jack smiling. It's the last day of the shoot and payday.
The utterly unfunny ‘comedy’ aspects aren’t the worst, though. It’s the fact that the movie is so slow and boring. It moves along at the pace of a dead horse and you just wish they would get on with it and get the story over with. The director (Maurizio Lucidi) should really have been struck off, unfrocked and disbarred from the Guild of Western Directors (Third Class, Spaghetti).

Readers of this website will know that I don’t care for so-called spaghetti westerns much – or indeed even at all - but I do try to be fair and have even been known to give three revolvers to one (A Bullet for the General). However, in this particular case there are no saving graces at all. Why would anyone actually pay to watch this? I only did because it was in a boxed set of such films and Jack Palance was in it but I promise you, nothing will induce me ever to put it in the DVD player again. I’m not a masochist.


Friday, October 25, 2013

Little Big Man (1964) & The Return of Little Big Man (1999) by Thomas Berger

One of the greatest Western novels

Like many people, I suspect, I saw the 1970 NGP movie Little Big Man before I read the source novel by Thomas Berger. This was partly because the book did not make great waves when it came out in 1964. It managed to go from hardback to paperback but the New York Times panned it and sales were modest. It remained the preserve of aficionados like Henry Miller, Janis Joplin and Marlon Brando until the film came out.

When I did read it, however, I realized that it was one of the great American novels. The film, which I found amusing in parts but which I basically disliked, had not done justice to the book at all. The novel is one of the great works of picaresque fiction; the movie turned picaresque into burlesque.
One of the great American novels
You probably know the story: it is 1953. Jack Crabb, born 1842, is 111 years old and describes his life, tape recorder running, to a gullible and very wet Ralph Fielding Snell, who transcribes and publishes the account ten years later. Jack tells, in his earthy vernacular, how his family were killed by Cheyenne braves on a wagon train going West and how he grew up with the Indians. He later rejoins the white world and periodically finds himself back with the Cheyenne, notably at the time of Custer’s murderous attack at the Washita in 1868. He is, he says, the lone white survivor of Custer’s last stand in 1876, which he describes in detail.
Hoffmann as Jack Crabb, 111
You can read Little Big Man on two levels: firstly as a hugely entertaining autobiography by either the most interesting figure to have survived the nineteenth century frontier or a liar of Münchhausen-ish proportions (whichever you choose), or, secondly, as a camouflaged but nevertheless deeply-researched revisionist history of the Wild West.

We have to remember that in 1964 the version of the West that was the most widely accepted was still the one of Hollywood, pulp Western novels and magazines, and Gunsmoke on TV. Indians were the bad guys, lightning-fast gunfighters walked down Main Street at noon and stagecoaches were robbed on every run. 1964 was the year of movie oaters such as Raoul Walsh’s last, A Distant Trumpet, a sub-Fordian cavalry Western, and Rio Conchos, Fox's big, brash, commercial cowboy film about running guns to the Indians.
Thomas Berger
But revisionism was in the air. The sixties were the time of Vietnam, burgeoning feminism, civil rights and the American Indian Movement. It was a time of what Arthur Schlesinger called “skeptical reassessments of supposedly sacred assumptions”. Little Big Man’s publication date of 1964 was also the year of John Ford’s last movie, Cheyenne Autumn, which, while it perpetuated many of the cowboy clichés, did try to do something to redress the shameful balance of the past and show the Cheyenne (and by extension American Indians generally) in a more positive light and as victims more than aggressors. Pro-Indian movies had been around at least since Broken Arrow in 1950 and even before (many early silents were surprisingly pro-Indian) but now they were becoming the orthodoxy.

Nevertheless, when Little Big Man came out it was still mainstream for George Armstrong Custer to be thought of as the brave, tragic hero whose troops had been slaughtered by the savage redskins, the Custer of the 1896 Anheuser-Busch painting by Otto Becker, so a book which portrayed Custer as reckless, arrogant, vain, even insane, was quite a shock.

