Film Review: “Broken Arrow”  (Delmer Daves, 1950)

David Shasha

Posted Feb 27, 2010      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Film Review:  Deconstructing the Racism of the Hollywood Western: The Triumph of the Native Americans in “Broken Arrow”  (Delmer Daves, 1950)

by David Shasha

For those of us who love classic Hollywood movies, the presence of a malignant racism sometimes mars the greatness of this American art.  From the very beginning of American cinema, movies like D.W. Griffith’s epochal “Birth of a Nation” served to mirror the prejudice of many white Americans. 

In seminal Hollywood films of the Golden Age, like King Vidor’s “Northwest Passage,” Howard Hawks’ “Air Force,” and David Selznick’s “Gone with the Wind,” to name but a few, racial motifs were suffused with bias and hatred for Blacks, Indians, Japanese, and other minority groups.  We can point to a very small number of films that tried to redress this racism; pioneering works like Clarence Brown’s “Intruder in the Dust,” Elia Kazan’s “Pinky,” and the independent production by one of the infamous Hollywood Ten (a group of studio screenwriters who were indicted by the House Unamerican Activities Committee – HUAC – and blacklisted by the studios) Herbert Biberman called “Salt of the Earth,” which heroically tried to turn back the racist tide in America.  Though it took many years for Hollywood to deal with the issue of racism, it was through the courage of a small number of filmmakers that the barriers were broken.

A movie that is not so well-known today is the 1950 20th Century Fox production “Broken Arrow.”  Taking perhaps the most racist of all movie genres, the Western, and turning its values on their head, “Broken Arrow” contains a number of ironies that make it unique in the annals of American cinema.

The film was written by Albert Maltz, another of the infamous Hollywood Ten.  Maltz could not be credited on-screen because of the blacklist, so the use of a “front” was needed.  The screenwriter Michael Blankfort gave his name to protect Maltz and the studio.  The use of “fronts” to allow the blacklisted screenwriters provided them with the opportunity to infuse their films with a unique vision; a vision that was used to excellent effect in “Broken Arrow.”

Added to this irony of Maltz’s participation is the presence in the film of the actor Will Geer, a prominent member of the Hollywood “Red menace” who also played a starring role in Biberman’s “Salt of the Earth.”  Geer, of course, is best known for playing the beloved grandfather on “The Waltons” television program in the 1970s.

At its surface “Broken Arrow” is a standard Hollywood Western.  Directed by the unheralded studio pro Delmer Daves (perhaps best known these days for directing the original – and definitive – version of “3:10 to Yuma”) and starring the stalwart Hollywood icon Jimmy Stewart, the movie contains all the normative elements of a typical studio production.

But as the film develops, we see some very strange things happening.

Stewart plays a former military man named Tom Jeffords.  As the film opens, Jeffords is mining for gold in 1870s Arizona and discovers a young Indian who is wounded.  Rather than killing the young man, Stewart chooses to remove the buckshot from his back.  The Indian boy gradually loses his fierce hatred of Stewart and forms a fraternal bond with him. 

Returning to the town after saving the boy, Stewart meets with the incredulousness and hostility of the townspeople, led by Will Geer who has lost his home and wife to an Indian raid.  Geer is deeply embittered by his experiences and is incensed by Stewart’s rapprochement with the Indian enemy.  Stewart articulates to the others a vision of peaceful coexistence with the Indians and asserts that he wishes to go to the Indian encampment to meet with the infamous Cochise in order to make a treaty that would permit the mail riders to pass unmolested.

We are made acutely aware that hostilities between the Americans and the Indians have taken on an extremely ugly and violent aspect.  Stewart is at pains to also make clear that atrocities have been committed by both sides – and that it was the Whites who first encroached on a native population that did not ask for the fight.  In addition, he shows the utmost respect for Cochise’s integrity and courageousness.  In a few short minutes, the film has laid out a capsule history of the American West; a history that is often missing from Hollywood Westerns where the Whites are always the victims and the Indians bloodthirsty murderers.

Though the great John Ford – perhaps the greatest director of Westerns in movie history – eventually came around to accepting the tragedy inflicted on the Native Americans in his classic 1964 epic “Cheyenne Autumn,” in 1950 Hollywood was not speaking about the Indians in such enlightened terms.  “Broken Arrow” changes the rhetorical model in ways that made it way ahead of its time.

Stewart is able to convince the military authorities – his former bosses – to allow him to make the deal on the mail riders with Cochise.  And indeed, Cochise is shown to be completely open and amenable to a peace treaty regarding safe passage for the mails.  At the very same time that the mail riders are permitted safe passage through Apache territory, the Indians continue to molest and massacre other Whites coming into the territory.  This dichotomy disturbs Geer and a group of settlers who are not buying into Stewart’s peaceful vision.  They begin to organize themselves as a vigilante group that will deploy at a most critical moment in the film.

