Devil’s Doorway (1950)

Directed by Anthony Mann
Written by Guy Trosper

Just recently I commented on the use of “redface”, wherein a white actor don’s makeup in order to look like a Native American. That movie was Broken Arrow, and while that effect dampened my enjoyment of the film, which otherwise framed them as decent, honorable people, it was also one which I tentatively forgave knowing the climate of Hollywood at the time of production. With Devil’s Doorway, we get another Hollywood star dressed up to be a Native American, and while it may be a little easier to deal with than Broken Arrow since the black and white photography makes it less obvious than the color of Broken Arrow, it still feels weird. At least Devil’s Doorway goes that many steps further in portraying the Native American’s here as decent people, people whom the United States government failed to recognize their rights.

After returning home to Wyoming after fighting for the Union army in the Civil War, Shoshone Indian Lance Poole (Robert Taylor) welcomes the beauty of his home and cattle ranch at Sweet Meadows. But he quickly learns that, even though he has long held great relationships with the townsfolk of Medicine Bow, including newly appointed marshal Zeke (Edgar Buchanan), there are new residents in town, namely lawyer Verne Coolan (Louis Calhern), who don’t see the value of his kind. Poole, whose land is now threatened by homesteaders, employs a lawyer, and a woman no less (Paula Raymond), to help protect what is rightfully his land. But while the law doesn’t seem to agree with him, Poole and Coolan, who represents sheep herding homesteaders, are setup for a fight over the Sweet Meadows.

The strongest aspects of Devil’s Doorway are really strong. For one, it’s portrayal of the disenfranchised Native American is particularly striking given the general feeling towards them up to this point. I’ve mentioned the sympathetic portrayals in Broken Arrow already, but Devil’s Doorway really takes it to the next level. Poole is both a Native American in good standing in his community as well as a war veteran who has won the Medal of Honor (which also reminded me a bit of The Vanishing American, which features a Native American returning home after fighting in World War I). I can’t help but think this film parallels nicely with the politics of the time, making this even more progressive. In 1950, World War II was fresh in memory, and the Civil Rights movement was just around the corner. I don’t think this is coincidence as many parallels can be drawn between Poole’s experience and that of African American’s of the time. Again, released in 1950, that makes this concept all the more impressively bold.

As for the film itself, it consists of a bunch of actors I don’t recognize, and nothing within the film makes me think I need to further explore their work, but the performance are fine if not notable. Taylor’s Poole is just the right amount of cocky and passionate, bringing an edge to the character that doesn’t make him instantly likable, but toes the line with him approaching the situation as a villain. Toes the line, I said. Of course Poole is right, and his nature should owe nothing the whether the land rightfully belongs to him or not, and of course I would be mad as hell and uncooperative too if my land was being infringed upon. I like too that in subverting the persona of the Indian in making Poole a war hero and community contributor, Mann also subverts expectations with a female lawyer. The filmmakers pull out all the stops in showing its viewer that people are people are people. And the film is stronger for it.

In terms of how I felt overall about the film, I unfortunately felt the ideas of the film far outshone the actual execution, which is to say that the story/script’s ambitions were much more interesting and thought provoking than what was actually put to celluloid. As I mentioned, Taylor is fine, Raymond is fine, but their romance and on screen chemistry is just ho-hum. I also didn’t particularly enjoy the action scene that featured in the finale of the film. It failed to thrill me or otherwise entertain me. The politics of the film are what are interesting, and what keeps my attention throughout. I think it’s a very notable western for that specific reason, and should be applauded as such, but I also don’t think it was an overwhelmingly great film. I’ve found through this marathon that there are often things to appreciate within movies, even when the film itself is not good. Devil’s Doorway falls somewhere in the middle in that it’s not a great film, but it’s not a bad one either. But the ideas behind it are monumental, and could have made for a potentially even better film.

★★★ – Liked It

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