By the time the sequel The Return of Little Big Man was published, however, revisionism had become the mainstream. People had seen movies in which the US Cavalry did not arrive at the last moment to save beleaguered settlers but rather slaughtered innocent women and children in Indian villages. They had seen Soldier Blue and read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Much of the paraphernalia of the Wild West had been debunked. Those quick-draw Main Street showdowns were now risible. So the book lost some of its shock and impact. It was ‘merely’ an enjoyable read for fans of Little Big Man who wanted to know what happened to Jack Crabb after Little Bighorn.
Back from the dead
There is a slight air of cheat about the sequel because Jack died at the end of Little Big Man but is resurrected in the Return, Sherlock Holmes-like. That a 111-year-old in a home should fake his own death is a little far-fetched. But then the whole thing is so wildly far-fetched that if you swallowed Little Big Man you will have no problem at all with his Return. Jack had told us in volume 1 that after Wild Bill Hickok had taught him how to shoot well enough to split dimes placed on edge from twenty paces, Bill went off to Deadwood and Jack never saw him again. Jack tells us in the sequel, however, that this was a lie, and proceeds to describe Hickok’s death at the hands of Jack McCall, which he, Jack, witnessed. Admitting to a lie puts Jack on thin ice for the credibility of the rest of his former tale but then that’s where he has been skating, so skilfully, for the whole 440 pages of Little Big Man

And interestingly, while the sequel did deal more with Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp than the first book did, the majority of it is devoted to Jack’s participation in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. Jack prefers, having seen bloodshed and death in all its unpleasant reality, to live in the make-believe West of the traveling circus. ''After much experience in the actual world,'' Jack confesses, ''I preferred the imaginary.''

In Jack’s amusing old-timerish asides, Berger has actually something thought-provoking to say on this imaginary West (the one, in fact, the writer and readers of this blog may be said to inhabit) and on the general nature of myth and reality. What was the ‘real’ West? When we revise revisionism, will it be any truer? ''I come up with the idea,'' Jack says at one point, ''that time belongs to everybody and everything, and nobody and nothing can lay claim to any part of it exclusively, so if you talk about the past as though there was just one version of it that everybody agrees on, you might be seen as stealing the spirit of others, something which the Cheyenne always had a taboo against.'' That’s actually interesting, perceptive and wise. Questions of identity and alienation are also posed. Jack never really feels comfortable in himself: as he says, when with the Cheyenne he feels white and when with the whites, feels Cheyenne. "God knows," he says, "I thought enough about it and kept telling myself I was basically an Indian, just as when among Indians I kept seeing how I was really white to the core."

Of course both books depend, as picaresque novels often do, on coincidences so outrageous that the reader either just chuckles or chucks the book away. Jack is constantly running into acquaintances in the most unlikely places and most convenient times, and he just happens to have crossed paths with almost every notable figure of American frontier history. Jack happens to be on Fremont Street, Tombstone on 3:00 p.m. on Wednesday, October 26, 1881. When Sitting Bull is murdered at his cabin in 1890, guess who’s with him? While waiting in line to see Thomas Edison’s kinetoscope at the Chicago World Fair in 1893, he gets chatting to the fellow behind him and they talk about the possibility of horseless carriages. It is, of course, a young Henry Ford. It would have to be.
Where fact became myth which became fact
But for all his amusing old-boy narrative, Jack isn’t really the picaro. Hickok is the picaro, and Earp, and Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull and all the others. Jack is just present, ubiquitously it must be admitted, to be the straight guy. When he does contribute it’s as a Shakespearean fool. It really is masterfully done.

Stylistically the books read like Mark Twain in their folksy humor and wry wisdom. However much your highbrow eyebrow is raised while reading, you can’t help being genuinely moved, dammit, when Jack’s dog Pard dies or when Queen Victoria stands to salute the American flag. These are actually great novels in any terms.

In one way the language and the 'voice' of Jack Crabb are very convincing. The frontier venacular is cleverly used - they was, commenced to, knowed, and so on. Furthermore, he is so convincingly accurate about details and firearms and Cheyenne customs and all the rest. But in another way, no one, however gifted a story teller, could speak off the cuff into a microphone such a meticulously structured narrative, transcribing into such beautifully paragraphed prose. And how come Jack speaks in such an unsophisticated, colloquial way yet reports what Custer said in immaculate, grammatically perfect English? Still, let's put that down to Ralph Snell's editing, shall we?

On the last page of The Return of Little Big Man Mr. Berger teasingly offers us a possible further volume in the adventures of Jack Crabb, to include the early motion pictures (you can bet Jack was involved with them), the Klondike gold rush (no doubt Jack palled up with Jack London and Charlie Chaplin) and the Spanish-American War (Jack with Teddy at San Juan Hill). But Mr. Berger is already 89. He may be Jack’s age before he gets that far.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Destry (Universal, 1954)



Remakes were part and parcel of Hollywood. It was natural to try to cash in on a theatrical success for a new generation and studios also liked to remake silents into talkies and black & white movies into color ones. Take a film like The Spoilers: it was made in 1914, 1923, 1930, 1942 and 1955. Sometimes the remakes were great successes (it’s the fourth Spoilers we all know and remember and the third Maltese Falcon) but more usually the remakes were pale imitations.

It was unusual, however, for a director to remake his own film. Raoul Walsh remade his noir High Sierra into the Joel McCrea Western Colorado Territory (Warner Bros, 1949), and his war film Objective, Burma! became the Gary Cooper oater Distant Drums (Warner Bros, 1951). George Marshall went one step further: he had directed Marlene Dietrich and James Stewart in the famous 1939 Destry Rides Again (itself a remake of the silent Tom Mix one) and he directed Mari Blanchard and Audie Murphy in Destry, an almost exact copy, fifteen years later.
Lacks punch
Mari Blanchard, Dan Duryea’s saloon partner in Rails into Laramie, was back in the saloon in the Frenchy part. Perhaps to differentiate her from Shelley Winters in Universal’s earlier, non-Marshall remake, Frenchie (1950), Mari was called Brandy. She does the job competently, singing, dancing and wiping off her ‘warpaint’ for the sake of Destry.

Taking over from James Stewart was always going to be very challenging and poor Audie Murphy was doomed from the get-go. To be fair to Audie, he was enormously popular in the 1950s, rivaling John Wayne and Randolph Scott as a box-office Western star, and furthermore his baby-faced modesty and quiet manners were ideal for the part. But how are you going to follow Jimmy Stewart’s Destry? Audie does his best and he wasn’t half as bad an actor as he thought himself to be, as great performances in such Westerns as The Unforgiven proved. But it was a hard act to follow.
Audie as Tom Destry
The ’54 Destry does have two great character actors in small parts, Thomas Mitchell as the town drunk made sheriff (Mitchell of course did drunks, as all Stagecoach fans knew) and the great Edgar Buchanan as the rascally mayor, who is an artist this time, not a chess player. The little boy is Lee Aaker from High Noon, Hondo and Ride Clear of Diablo (the latter another Audie movie) and of course Rin Tin Tin. He was much better than many of the child actors in Westerns, having a bit of oomph.
Mitchell as drunk turned sheriff
I always like Lyle Bettger and he is excellent in the Brian Donlevy part as the slimy saloon owner with a derringer, but his heavies were weak. The parts cried out for bad guys of the quality of Jack Elam and Leo Gordon.
Bettger good as dress heavy and Blanchard OK in the Dietrich part
but they are watched by bland henchmen
The Mischa Auer part of Boris has been written out and replaced by a henpecked Doc Curtis (the great Wallace Ford, Charley in The Man from Laramie) who loses his wife’s new hat at the gaming tables rather than his pants. That was probably considered safer for a ‘family’ movie. Frenchy’s ‘amusing’ black maid has also disappeared. Wise.

Audie’s Tom Destry ties complex knots in pieces of rope rather than whittling (Joel McCrea’s Tom in Frenchie whittles though). The town is called Restful, not Bottleneck (it was Bottleneck in Frenchie). But these are tiny differences. Many of the director’s mises en scène are identical and many of the lines too (good old DD Beauchamp the Great wrote this one but both versions were very loosely based on the Felix Jackson adaptation of the Max Brand novel).
No whittling, only knots
Perhaps just because it was a remake, the whole thing is pleasant but it lacks punch.

Till the next remake

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Sitting Bull (UA, 1954)

A Custer B-Western

A mid-50s pro-Indian picture starring a pre-Wells Fargo Dale Robertson, this gives us a semi-revisionist portrayal of Little Bighorn and it has certain merits, not least its Mexican locations shot in CinemaScope color.

