Directed by George B. Seitz
Written by Ethel Doherty
I will admit to being a bit worried that I loved the first three films in this Western marathon (The Great Train Robbery, The Covered Wagon and The Iron Horse) as much as I did. I feared I was falling into the trap of simply being impressed that something this old could be marginally entertaining and fairly inventive in how the films were made. While certainly some of that may be true, experiencing The Vanishing American reminded me that they made not so great movies back in the day as well, and that those three movies I already mentioned were in fact very good, important films from their time. With The Vanishing American, we get an adaptation of famed Western writer Zane Grey’s novel of the same name, which filled me with some promise of the film’s potential, but ultimately what was set to celluloid was lackluster, controversial, and surprisingly boring.
Controversial may not be the right word, as I don’t know whether it was controversial at the time in 1925, or even if its reputation now is to be controversial, but it did present white American and Native American relations in an interesting and, in my opinion, provocative way. The story starts in the ancient past in the West, showing us the native inhabitants of America living in the West. We then see the coming of the white man, who greater technology and culture overcomes the Native Americans and forces them onto reservations. A warrior only by name and title, Nophaie (Richard Dix), the leader of the Native Americans, clashes with the Indian Agent of Mesa, Booker (Noah Beery), who is a staunch racist. Even after going to war for their country in World War I, the Native Americans return to the land to find their people discriminated against, leading to a great clash.
I absolutely respect this movie for portraying the white Americans as treating the Native Americans so poorly. History often points to the enslavement of Africans as this country’s greatest mark against it. That is a hard point to argue, but what often gets overlooked as a result is this country’s treatment of its native peoples, which was overly harsh. I believe I spoke briefly about Manifest Destiny in my review of The Covered Wagon, and I stand by my comments there. Westward Expansion by the new Americans was inevitable, but the manner in which it took place was despicable and inexcusable. Zane Grey’s novel and this film help to showcase that poor treatment, and it should be commended for doing so at a time where Indian relations were still tenuous in the 1920s. So much so that the film version had to be modified to show that Booker was the racist, and not just the white people and government in general, as Grey had originally written.
The presentation of this story, however, is lacking. The film opens in Monument Valley, a landmark we will become all too familiar with throughout this marathon, and does feature some breathtaking, on location shooting which enhances the visual splendor of the film a great deal. The story was ho-hum in keeping my interest and failed to be very entertaining though. None of the performances were compelling or engaging and it tested my patience with its fairly preachy and overdone narrative. I understand casting a white man, Richard Dix, in the role as the principle Native American, Nophaie, for the time, but it still does not sit particularly well with me. I am not sure the comparison is entirely fair, but it makes me think of black face, even if Dix and the filmmakers were portraying the character as noble and proud. I suppose this goes back to my comparison of slavery with the slaughter and mistreatment of Native Americans. It just feels “off”.
The film is well intended, and I think it presents some interesting discussion, particularly around the title of the film, but the execution feels very dated, even if done on an epic scale which includes some big battle scenes both in the West and in France during World War I. Even though the film is for the Native Americans, showing how they were/are mistreated, the film can’t help but still feel a little racist, depicting the Native Americans as very simple and even savage at times. The Vanishing American feels as though it is presenting a very primitive and misunderstood history and evolution of the Native Americans during the time of European settlement. For this reason, I can’t say I had a good time experiencing this film, but it should be commended for its attempt to bring forth some very real and very troubling details about America’s relationship with its native peoples.