When it’s on: Thursday, 26 February (4.45 pm)
The similarities between White Feather and the earlier Broken Arrow are impossible to ignore. Both cast native Americans in a sympathetic light and told stories about the efforts to broker a peace treaty between them and the encroaching white settlers. Delmer Daves was involved in the two films, directing Broken Arrow and writing the screenplay for this one. Both cast white actors as Indians, Jeffrey Hunter featuring prominently in White Feather, whilst in each film Debra Paget plays the love interest squaw.
Where Broken Arrow succeeded and this one falls is in the male leads. James Stewart was brilliant in the earlier film, but here we have a very young Robert Wagner playing a civil surveyor whose path crosses with the neighbouring Cheyenne tribe. At first hostile, the tribe comes to welcome his character, Josh Tanner, into their village, just as the nearby US cavalry outpost attempts to persuade their chief, Broken Hand (Edmund Franz) into signing a deal to secure peace and move them south so that gold prospectors can move in. Things get complicated when Tanner comes across the comely Appearing Day (Paget). Though promised to another, she quickly falls for his civilised charms and leaves the tribe, bringing the wrath of the Chief’s son, Little Dog (Hunter), upon them both and threatening any chance of a lasting settlement.
Wagner’s a problem. Though his performance is fine to an extent, he doesn’t possess any of Stewart’s presence and it becomes hard to believe in his forced delivery as the film’s focal point. This weakness undermines the entire production, and it seems a real shame that the charismatic Hunter wasn’t cast as Tanner instead. The latter’s great, alongside Hugh O’Brian’s American Horse showing all the youthful exuberance of a warrior that has been lost by Broken Hand. The chief instead claims some dignity with a measured turn that exhibits all the wisdom of his years, coupled with sadness over the knowledge that the peace treaty is, in reality, a withdrawal from lands his people have occupied for centuries.
There are issues with the somewhat leaden direction by Robert Webb, better known as an Assistant Director (he won an Oscar for In Old Chicago in 1936) and here unable to build up a suitable degree of tension as the climactic fight between Little Dog and Tanner just happens after a sequence of lengthy talking scenes. There’s a degree of padding also, ninety minutes of action stretching to over one hundred as the attempt to show where the film’s budget was sunk results in long shots of ranging cavalrymen and migrating native Americans.
Veteran Western cinematographer Lucien Ballard does good work, using Cinemascope to fine effect with some lovely composition, those rich greens of Durango, Mexico, showing up beautifully as unspoiled virgin countryside before it was taken over by the settlers. I also liked the score by Hugo Friedhofer, which suggests a level of exciting, epic action not always represented by what’s taking place on the screen.
The claim that White Feather is a true story pushes its luck somewhat. Whilst it’s accurate that the Cheyenne were relocated, with the film’s 1877 dating also being correct, the rest of the story is entire fiction. What we get is a sometimes sentimental Oater that tries to be more than the sum of its parts. All the same, the ending, which goes for a low key, dignified conclusion over the typical mass battle, is rather touching.
White Feather: **