Broken Arrow (1950)

When it’s on: Friday, 18 May (2.55 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

This is the story of a land, of the people who lived on it in the year 1870, and of a man whose name was Cochise. He was an Indian – leader of the Chiricahua Apache tribe. I was involved in the story and what I have to tell happened exactly as you’ll see it – the only change will be that when the Apaches speak, they will speak in our language. What took place is part of the history of Arizona and it began for me here where you see me riding.

Remembered for its trailblazing portrayal of Native Americans as something other than mindless savages, Broken Arrow throws in an intelligent narrative of the Frontier’s troubled relationship with Indians that makes it worth a second watch. This isn’t a forerunner of Dances with Wolves. The people with which our hero interacts aren’t open and essentially fine, neither are the Americans cardboard cut-out nasties. Delmer Daves offers a real sense of two societies living on the edge – the threatened Apache tribe and the settlers trying to scratch out a life in the western-rolling big country. The two sides have been at war for about as long as they’ve known each other. The Apache leader, Cochise, once accepted peace terms but this was betrayed, leading to more bloodshed. Now the town of Tucson struggles to grow as long as the shadow of the Indians looms over it. Nothing gets through – no mail or supplies, without being ambushed en route.

Enter Tom Jeffords (James Stewart), who narrates the story (the above quote is his opening delivery) and is first seen nursing an Apache boy back to health whilst prospecting in contested territory. Through the child and the Indians who come to take him away, Jeffords realises the natives have families, cares and dreams, just like he has. Spotting an opportunity, he brokers a treaty whereby the mail service will be left alone, doing so with Cochise (Jeff Chandler) himself after he enters the Apache camp, along the way falling for a young squaw named Sonseeahary (Debra Paget). Whilst nothing else makes it through the road to and from Tucson unmolested, the US Mail rider is left alone. This success leads General Oliver Howard (Basil Ruysdael), known as the Christian General, to partner Jeffords in forging a more permanent, extensive peace. Steadily, Jeffords works himself deeper into Apache society, and into Sonseeahary’s arms…

Broken Arrow is based on a true story. Jeffords and Cochise both existed in real life, though the film’s inter-racial love is tossed into the mix and the Apache leader didn’t look like a white man. All the same, this is Chandler’s movie. A big, imposing actor, he brings a steady, statesmanlike quality to the role and dominates as one of the few people on either side who sees the potential in keeping peace. Even when members of his tribe (including Geronimo, who undermines the settlement by continuing to harass American wagons) depart because they don’t believe in his cause, most stay and Chandler’s performance contains the sort of charisma that would make it possible.

Stewart’s fine also, in one of his early western vehicles and before his partnership with Anthony Mann made their films together such standout fixtures across the decade. This kind of part is a Stewart staple, of course, but coming with it is a hard edge, which is teased out more during the film’s devastating closing acts and precurses some brilliant, morally muddled roles he took on during the fifties.

But what lingers most is the portrayal of the Indians as a group. It’s made clear early in the film that they aren’t nice guys just waiting for some fork-tongued white men to rip their ground out from beneath them and shove them onto a reservation. They’re harsh, vindictive and, most importantly, level headed. Theirs is a real world view, formed by double dealings with the duplicitous Americans. Whilst the film urges us to connect with the visionary Cochise, there’s a definite sense of melancholy to his character, a feeling that he knows no matter the path he chooses, his way of life is drawing to a close. Given that, who do we feel more empathy for? Cochise? Or Geronimo, as played by Jay Silverheels, who at least chooses to fight for his very right to exist? Either way, the optimistic note delivered at the somewhat abrupt close, whilst sitting well within the film’s scope, says nothing of the Apache defeat that followed.

Broken Arrow: ***

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4 Replies to “Broken Arrow (1950)”

  1. Nicely done Mike. Apart from being a good movie in its own right, Broken Arrow is also an important piece due to its approach to its subject matter. There is an unfair tendency among those unfamiliar with westerns of the period to characterize the films as simple-minded shoot-em-ups. Nothing could be further from the truth though, and the 50s is a decade teeming with mature, intelligent westerns that examine a whole raft of issues.

    1. Thanks Colin. I didn’t mention this because I hadn’t time to research the point properly, but it’s interesting the film was written by the blacklisted Albert Maltz and how his status had an impact on the socially conscious script. Perhaps I’m labouring the point and trying to compare this too much to Carl Foreman’s work on High Noon, which seemed torelate much more openly to the plight of those who suffered from McCarthyism, but I don’t know. There’s always a desire, I guess, to find those kinds of links, whereas Broken Arrow might simply be a good film that took on a challenging subject and did so respectfully. Certainly, I was surprised at the level of maturity it showed, but as you mentioned it’s sometimes not so easy to shrug off those preconceptions of the era…

      1. No, I think that’s a fair point. You can see the influence of various blacklisted writers, working under pseudonyms and cover identities, in movies throughout the 50s. I certainly believe they injected a lot of social awareness into the scripts they worked on and enriched may a film of that period, albeit in a covert fashion.

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