However, Robertson looks absurd in Gene Vincent hair and is very wooden, J Carrol Naish, 60, is unconvincing as an elderly Sitting Bull (Bull was actually in his 40s) and such liberties are taken with history as to make it laughable.
Tȟatȟáŋka Íyotake, also nicknamed Slon-he or "Slow", more commonly known to us as Sitting Bull, a Hunkpapa Lakota spiritual chief and tribal leader of his Sioux people, lived from c. 1831 to his murder in 1890. He was very active in gathering Indians of various groups and he reported a vision he had had of the white soldiers suffering a major defeat but he did not take an active part himself in the battle with Custer. In May 1877 Sitting Bull led his people into Canada, staying there four years and refusing a pardon and the chance to return. However, hunger and desperation eventually forced him, with 186 of his family and followers, to return to the United States and surrender on July 19, 1881. In 1885 he participated in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, forming a friendship with Annie Oakley. In December 1890 he was murdered by Indian police sent by Indian agent James McLaughlin to arrest him at his farm.
Tȟatȟáŋka Íyotake, Sitting Bull, photo 1885 

Hollywood has often shown Sitting Bull and, unusually, often used Native American actors to portray him. In a 1912 silent, William Eagle Shirt was Sitting Bull in Francis Ford's Custer's Last Fight, and in 1922 Chief Lightheart played him in In the Days of Buffalo Bill. Chief Yowlachie was the Bull in Sitting Bull at the Spirit Lake Massacre (1927) and Chief Thunderbird did the honors in the 1935 talkie Annie Oakley (the one with Barbara Stanwyck as Annie). In more recent times, well-known American Indian actors such as August Schellenberg, Graham Greene and Eric Schweig have all played Sitting Bull in various movies and TV shows.

But it was New Yorker J Carrol Naish in the 1954 picture Sitting Bull. He'd also played the Bull in the 1950 Annie Get Your Gun (the Betty Hutton one).

The “technical advisor” to the 1954 movie and actor playing Crazy Horse is the ‘Indian’ Iron Eyes Cody, a Louisiana-born son of first generation Italian immigrants. I'm afraid he didn't advise technically very well.

At a peace council (participated in also by Sitting Bull's women - very likely, I don't think) wise statesmen Dale and Bull are all set to come to an agreement and avoid war, and Dale has persuaded President US Grant to come out to Montana and have a parley, when arrogant fool Custer (B-Western actor Douglas Kennedy, the Bob Hope-lookalike telegraph operator in Rails into Laramie) disobeys orders and attacks. The Indians, with blankets over Western saddles, surround him. Custer’s last stand seems to have been made in a hollow, and he, of course, is the last man killed as he waves his saber. Sitting Bull orders the Indians not to scalp or otherwise mutilate the dead. So you see how authentic it all is.
Wise Captain Robertson with arrogant Custer
The day after, Dale leads the post-Bighorn Sioux north to Canada for safety, then is arrested for treason for this act. Sitting Bull comes back (he gets back from Canada in 48 hours) to save him from the firing squad. It really is all preposterous twaddle.

Well, as I have often said in this blog, we don’t criticize Hollywood Westerns for not being historically accurate. They are entertainment, after all, and not documentaries.
Custer's last stand, B-movie style
There’s love interest, of course, in the curvaceous shape of the general’s daughter Kathy (Mary Murphy) but she is very unpleasant and dumb too. She won't even listen to Dale's side of the case and throws him over for a newspaper correspondent, Wentworth (William Hopper). She has hardly got her claws into this paper boy before she is asking him, as he prepares to cover the big Custer story, if "News is more important than our marriage?" Wentworth, who is killed alongside Custer, is presumably a Mark Kellogg figure. Marcus Kellogg (1831 – 1876) was a reporter for the Bismarck Tribune and said to be one of the first killed at Little Bighorn. Lucky escape for Wentworth, that, being killed, and bad luck for Dale, stuck at the end of the movie with such a ghastly woman.
Marcus Kellogg
One good thing: there’s a black man, Sam (Joel Fluellen) who has been living with the Sioux, a bit like Lavender in the Thomas Berger novel Little Big Man, who allies with Dale. African-Americans, often freed or escaped slaves, did sometimes join Indian tribes. They were known as black white men.

The fort is one of those toy ones Hollywood loved, a wooden stockade made of pointy logs. Of course forts weren’t like this at all but rather buildings in an open space around a parade ground, as any visitor to sites such as Fort Laramie or Fort Apache will know. Here in the wooden fort President Grant (John Hamilton) meets Sitting Bull and they shake hands on a peace deal.

The evil Indian agent at the reservation (Thomas Browne Henry) is quite well done. Many of these agents, especially in Grant’s administration, were disgracefully corrupt, starving the Indians in their charge and holding back government rations for resale for personal gain.

Very much a Custer B-Western, Sitting Bull does have a sort of message about arrogant and overweening US military.

But it's a two-revolver picture at most.