Broken Arrow (1950)

Directed by Delmer Daves
Written by Albert Maltz

The James Stewart Western train has just started with Winchester ’73, though he also appeared in Destry Rides Again, a film from a decade previous which is what made me think Winchester was in fact his first appearance in this marathon. I loved Destry Rides Again, I really did, but I also can’t help but feel like it’s an outlier and the Stewart era begins now. Excuses, excuses, I know, but with how much I like the man as an actor, I should be forgiven the giddiness with which I greeted his appearance in two films out of three, after going so long without his presence gracing the Western frontier. “More Stewart!” they say. Okay, they don’t say that, but they ought to. I know I say it. Has this opening paragraph been embarrassing enough for me to move on with the review? Okay, let’s go ahead and do that.

Cowboys and Indians has long been a western trope, and in fact, going all the way back to my first review of this marathon, I described the seven different western tales, which includes “The Cavalry and Indians story”. No cavalry here, just James Stewart as Tom Jeffords, a former military officer who happens upon an injured Apache, nursing him back to health and ingratiating himself with the leader of the Apache, Cochise (Jeff Chandler). In doing so, during a war with the Indians, Jeffords begins to act as arbiter, negotiating a peace between the Apache and white man slowly but surely, beginning by getting Cochise to agree to let mail carriers through unharmed. Spending time with the Apache, Jeffords begins to fall for a young maiden named Sonseeahray (Debra Paget), testing the limitations of acceptance of both the Apache and the white men.

There is quite a bit of unique storytelling within this film to make it noteworthy, and in interesting entry in this marathon. It tackles a few different subjects that often don’t get the press they ought to deserve in this genre. First, the Native America and white man relationship, which is far too often simplified to hate and war. Here, director Delmer Daves uses nuance to depict the relationship, a tenuous affair where both parties have merit in their arguments. A compromise is needed by both parties in order to institute peace, which is a desired if not seemingly impossible outcome. The Apache are violent and ruthless, but defending their land, while the white men are often reactionary in their violence to the point where they have been conditioned to simply hate the Apache, but they infringe upon their lands as invaders. The resolution is not simple, and by telling this tale Daves is taking on an important subject in the history of the West.

The problem is that I didn’t find that tale very engaging. The film has its issues, some of which are a product of the time. For instance, I couldn’t help but be put off by Jeff Chandler and Debra Paget as the two main characters who are Apache. Sure, their performances are just fine, as it James Stewart’s, but seeing white actors play the parts of Native Americans, caked with makeup to make them look the part, certainly raising an issue akin to black face. And yet, this practice is often overlooked when discussing the rather unfortunate practices of Hollywood in the past. They are not acting ignorant and un-human in the roles, so it could be much worse, but it is a little more than disappointing that these roles can’t be filled by Native actors. An error of the past. But the relationship between Jeffords and Sonseeahray seems inappropriate too, as she is a mere maiden while Jeffords is a noticeably older man. It’s the type of lusty relationship that gave me the heebie-jeebies a little bit, and it’s not developed well enough for me to forgive it entirely.

I likely enjoy and appreciate this film more after exploring my thoughts on the film through this review, but the experience was not an overwhelming one. The overall story at the heart of the film is admirable, and apart from casting the Indians as white actors, the film is very sympathetic to the Native American plight and point of view, as well as featuring a nice commentary on what it means to trust people and be honorable. The color cinematography is also stunning here. There are no real fancy action scenes or dramatic camera movements, but the color is incredible and really pops. Perhaps the prettiest color photography yet seen in this marathon. Ultimately, Broken Arrow I guess just feels a little underwhelming given what’s at play here. Perhaps less than the sum of its parts as it were. I think there was more I liked or appreciated about it than I disliked, as there is enough interest here to make it a film of note, even if it’s not one I will jump at the opportunity to see again, but it’s far from being perfect too.

★★★ – Liked It

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