Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The early 50s were liberal times for Westerns, especially where Native Americans were concerned. Fox's Broken Arrow re-configured Bird of Paradise as the story of an Indian maid and an open-minded Army scout. MGM's Devil's Doorway was an early plea for civil rights with Robert Taylor as an Indian Civil War veteran cheated of his rights and his land and killed in a battle against the U.S. Government. No longer viewed as the noble savages of Stagecoach, Indians were transformed into an oppressed minority.
Arrowhead sees things differently. In the early 1970s, after The Wild Bunch put a re-evaluation of the western onto the academic fast track, Charles Marquis Warren's humble "Army scout vs. Apache renegade" tale was re-interpreted as a sagebrush depiction of the threat of Communism, just this side of the rabid likes of I Was a Communist for the FBI and I Married a Communist (The Woman on Pier 13). 1
I think the critics were right. The McCarthy witch hunters constantly alluded to insidious Communist messages in films by the likes of the Hollywood Ten, when there are far more examples of outright anti-Communist propaganda to be found. As a narrative Arrowhead is nonsense, unless it's meant to kindle xenophobic hatred. I'll try to explain myself below.
Indian Scout Ed Bannon (Charlton Heston) seems to be gumming up the Army's efforts to bring the Apache tribes in peacefully for relocation to Florida. Neither Captain North (Brian Keith) nor his girlfriend Lee (Mary Sinclair) understand why Bannon insists that the Apache peace overtures are false. Bannon even distrusts the fort's laundress Nita (Katy Jurado), a Mexican-Apache half breed in love with him -- he's convinced she's a spy for the Indians. One reason Bannon's so set against the Army's soft policy is that the chief's son Toriano (Jack Palance) is returning from school in the East on the very day of the proposed Apache surrender. The powerful, unpredictable firebrand Toriano is more likely to inspire the tribes to bloodshed, not capitulation.
Wily, tough Indian scout Ed Bannon (purportedly based on the real-life Al Sieber, a scout depicted by name in Robert Aldrich's Apache) sneaks up behind some
braves waiting none-too-innocently on a bluff. "Hey you - dirt!" Bannon says, and then shoots them all dead. Arrowhead immediately sets up Bannon as an Apache-hating white man who lived with the Indians as a child and has an innate understanding of them that the cavalry lacks. To Bannon they're all treacherous scum incapable of honoring any agreement beyond an oath to their own religion.
In this cockeyed vision of the U.S. Cavalry out west, the yellow-legged troopers are the pacifists, a concept that goes against every known interpretation of history. In this movie it's the Indians that enter into treaties and then callously renege. Writer-director Charles Marquis Warren chooses for the cavalry leader Lewis Martin, the actor who played the solemn, wrong-headed Priest in The War of the Worlds, the one that martyred himself under the Martian death rays while holding up a Bible. Martin's Col. Weybright (a name that gets my vote for liberal baiting) is convinced that the Apache are all going to happily disarm, put themselves under Army control and be shipped off to live on that real estate nobody could sell in Florida. The soldiers, including the reasonable Captain North (a very effective Brian Keith in an early role) assume that all is hunky-dory with the Indians. Only Bannon's provocative presence is preventing peace and harmony. Arrowhead can't wait to prove the pacifists to be utter fools.
The arrival of Jack Palance's Toriano changes all that. A fanatic itching to run amuck, Toriano stares and grins like Charlie Manson. He knows he's putting a fast one over on whitey, even his own blood brother, the storekeeper who has named his own son after the Indian. Toriano has just come back from college in the East but seems all the more savage and rebellious for the experience. We can't help but picture Jack Palance attending classes looking ready to disembowel the civics professor. 2 As author Philip French remarked, when Toriano takes off his white man's hat to shake down a shoulder-length mane of black hair, the ultimate '60s student radical nightmare is created, fifteen years early and before The Wild One and Rebel Without a Cause.
Toriano is a triple threat. He's a religious maniac committed to the destruction of civilization for no reason other than pure hatred. Although there's no evidence that he can write his name, he's a product of the University System. In right-wing terms that means he has learned just enough to be a dangerous pseudo-intellectual. As embodied by the excessively physical Jack Palance, Toriano seems a sexual threat as well.
