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Broken Arrow (1950)

by on 2012/06/09

“I’m glad, it is the right way, but it will not be easy for you.”

* * * *

Though it shares its title with a latter-day nuclear thriller, Broken Arrow (1950) is very different experience. It more closely resembles another western, a prototypical Dances with Wolves based on the broader strokes of historical fact.

Directed by Delmer Daves and featuring legendary everyman James Stewart (The Naked Spur), it is notable for its early fairer treatment, sympathetic with native Americans. They are not treated as an eccentric mob, nor a savage force of death.

It begins with the efforts of Captain Tom Jeffords (Stewart) to heal an injured Chiricahua Apache. Apparently retired from military service, he’s a loner who now prospects for silver and gold in Arizona in the 1870s. He’s tired of conflict and can’t bear to leave the boy he encounters to die.

His actions excuse him from a later attack and — while his former fellows begin to mistrust him — he becomes curious about the Apache and their ways. His interest in their culture and language leads him to meet Cochise (Jeff Chandler) and evolve into an activist for peace.

We know a lot of this detail because the narration tells us so, an approach I don’t believe improves most tales outside of film noir. I understand the utility of expository devices, yet I rarely find them elegant, or even necessary. Such is the case in Broken Arrow. We don’t need to be reminded, “They wanted to kill me all right, but they let me go.” We can see as much on the screen; it’s a visual medium, after all.

However, for all his monologuing, Jeffords doesn’t share with us “why”. Why does he do the things he does? It’s a surprising omission, and one we must wait to deduce eventually. Where the voice-over further surprised me was in acknowledging the medium, an unnecessary over-description to assure us their Indian characters would “speak our language”. Fortunately, most of the dialogue is less cringe-worthy than these occasional pedantics.

The only other aspect of the movie which persistently bothered me had nothing to do with writing, story, visuals, or sound. It involved the casting of major native parts. With a handful of exceptions, they were played by Caucasians, including the aforementioned Cochise, as well as love interest Sonseeahray (Debra Paget) and injured boy Machogee (Robert Foster Dover).

I was halfway mollified by a couple of reminders. First, it’s all about context and, for its era, it was all fairly progressive. Plus, other roles were handled effectively by truly native actors, like Chris Willow Bird, Billy Wilkerson, and Canadian Jay Silverheels (also known as The Lone Ranger’s companion, Tonto).

Second, the performances resisted stereotyping. A “blackface” style of parody never surfaced, nor threatened to.

Now, as easy as it might be for a white person to assert how this work is significant, its dream of everyone “living together as brothers” has proven more than ironic. Still, I have to respect what it tried to do, telling unpopular truths in its time. I may find the execution somewhat clumsy, and the message over-simplified, but Broken Arrow is well-intended, edutainment with its heart in the right place.

* * * *

Rated PG

93 minutes

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