Directed by Andre de Toth
Written by Frank Davis and Ben Hecht
Much of what makes exploring the western genre great is often how star driven it is. I suppose this is true of many other genres, but when diving deep into it, I am quickly finding that I see that this is a John Wayne western, or Jimmy Stewart, Glenn Ford, etc. Other than maybe John Ford, I can’t say the same for directors, or at least when there is a signature director at the helm, there is often also a signature actor as well, as in the case of Anthony Mann and Jimmy Stewart’s collaborations. All of this is to say that The Indian Fighter happens to be a Kirk Douglas western, a name we’ve not seen much of in this long marathon to this point, but a Hollywood legend nonetheless. And it’s all very interesting to see what types of characters, what types of movies these Hollywood stars bring to the screen. Are they doing more of the same that we know and love them for? Or are they trying something new, exploring as it were in the western frontiers of cinema in order to expand their horizons and bring something new and fresh to the table?
Johnny Hawks (Kirk Douglas) is an infamous Indian fighter in the west, but perhaps that is a misnomer, as he happens to be on decent terms with the local tribe led by Red Cloud (Eduard Franz), and has even taken a fancy to one of the young Indian girls named Onahti (Elsa Martinelli). The same can’t always been said for the nearby military fort which has constant clashes with the Native American peoples. When a few scouts tussle with and Indian while out and about in the middle of the night, bartering for whiskey for gold, one of them (Lon Chaney) shoots and kills him, getting away while the other (Walter Matthau) gets left behind and captured. This incident leads to an elevated tension between the two parties in the area, with Hawks playing the go-between, trying to barter for peace on both sides. But with such an incident, and an unremorseful culprit, tensions are bound to rise to the point of battle.
Kirk Douglas is an interesting actor for the western scene. In my mind, he doesn’t automatically scream gruff frontiersman, evoking more of a pretty boy Hollywood motif, but that distinct chin certainly adds some level of authenticity to things. But he really pulls this role off quite well. He’s very charismatic, which is needed in a role where he works with both sides of the skirmish. He seems lived in the frontier enough to be friendly with the Native Americans, and certainly experienced enough to be able to work with the military. I think this is the perfect blend of western for Douglas to appear in, as he wouldn’t work quite as well as a cavalryman, cowboy or desert nomad. The frontiersman style western suits him extremely well. And that’s fine that I don’t think he’d work as well in those other scenarios, but that’s not this movie. This frontier western just so happens to be exactly what it needs to be.
And the film is endlessly beautiful, shot in the lush frontier of Oregon with stunning vistas and color cinematography. The film even slows down for a moment to admire the beauty itself, as Johnny stops with photographer Will Crabtree (Alan Hale) to take in the beauty. It adds little to the exact story being told, other than to add to the sensory experience of the movie, and I suppose to drive home the point that these two people are fighting over some beautiful landscape, which has been occupied for centuries by the Native Americans. Early on this marathon, I turned a keen eye toward the depiction of Native Americans in these movies, whether fairly treated or perhaps even slightly racist in their treatment. The Indian Fighter is a tough code to crack with this one. To start, I think through Johnny Hawks, we see a level of humanity and appreciation in the Native American tribe, and the bartering of whiskey for gold helps show the evil addictions that white man brought to the otherwise idyllic American West. But I think the film is also racist in some ways too, showing them as violent, and choosing clearly white actors to play them, even going so far as to cast Italian newcomer Elsa Martinelli as the Indian princess character.
Overall, I enjoyed this film a great deal. As mentioned, it’s beautiful, and Kirk Douglas is well-suited for this specific role, but the addition of Walter Matthau, a name we first saw in westerns only recently, and other strong supporting actors (Diana Douglas, Lon Chaney, Alan Hale) rounds out the cast nicely. It may lose some steam as it works towards a predictable clash between the fort and the warrior Indians, but the journey to that point is the central success of the film. Andre de Toth is not a directorial name which invokes any thoughts of auteur or strong visual sense, but he is a solid journeyman, aided by a strong script by Ben Hecht, a frequent Alfred Hitchcock collaborator and notable Hollywood screenwriter. By the end of the marathon, The Indian Fighter may be largely forgotten by me, but it’s the type of film which is thoroughly enjoyable in the moment, and an easy, casual recommendation for fans of the genre doing a deeper dive.