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

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Native Americans in Western movies


Cowboys and Indians. That was what I played with my friends when I was a boy (in the dark, distant 1950s). Indians were the eternal foe of the brave cowboy. They were fearsome and brandished tomahawks or shot arrows from their bows (luckily, usually plastic ones), but they fell beneath the might of our cap-gun Colts.

Of course we knew that there were some good Indians. After all, we all followed The Lone Ranger, and Tonto was good alright (poor Jay Silverheels, always getting the dirty work to do and saying humbly, “Me do.”) But most Indians were scary enemies.

Hollywood taught us that white was right and Indians were dangers to be overcome. It was OK to shoot them down because they were never real people, with characters or lives, but just nameless hordes.
Tonto takes orders (again)

‘Red Indians’, as they were first called, were an essential element of many Western movies, especially early ones. They were part of the danger that brave pioneers had to overcome and they could be portrayed as sufficiently violent and cruel to make worthy opponents. See, for example, DW Griffith’s The Battle of Elderbush Gulch (1913). They were also shown as stupid people: they spoke American (when talkies arrived) 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 or a fort allowing the pioneers within to take pot shots at them. Indians were just half-naked savages.

In fact, though, it is sometimes forgotten that many of the very early Westerns went against this trend and showed ‘redskins’ as Rousseau-esque 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 as a big hit.
Though many did not regard Indians as American at all
In The Squaw Man, hero James Wynnegate (Dustin Farnum) rescues a Ute princess from the clutches of an evil (white) outlaw. Later, Wynnegate has an accident in the mountains and it is the brave princess who finds him and carries him to safety. They become lovers and have a child. This was all pretty daring for 1914.

Fascination with Indians goes back even earlier than that: right back in fact to the earliest days of European settlement. Think of the thrill with which Pocahontas was received in London and how the (romanticized) story of how she saved the life of Capt. John Smith gained such currency. James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking tales played on this interest. Cooper’s heroes had a respect and admiration for the (good) Indians and seemed almost half-Indian themselves (even if they were usually of noble white birth). The many 19th century Wild West shows made much of attacks by Indians on settlers’ cabins or on the Deadwood stage. Buffalo Bill made (a highly fictional) Custer’s Last Stand a highlight of his show, and it is perhaps curious that he invited Sitting Bull to participate in his spectacle. Bill got on well with ‘his’ Indians. Sitting Bull was regarded by the spectators with a frisson of fascination and fear as the man who had master-minded the doom of Custer.
Bull 'n' Bill
Still, for much of the Western movie’s history, Indians were a fearful adversary to be exterminated wherever possible and without compunction – or at the very least herded onto reservations out of harm’s way of the white man. Look at Stagecoach (1939) as a classic example. Fierce Apaches attack the stage and are shot down in droves by John Wayne with his Winchester. John Ford used Indians as a savage enemy to be killed by whites, who may thus show their courage and skill, and he had done since the silent movie days.
John Ford's 'Apaches' (actually Navajos) attack the stagecoach
Sometimes history was rewritten with breathtaking effrontery. Take, for example, Drum Beat (1954). The hero is Indian fighter Johnny MacKay (Alan Ladd) and the Indian chief is Captain Jack of the Modocs, played by Charles Bronson in a one-dimensional “Me fight bluecoats” kind of way. At one point MacKay says to the chief, “We could have saved a lot of lives, Jack, if you hadn’t grabbed country that wasn’t yours.” History is thus rewritten so that it was the Indians who took land that wasn’t theirs. No one seems to have batted an eye at this disgraceful reversal.

But things were to change.

In 1950 Broken Arrow, directed by Delmer Daves, showed a more positive side of the American Indian and portrayed Cochise as a sympathetic and wise statesman. Actually filmed before Broken Arrow, though released after, was Devil's Doorway, directed by Anthony Mann, a more radical and uncompromising picture about anti-Native American racism, with Robert Taylor as a Shoshone back from fighting on the Union side in the Civil War. Both movies are essential viewing for the Western fan.
Decent white man negotiates with statesmanlike Apache
As the 1950s progressed, more serious ‘adult’ Westerns often showed Indians in a more positive light. Tomahawk in 1951 featured 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.

The Unforgiven and Flaming Star (both 1960) showed the visceral racial hatred of many whites towards the Indians. Flaming Star was more ‘pro-Indian’. In Fort Apache (1948) John Ford had started to make amends. His Cochise in that picture was a worthy adversary of the cavalry and demonstrated statesmanlike qualities. Perhaps with an element of mea culpa, Ford’s last western, Cheyenne Autumn (1964) was a story of the courage and resilience of a Native American people in the face of mistreatment and injustice.

In the 1970s a new Indian emerged: films like the salacious Soldier Blue and the burlesque 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 all the Sioux are noble and fine.
The boys in blue are now the baddies
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, an earnest and 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.
Chief Dan George
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 Sonseeahray, the (fictional) 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' (i.e. 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. Some non-Indian actors specializing in Indian parts took Indian-sounding names, such as Iron Eyes Cody (Sicilian actor Espera Oscar de Corti). Lately, however, that has changed and, happily, we are more used to Native American actors playing 'Indian' parts.

Certain Indians were considered more screen-worthy than others. We have already mentioned Cochise, who has appeared on the big and small screen at least a dozen times played by a variety of actors, but others had cachet too. Geronimo, of course, who has been in close on thirty Westerns (feature films and TV shows) from 1939 on. Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Captain Jack of the Modocs, all these and more were shown as ‘chiefs’ with a white interpretation of what that meant. Often these men are shown commanding forces in the field like white generals, with little understanding that it wasn’t always like that.
Sometimes white actors could be embarrassingly bad as Indians

Then suddenly it became infra-dig to refer to 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 p.c. appellation is rather silly. As if those of Polish or Italian or Chinese extraction born in the USA somehow aren't native Americans.

There is still some way to go if Hollywood is to present a true picture of American Indians (let’s use that term) in its Western movies. But there has been progress. It’s well worth looking back at early Westerns to see how that progress has been made. And though Jeff Chandler and Robert Taylor were unconvincing Indians by today’s standards, for 1950 they were pretty progressive, even daring. We still owe a lot to the likes of Delmer Daves and Anthony Mann.

Do kids play cowboys and Indians any more? It’s probably frowned upon.


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