When he meets with Cochise in Apache territory, Stewart falls in love with a young Indian girl played by teen star Debra Paget.  Paget reciprocates Stewart’s advances, thus leading to another complication in the story.  With the broaching of the theme of miscegenation, the movie enters into even more forbidden territory.  Stewart soon approaches an Indian living in the White settlement and asks him to instruct him in the Indian language and Apache customs so that he can better integrate into their community and help in the courting of Paget.

All of this is very strange coming from a major Hollywood movie.  It is less strange when we think about the role played by Albert Maltz in the writing of the movie.  The Hollywood Ten were accused of harboring views and ideas out of the American mainstream.  The sort of peacenik philosophy of Stewart’s character is most out of place in a typical Hollywood Western.  More importantly, this vision of peace is presented with great perspicacity and insight.  There is an understanding, as Cochise puts it so well, that peace will not be easy.  Extreme forces on both sides will try to undermine the agreement in order to subvert the peace.

Indeed, as the film intrepidly marches to its conclusion, we see that a group of Apaches led by one who now calls himself Geronimo break off from Cochise and act as a vigilante group that will attack the Whites in an attempt to break their faith in the peace agreement.  We have already noted that a White group led by Geer will organize themselves into a posse that will strike back at the Indians.

Independent of these developments, the government in Washington sends a military emissary directly appointed by President Grant.  The emissary is one General Oliver Howard who has been nicknamed “the Christian General.”  In one of the most impassioned moments of the film, Stewart asks General Howard about the Bible in his hands.  Does not that Bible justify the persecution of the Indians?  Howard’s response is swift and unambiguous: “My Bible does not see skin color.”

At its very core, “Broken Arrow” contains the principles of a Christian Humanism that defies the false certitudes of mid-20th century America.  In a country suffused with race prejudice, 1950s America was not used to hearing such progressive thoughts.  It was a message delivered by the Hollywood system that still has the power to shock us out of our moral complacency.  When we look at the ongoing conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors, we can understand that it is a lesson that is still vitally necessary and which needs to be better learned by all of us.

Peace is not something that can be instituted without cost.  In order for peace to come, we need to have a clear understanding of what our goals are and the courage to implement them – even as hostilities continue from the extreme factions. 

In “Broken Arrow” we see the violent discontent from those who want peace to fail.  We also see how necessary it is for there to be a clear plan to settle the conflict.  In this case, the US government agrees to give over to the Apaches a parcel of land that only they will control.  The leaders on both sides are committed to the humanity of the other side and strike the peace as equals without rancor.  Violent actions continue as the peace is forged.  But the leaders know well that in order for the peace to take hold, that they will all need to have the patience and restraint that comes from a strong center of moral gravity.

The presence of Jimmy Stewart in “Broken Arrow” gives the movie a deeply assuring feel.  Stewart was one of the most iconic figures in Hollywood and his great skill as an actor allows the audience to identify with many of the difficult truths told by the story.  The man who played Jefferson Smith, Elwood P. Dowd, George Bailey and so many other characters central to the classic American cinema, was the perfect person to transmit the lessons of this extraordinary movie; a movie that stood out in its time for enlightened thinking.

“Broken Arrow” is a perfect example of what I have called “Radical Traditionalism.”  The film adheres to the standard codes and conventions of the Western genre; it has exciting action sequences and makes brilliant use of the Arizona landscape.  It tells the story of a rugged American individualist who uses that individualism in ways not often regarded in the American culture of that time.  But rather than toting a gun and mowing down dozens of “redskins,” Stewart’s character puts down his gun and gets to the work of bringing Indians and Whites together.  For this he is called by his townspeople an “Indian lover” and traitor to his race.  How could a White person turn his back on those who have been mauled and killed by the “dirty” Indians?

Stewart perseveres and not only seeks peace with the enemy, but even more importantly attempts to enter into their cultural universe by learning their language and customs.  The Apaches see Stewart as an extraordinary White man and welcome him into their community as an equal.  They even give over one of their young women to him in marriage.

“Broken Arrow” is a rare movie milestone that continues to speak to us today.  On the surface it is another Western speaking of a time long past in American history.  But the things it says about American history are not at all conventional.  It discusses the racial dysfunction that permeated our civilization for many centuries, but which we have been able to slowly reform over time.  It provides a vision of peaceful coexistence that is both realistic and transcendent. 

In the movie we see characters struggling with their overwhelming personal pain and the clash of their historical trajectories.  It is an unflinching portrait of a society that wishes to develop an egalitarian ethic, but comes to understand that peaceful coexistence must be built on the values of trust, integrity and a true faith in our religious traditions.  Far from eliding the place of religious tradition, the movie clearly shows the importance of religious tradition for both the Whites and the Indians.

It is only when people show respect for themselves that they can find a way to respect others.

In the midst of a Hollywood that sometimes suppressed the profound ethical values of Christianity and Judaism in their most egalitarian sense, “Broken Arrow” is a beacon of hope that emits a ray of light that can shine on us to this very day.