Toriano, as Bannon has guessed, has returned to foment rebellion and start a bloodbath against the whites. Author French details another historical distortion I'm not familiar with, the "ghost dance" movement, a supposedly peaceful ritual that Arrowhead makes out to be a cultish rite to inspire bloodlust against the whites, kind of a Satanic Black Mass.
So Arrowhead has: a clueless military obviously in need of a righteous ethnic cleanser like Bannon; a bitter hero eventually vindicated as a superior being over the savage Apaches; various duped civilians and soldiers; and a nasty villain identified along racial lines.
Making the Indian such a vital threat conjures ideas of Communism by association. In 1953 anti-Communism was the big issue, the stated threat to everything we hold dear. It was already the fast-track fear ticket that cinched political campaigns. Arrowhead proposes a world-view where we're under attack from without and within and don't even know it. Bannon sleeps with Katy Jurado's treacherous femme fatale Apache agent, another hilariously conceived character. She's like Tondelayo, but with a secret radio to enemy headquarters. The real problem are the rank & file soldiers and
civilians that don't back up Bannon's hard-nosed approach. They might as well be passive fellow travelers. Why can't the nabobs just let the fighters for freedom do their jobs?
As it turns out, Toriano has more blood-brother and ghost-dance ritual rules to follow than Dracula, which makes him easy to out-fox. Bannon forces him into a one-on-one duel that spares us from yet another shoot-out for a resolution. That's always a good sign in a creative western. The fight is suspenseful because it's been well-established that in most situations Toriano can wipe the floor with Bannon.
Arrowhead must have been a strong influence on Sam Peckinpah's Major Dundee, in which almost every character is divided against himself along lines of racial allegiance. Instead of a melting pot, America is a wolf pit with every nationality and tribe out for itself. Peckinpah's philosophy was more liberal but also cynically direct: when asked why the Indians commit crimes against the settlers, Dundee's old Apache replies simply, "Because it's our land, all of it." Manifest Destiny and Terrorism for Dummies.
Arrowhead reduces Major Dundee's North/South theme to one remark -- Captain North chides Bannon for scouting for the Yankee Army while wearing Confederate-style pants. Bannon is a bundle of contradictions just like any of Peckinpah's characters.
Oh, back to the movie! Arrowhead is reasonably exciting, well-made and acted. It does drag a bit going into the final act. Warren's direction is unfussy and even elegant ... Peckinpah could have used some of that in Dundee. Aloof leading lady Mary Sinclair may have gotten the role because she starred with Heston in Wuthering Heights onstage (source: IMDB). Milburn Stone's sidekick Sandy perhaps fared the best from the show; after a 140-film career in smallish parts he found an almost permanent TV home home on director Warren's 1955 Gunsmoke.
Robert J. Wilke is a standout as the sergeant. A freshly widowed officer's wife is said to be an uncredited bit by Kathryn Grant before she married Bing or took on Ray Harryhausen's monsters in The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad.
Paramount's DVD of Arrowhead is a great-looking show. The picture has good color that shows off
Ray Rennahan's careful pre-dawn photography. Filters were used to show the sky turning from pitch black to a reddish yellow with the dawn. The movie is presented flat, and the compositions demonstrate it was definitely meant to be that way. This must have been one of the last Academy 1:37 releases before everyone started matting their films to 1:66 and calling it widescreen. Two years later 'widescreen' matting officially became 1:85 but the compromise Aspect Ratio was often closer to the 1:78 of our present widescreen TVs.
Many shots have slightly misregistered colors but the flaw is only truly noticeable two or three times; most of the other instances are very subtle. Only one shot of wide-shouldered Heston walking toward the camera is so off that you feel like reaching for 3-D glasses.
There are no extras. Arrowhead has always been considered a minor western but the Heston-Palance confrontations are genre choice cuts. The library titles get more interesting as Paramount digs deeper into its vault.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Movie: Very Good
Video: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 9, 2004
1. I'm thinking of Philip French in his great book Westerns (Viking 1973). That's the book with the fascinating schematic that sorts 50s westerns along political lines, into Kennedy, Goldwater, and McCarthy westerns. French quotes John Wayne on the 'Indian problem' in the frontier, which reads like pure rationalization for aggression: "I don't feel we did wrong by taking this country away from them. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it
for themselves." Gee, that applies to oil, too.
2. Then again, I'll bet a lot of high school teachers face that every day.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson